What Exactly is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah?

As a suburban Philadelphia event venue that offers multiple spaces for social gatherings, we are privileged to host a wide variety of family celebrations including weddings, birthdays and anniversaries.  But it’s the bar and bat mitzvah parties that seem to be on the rise on our busy event calendar.  In fact, we’ve booked three bar mitzvahs alone this week and it’s only Tuesday!  We’re lucky enough to have several synagogues in the immediate neighborhood around us, such as Congregation Or Ami, Temple Beth Tikvah and Temple Brith Achim, to name a few.  Certainly, most people think of bar mitzvahs as large family celebrations but do you know the religious symbolism behind the party?

The term “Bar Mitzvah” literally means “son of the commandment.”  “Bar” actually means “son” in Aramaic, which used to be the vernacular of the Jewish people and much of the Middle East.  The term “Bat” means “daughter” in both the Hebrew and Aramaic languages.  ”Mitzvah” means “commandment” in both Hebrew and Aramaic.  Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age and now has the same religious rights as an adult, including being morally and ethically responsible for his or her own decisions and actions.  Oftentimes, it is correct to refer to someone as “becoming a bar (or bat) mitzvah.”  However, the term is more commonly used today to refer to the coming of age ceremony itself, and you are more likely to hear that someone is “having a bar mitzvah” or that your child is  ”invited to a bat mitzvah.”

So, really, what exactly does it mean to become a bar or bat mitzvah?  Under Jewish Law, children are not obligated to observe the Commandments in the Torah, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have to their community as adult members.  However, at the age of 13 for boys and 12 for girls, children become of age to observe the Commandments of the religion because they are now able to distinguish right from wrong and take responsibility for their actions.  Specifically, the child formally joins their community by leading the weekly religious service as their first public announcement of that obligation.  The celebrant is required to recite the weekly Torah portion, direct parts of the service and lead the congregation in prayer during the Saturday services at the synagogue.  All in Hebrew!  Quite impressive for a twelve or thirteen year old let alone an adult!   Indeed, it is common practice for the mitzvah celebrant to spend months and months (and months) in Hebrew School at their synagogue studying the Torah cover-to-cover and learning the Hebrew language specifically needed for the ceremony.  But it’s a tremendous achievement for the child and his family to become a bar or bat mitzvah.  Relatives and family friends will travel from far distances to witness and participate in these milestone celebrations as proof of their importance and social standing.

Like a wedding, if not more so, to become a bar or bat mitzvah is something to celebrate!   Generally, from what we have seen over the years, the religious morning service is followed by a kiddush luncheon at the synagogue shared with the other regular congregants.  Then, later that same day, the celebrant’s friends, camp friends and family members gather for a party that includes games and activities as well as dinner and dancing.  That’s where we come in here at the ACE Conference Center!   Mazel Tov!

[Photos courtesy of Susan Beard Design]

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