by Just Daniel
The process in which a young jew becomes an adult.
|Demystifying the Bar Mitzvah
Every culture has some sort of event recognizing a child’s development into an adult. This event can be done as discreetly as a parent giving its 16 year old teen car keys to go pick up milk at the store. In Japan a ceremony called seijin shiki is performed once a year, where new 20 year olds are given money by the government and are enabled to vote, drink and smoke. Graduation from basic education (High school, Secondary school) is also something of a coming of age; a child has been given all the knowledge that is expected of him as an adult, and he can choose whether or not to pursue further education. I was raised Jewish, so I went through a ritual to gain the status of Bar Mitzvah.
Bar (or Bat, if female) Mitzvah is a title given to adults in the Jewish community. A ritual performed around a child’s 13 birthday allows said child to become a Bar Mitzvah, thus being recognized as an adult by his religious community. In traditional Jewish law this is no small thing. A Bar Mitzvah is expected to follow the 613 commandments and is allowed to own property, read from the Torah, marry and participate in a Minyan (A group of at least 10 Bar Mitzvah required to perform some religious ceremonies). Today, significantly less is expected of those who have had their Bar Mitzvah; he is allowed to read from Torah and is often given new responsibilities by his parents.
Most Bar Mitzvah students have already received at least some Jewish education. They are expected to be able to read Hebrew at least slowly (though it is rare for them to be able to understand it) and have a general knowledge of Jewish prayers. Generally this education is gathered through several years of Sunday school, in which a Jewish child learns general knowledge about Judaism and how to read Hebrew aloud. In my synagogue, every pre-teen must also attend a short series of classes where both Jewish prayer and Hebrew reading is practiced. After this is finished, a date is set and a portion of the Torah is assigned to the student. Once the date is set, a young Jew is ready for tutoring.
How this tutoring is done varies by community, but at my synagogue tutoring begins around 6 months before the scheduled date. The first things that are to be learned are prayers that are sung during a typical Sabbath. These include the blessings that are sung before and after reading from the Torah, the Avot (a prayer recognizing God’s redemptive acts), the Sh’ma V’ahav’ta (which is an affirmation of Judaism and a call for unity), and the Ein Kamocha (the prayer sung when the ark containing the Torah is opened). The prayers are learned a few at a time and are practiced at least once a week, though it is recommended that they be practicing during 5 days of the week. These prayers are mostly the same for all Bar Mitzvah students, though a student may ask to read a prayer not done regularly if he so chooses.
Once a tutor feels that a student has gained some proficiency with the prayers, a student can begin learning how to chant his maftir, the first Torah portion read on a Sabbath day. Learning how to chant a maftir is usually a challenge. Every maftir is unique to the week it is read, so a student will generally not be at all familiar with it. Students also must become familiar with a set of markings called tropes, which designate how a syllable or word is supposed to be sung. Though modern Hebrew has an alphabet of vowels that are infrequently used, ancient Hebrew had no written vowels at all, so a reader of Torah must learn to read it without the help of written vowels. If a student struggles with the Hebrew, then my synagogue provides CD’s that have their maftir being sung on it. Once a student is able to read from stam (Hebrew text without vowels) then he is ready to move on to his haftarah.
A haftarah is a selection from another holy book, the Nevi’im, which relates to the maftir. The haftarah can be harder or easier to learn than the maftir, depending on the student. It is not taken from the torah, so it may have vowels and tropes written on it during the ceremony. However, the tropes for haftarot are sung in minor key and are sung differently than tropes for Torah, which can often be confusing when practicing both your Torah and haftarah portions in the same session. The haftarah portion is also typically longer than a maftir, which makes memorization harder.
Students attend tutoring until the weekend their Bar Mitzvah is to occur. On the Friday morning before the Sabbath on which they are to become Bar Mitzvah a final run through is done. A student goes over all of his prayers and portions with the synagogue’s rabbi or cantor to make sure everything is presentable. If the student is ready, then he is recommended to spend the day relaxing and mentally preparing himself for the first part of his Bar Mitzvah, the Friday night service.
Friday night services are significantly easier on the student than the Saturday morning service is. Typical night services are generally less attended than the morning service, so there is less pressure to perform. A majority of the prayers a Bar Mitzvah is required to know are not sung on that night and are generally sung communally, letting the student worry less about how his voice sounds. The Torah is brought out of the ark only on Saturday mornings, so neither the maftir or the haftarah needs to be chanted on this night.
The ritual continues on the morning after the night service ends. A Bar Mitzvah student, his family, the clergy, and a helper of the student’s choosing meet about an hour and a half before morning services begin. Together they chant a few prayers and the Bar Mitzvah wraps himself in the tallit, a fringed shawl worn around the shoulders like a scarf. It is a commandment to wear fringed clothing as a reminder of the other commandments which, until that point, was not permitted to the child. He is now ready to lead his congregation in prayer and read his maftir and torah in front of the community, his family, and his friends. He is now officially a Bar Mitzvah, a son of the commandments. Typically all that follows after the service is a party celebrating this rite of passage, as well as the reception of gifts and money from friends and family.