As we prepared for our son’s Bar Mitzvah last month, we began to get questions such as “What should I wear?” “What do I need to do?” Half of our family is not Jewish, and the half that is Jewish came from a Reformed tradition, but by geography and a Rabbi we liked, we ended up in a Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue. For some guests this was their first Bar Mitzvah ever, and as one who always likes to learn and understand what’s going on in another cultural celebration, we created the cheat sheet below.
Bar Mitzvah Cheat Sheet: Helpful Tips for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest
By Deanna (probably the lunch and bathroom references, and items about language and following along), with a lot borrowed and adapted from Rabbi Daniel Kohn (probably the actually Jewish parts) on MyJewishLearning.com
The most important thing to remember is that this is a really joyous occasion. Just the fact that you are here to share this proud moment with us is enough. But, since some of you have asked, whether this is your first Bar Mitzvah or not, the following is a brief guide that might help you feel more comfortable at the synagogue and enjoy the events as they unfold.
What actually is a Bar Mitzvah (boys) or Bat Mitzvah (girls)?
At 13, a young Jewish man or woman becomes obligated to observe the commandments of Judaism. “Bar/bat mitzvah” literally means “son/daughter of the commandment.” The celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah signifies that the young man or woman is beginning and will continue to function as an active and responsible Jew in the synagogue and in the wider Jewish community. Or, as Bar Mitzvah boys will tell you, “Today I am a man!”
As part of his Bar Mitzvah, Lucca has been hard at work studying, and will read from the Torah in Hebrew as well as lead some of the prayers. Lucca will deliver his D’Var Torah (in English), his interpretation and personal connection to the Torah portion he has read.
What’s the proper greeting in Hebrew on a Saturday morning?
You may hear people greeting each other with “Shabbat Shalom” (pronounced Shah-BAHT Shah-LOME), which basically means “Good Sabbath,” or “Peaceful Sabbath.” The proper response is to repeat back, “Shabbat Shalom.”
Do I need to wear a kippah? What if I’m not Jewish?
Wearing a head covering: A kippah, or head covering (called a yarmulke in Yiddish), is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by women in more liberal synagogues (in this synagogue, women usually use the lace circle, folded into quarters, and secured with a bobby pin, available at the entrance to the sanctuary.)
Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification, but is rather an act of respect to G-d and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a non-denominational act of showing respect.
How come I got here at 9:30, and others are arriving later?
The time listed on the bar/bat mitzvah invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service; however, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.
Is there anything I shouldn’t do in the synagogue on Shabbat?
All guests and participants are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by:
- Setting your cell phone to vibrate or turning it off.
- Not taking pictures. In traditional settings, photography is strictly forbidden on Shabbat.
- Not writing or texting.
- Not speaking during services. While you may see others around you chatting quietly–or even loudly–be aware that some synagogues consider this a breach of decorum.
What’s the significance of sitting and standing? (and when is the best time to go to the bathroom?)
Jewish worship services can be very athletic, filled with frequent directions to stand for particular prayers and sit for others. Take your cue from the other worshippers or the rabbi’s instructions. Unlike kneeling in a Catholic worship service–which is a unique prayer posture filled with religious significance–standing and sitting in a Jewish service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief, it is merely a sign of respect. There may also be instructions to bow at certain parts of the service, and because a bow or prostration is a religiously significant act, feel free to remain standing or sitting as you wish at that point. In addition to standing for certain parts of the service, as lead by the Rabbi, the congregation always stands whenever the “Ark,” the place where the Torah’s are stored is open.
And, on that bathroom note? While intuitively it feels like you will go unnoticed if you slip out while everyone is standing…that is usually a moment of religious significance. You are better to excuse yourself when all or sitting, or when the Rabbi gives the signal to be seated after a standing portion.
What is everyone saying?
You may have noticed that the prayers and Torah readings are all in Hebrew! But, if you look in your Siddur (prayer book), the Hebrew is always on the right hand page, and the transliteration (phonetic pronunciation) as well as the English translation, are on the left hand page, to get an idea of what is being said.
Once the Torah (the big scrolls that are the first five books of the bible) is open, and the Torah reading begins, switch from the Siddur that you got on the way in, to the big, thick book in the holder on the back of the pew in front of you, for the Torah reading. That is also printed in Hebrew and English.
Also, our Cantor is a world-renowned opera singer, and loves when you hum along, even if you don’t know the words to the extent that you feel comfortable.
What time is lunch?
The service generally lasts until 12:30, and will be followed by the “Kiddush” luncheon, in the social hall right outside of the sanctuary.
Photo Credit: Idan on yourpersonalcartoonist