Sample Guide to Attending Jewish Events
The following is an excerpt from chapter 8, "Your Guide to Attending Jewish
Events." It is presented with permission of the Paulist Press all rights reserved.
BAR OR BAT MITZVAH
The words Bar/Bat Mitzvah mean “Son/Daughter of the Commandment.” Your invitation may be to a Bas
Mitzvah; Bas is the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation of Bat. The ceremony to which you have been invited is
held in honor of the child reaching the age of majority under Jewish law. This is traditionally 12 years of age for
a girl and 13 years for a boy (yes, Judaism recognizes that girls mature sooner), and means that the child is now
responsible for observing Jewish law. One privilege of Jewish Law is that an adult Jew may lead a religious
service and be called to read from the Torah scroll. When you attend a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you are attending the
religious service at which the child will lead some part (or even all) of the services as well as read from the
Regarding Jewish students older than thirteen, there are two more recent developments. The Reform
movement introduced the idea of a Confirmation ceremony for 16 year old students. This ceremony, which
usually takes place on the holiday of Shavuot, is a group graduation of those boys and girls who have continued
their studies past Bar/Bat Mitzvah age. You may also find that you have been invited to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah of an
adult. Increasingly, adult Jews mark their re-commitment to Jewish life and study with such a ceremony,
especially if they were never formally became a Bar/Bat Mitzvah as children.
When: The vast majority of B’nai Mitzvah (B’nai is the plural) take place on Shabbat, that is Friday nights and
Saturdays. Technically, it is possible to hold a Bar/Bat Mitzvah on any day in which the Torah is read from the
scroll. This would include Mondays and Thursdays (traditional market days in ancient times) as well as certain
Who Will Be There: Since this will most often be a standard Sabbath service, in addition to the friends and
family of the child, you are likely to find other members of the congregation. Remember, the synagogue portion
of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not a private party but part of a community worship service.
Where Will It Be: In most cases, at the synagogue. Occasionally, a catering hall or other location may be the
site for the ceremony and reception.
What’s Going to Happen: This will be a standard Sabbath service with particular opportunities for recognition of
the child and his or her family. You will notice special, often moving, moments when the family presents the
child with his/her tallit or prayer shawl, and when the rabbi and other members of the congregation (often
including the child’s parents) are called upon to bless, congratulate and speak to the child. The child may
conduct some or all of the service but will almost certainly be called to read or chant from the Torah scroll itself
and read or chant from the prophetic section (“Haftarah”) of the Hebrew Bible. The portion of the scripture the
child is reading is the specific parasha, or portion of the week and this same portion is also being read in
synagogues throughout the world. Typically, members of the child’s family and friends will be called to the
reading table to say blessings at the Torah and watch while the rabbi or cantor and child read from the Torah
scroll. Being called to the Torah is called an aliyah (meaning “going up”) and is among the greatest of honors.
This honor is usually restricted to Jews since the blessing recited speaks of God’s having “chosen us” and
“given us” (that is the Jewish people) the Torah. It is very common for the child to deliver a sermon after having
read his Torah and Haftarah sections. In this way, the child is fulfilling the mitzvah (or commandment) of
teaching our tradition.
At the conclusion of the service, it is quite common to have a reception for the child and her family (you will have
been invited). The reception may be as simple as some coffee and treats at the synagogue or may be a very
elaborate catered affair held at the synagogue or at another location.
Do’s and Don’ts: The do’s and don’ts relating to attendance at Jewish services (see above) apply here since
you will be attending a Jewish service. I would recommend that you not bring any gift to the service itself, rather
save it for the reception. Regarding gift giving, it is common to give a check or savings bond to the child. If you
want to give a monetary gift that has a special significance, you might give a gift of eighteen or a multiple of
eighteen such as thirty six or one hundred eighteen dollars. Hebrew letters each have numerical equivalents
and the Hebrew word chai meaning “life” has the value of eighteen. Sephardic Jews will commonly give gifts in
multiple of five – an association with the five fingers of the “hamsa,” or hand of God that protects us. A personal
gift chosen in consultation with the family would also be very appreciated: it might be a book or religious article
of Jewish significance.