Bar mitzvah literally means son of the commandment” and refers to a boy who has reached 13 years of age. At this time, he is considered a man who is now responsible to take on the religious obligations of Jewish life. The term bar mitzvah is also commonly used for the ceremony itself, the rite of passage during which the young man reads in Hebrew the portion of the Torah (five books of Moses) prescribed for that week and chants the Haftarah (corresponding portion from the Prophets). So it is correct to say, “The bar mitzvah read from the Torah,” referring to the boy, as well as to say, “We had a great time at Leo’s bar mitzvah.” Sometimes you may also hear that “David became bar mitzvah.”
The bar mitzvah ceremony is preceded by months, and in many cases, years, of preparation. The bar mitzvah must learn to navigate the musical chants and the Hebrew text. Among less traditional Jews, the bar mitzvah is still a rite of passage, but one that may have more the flavor of a party than a religious ceremony. Whether among traditional or secular Jews, the synagogue ceremony is usually followed by an elaborate reception.
In Conservative and Reform Judaism, girls have a similar ceremony at age 12 called the bat mitzvah, bat meaning “daughter.”
For more on the bar/bat mitzvah from a mainstream Jewish perspective, visit My Jewish Learning.
What about Jews who are followers of Jesus? Some young men and women who had their bar or bat mitzvah as believers in Jesus give their thoughts in this article: “Are We Getting It Right?”. This article also includes resources for learning more.
If you are invited to a bar or bat mitzvah and wonder what type of gift might be appropriate, if you are a close friend of the family, you might consider it an opportunity to purchase a Bible for the bar or bat mitzvah. A Jewish Bible would be a good starting place. While young women and men may not read it as 12 and 13-year-olds, often in later years when searching, they come back to the Bible given to them for this occasion.
Fountain pens are very traditional gifts for this occasion, but if you go that route, you’ll want to get one that is extra classy to set it apart.
Another very common and always appreciated gift for the bar or bat mitzvah is a check. Depending on how much you wish to spend, 18 or multiples of 18 have a Jewish significance. The number 18 represents the Hebrew word chai, which means “life,” so if you make a check for $18 or $36 it will show you have some knowledge and appreciation of Jewish culture.
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