Have you ever attended a bar or bat mitzvah? Seen one in a movie? Nothing prepared me for the level of work that goes into one, and I’m not talking lavish party planning because our family isn’t that type.
For the unfamiliar, a bar mitzvah is a “son of commandment” and bat mitzvah is a “daughter of commandment.”
Most (all?) religions have rites of passage. B’nai mitzvah, children of commandment, are among those. When a boy turns 13, he is a bar mitzvah, a son of commandment, counting as an adult for religious purposes —eligible to lead services and counted for minyan, the quorum for certain prayers — and obliged to fulfill mitzvot (commandments), such as to fast on Yom Kippur. The same is true for a girl at 12 or 13, depending on her denomination: she becomes a bat mitzvah.
What is the ceremony, then? Surely, it seems like mostly a big party to the unfamiliar, but there’s much more, and maybe smaller-scale celebrating in a community our size (in a regular year — sigh). Often, a child will have a bar or bat mitzvah. To have one is to officially lead part or all of services for the first time.
A rabbi is there by the teen or tween’s side, but the child leads some if not most of the prayers. And he or she usually reads, or appropriately chants, a chunk of the Torah portion, the part of the first five books of the Bible assigned for a given week. In our oldest’s case, that’s 12 verses of Numbers. In Hebrew.
Mind you, this Hebrew is hand written on a parchment scroll with no verse indicators, capitals or punctuation. Also no vowels.
Hebrew’s common letter "vav" can sound like a V or can be turned into the vowel OO or OH. You’ll get no hint one way or another in the scroll. Further, many words look like one another without vowels. Imagine reading English like that, especially when you don’t speak it. PT could be pat, pet, pit, pot, or put. Maybe Piute, poet, pate, Pete, or pote in potable. You’d have to study how to say it in a given spot.
You’d also need to learn the melodies (including for reading the vowel-less Torah) and Hebrew blessings and prayers, as well as write an insightful reflection on the portion.
Now, do everything in front of family, community, and friends, at 13. But no pressure. That’s why our oldest has an hour’s worth of guided practice daily.
In large communities, b’nai mitzvah might never be called upon later to say more than a few prayers. Yet the learning supports deeper understanding, appreciation, identity, and cultural continuity. Here, our community is mostly layperson led, so some b’nai mitzvah lead entire services down the road, often with about 70 percent of prayers in Hebrew.
We’re not handing our oldest the car keys yet (shudder!), but we’re happy to turn over the bimah (raised platform) for leading services. It’ll be in good hands.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. The views she expresses are her own and do not necessarily represent those of any organizations with which she is affiliated.