You have a teenager! Well done. The fact that you’ve survived thus far is a very good sign. Now take a deep breath because it’s about to get even more exciting!
You know what comes next—the bar or bat mitzvah—easily one of the most memorable events in the life of a Jewish child. Jews for Jesus has had the honor of facilitating many bar and bat mitzvot over the years, and I personally have worked as a preparatory teacher for the last 13 years. Let’s talk about some of the common questions and concerns that families have as the auspicious event approaches.
How did this tradition get started?
Today, the general age to become a bar/bat mitzvah is 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy. This tradition likely originates with the Mishnah, where it is evident that boys were considered responsible for keeping the commandments and bearing responsibility for their own sins at age 13.1 At this point, the young boy was considered a man within the Jewish community—that’s impressive considering many 30-year-olds today would probably say that they haven’t yet mastered “adulting.”
Interestingly, there is no recording of formal ceremonies at that time. There are records dating back to the Middle Ages2 of families hosting a gathering after a Torah ceremony, but bar/bat mitzvot as we know them today have really only been in practice in the last hundred years or so. The very first bat mitzvah took place as recently as March 18, 1922.3
What is involved?
Usually, unless they have extensive prior Hebrew knowledge or Jewish education, the child is trained in the Hebrew language for one to two years. They begin with basic alphabet and vowel skills, learn to read, and specifically focus on learning their Torah and Haftarah portions in Hebrew.
A Messianic Jewish ceremony will usually include a B’rit Chadashah (New Testament) portion, read in English. The trainee is required to familiarize him or herself with the liturgical blessings surrounding the readings, and often join in on helping to lead the rest of the Torah service.
After their readings, the honoree will deliver a drash to the congregation. It’s a 10-minute or so speech expounding on the passages, tying them together, and explaining what message can be derived from it. This establishes them as a contributing member of the Jewish community. More on writing the drash later!
Bar/bat mitzvot these days are followed by lavish parties usually hosted by the parents, complete with a meal, music, speeches, and dancing. Planning all these events can be overwhelming for parents, but there is always comfort in the assurance that guests usually bring generous gifts. Your child will either end up making a hefty deposit towards his college education or will bring home a brand-new Oculus headset. Either way, friends and family will be happy to duly celebrate the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl!
Do I have to be part of a synagogue?
If you’re not already a part of a Messianic synagogue or another type of Jewish congregation, chances are you will need to connect with a rabbi in order to have an officiant and venue for your child’s event.
In the Messianic community, this usually does not require membership, but the leaders could want you to attend their services for the duration of your child’s training. Another thing to bear in mind is that other Jewish synagogues will likely be resistant to having any Messianic elements in the ceremony.
Who should be invited?
Once you’ve established where you’ll be having the ceremony and who will be officiating it, it’s time to choose a guest list. The size of the guest list ultimately determines how much you’ll be spending on the celebration. It’s tempting to invite the whole world to watch as your child flawlessly chants her Haftarah portion, but keep your finances and resources in mind as you plan.
Remember, with the advent of virtual events, there is always a way to include everyone without needing to have everyone physically present. So, good news, you might not have to endure that awkward catch-up conversation with your fourth cousin twice removed!
Will my child need Hebrew lessons?
Sometimes, the synagogue or congregation you choose will have an in-house Hebrew tutor. If not, you’ll need to do some research. Having a tutor is necessary if your child is learning Hebrew for the first time and you happen to not be proficient in ancient languages.
Even if you are, the process is usually far less dramatic if your child learns it from an outside source. Usually, this person can also teach them the liturgy necessary for their ceremony, but if not, make sure you connect with the rabbi to help you find someone who can.
What about the drash?
Probably one of the more challenging aspects of this process for the child is writing a drash. Odds are your teenager has never been taught to interpret or expound on biblical passages. Perhaps you don’t have much experience yourself! Don’t worry, the tutor’s or rabbi’s job is to guide your child through the process of taking in the text, exegeting it, drawing interpretations, finding the connections, and writing it down in a way that is communicative.
The child must also be reminded to project their voice, annunciate, and speak slowly. At the end of the drash, the child takes time to thank their parents, family members, teachers, friends, and guests. Family roasting is not advised, unless your kid is particularly good at it.
What’s a mitzvah?
Sometimes, the trainee is called upon to actually perform a mitzvah (a good deed). Families go through a list of deserving Jewish organizations to raise money for them or to volunteer their time. The student should write a short essay about their experience and include it as part of their drash. This encourages contribution to the Jewish community and ownership of that role.
Can a Gentile have a bar/bat mitzvah?
The term “bar mitzvah” literally means “son of the commandment.” Of course, all followers of God are held to certain standards, but these commandments (mitzvot) are specifically referring to those God gave to the Jewish people after establishing a covenant with them at Sinai. When a child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah, they are taking their place as an individual Jewish adult within the Jewish community.
Paul writes that Gentile believers become a part of the “commonwealth of Israel” when they decide to follow the Jewish Messiah. As such, they are joined to the Jewish people in certain ways, while not becoming Jewish themselves. A ceremony that reflects acknowledgment and acceptance of that role would be appropriate for Gentiles who are a part of Messianic communities. And it can be a powerful opportunity for a young person to make a public declaration of their faith and commitment to God. If you are a Gentile believer who is part of a Messianic congregation, speak with the spiritual leader to decide what an appropriate expression would be for your community.
It's all worth it!
In short, this is no small undertaking. Your child will not only require good teachers and guides, but a lot of support from you as well. However, the reward is worthwhile when you see your son or daughter develop a sense of self, gain a boldness in their Jewish faith and identity, and blossom into a young adult. It will feel great to get to the end of all the preparation, but remember, it’s just the beginning of something even greater.
1 Sefaria, s.vv. “Bereishit Genesis Rabbah 63:10,” “Rabbi Elazar said, until thirteen years a person needs to take care of their children - from this age onwards, they need to say ‘Blessed is the one who has exempted me from the punishment of this one,’” accessed May 15, 2022, https://www.sefaria.org/Bereishit_Rabbah.63.10.
2 Jen Doll, “In his book, Hilton makes clear that celebration has always been a part of the ritual of the bar mitzvah: Even the first synagogue bar mitzvah ceremony, recorded in the 13th century, comes with mention that a father ‘should make a party’ for his 13-year-old son,” Topic, accessed May 15, 2022, https://www.topic.com/the-bar-mitzvah-party-starters.
3 “Judith Kaplan celebrates first American Bat Mitzvah ceremony,” JWA, accessed May 15, 2022, https://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/18/1922/judith-kaplan