“Bar mitzvah” translates as “son of the commandment.” It is a coming-of-age ritual that recognizes a boy of at least 13 as old enough to be responsible for his own actions regarding Jewish law, traditions, and ethics, and old enough to follow the commandments of the Torah (the Jewish Bible). There are 613 commandments in the Torah, including, of course, the Ten Commandments. At 13, a boy is considered old enough to fast on Yom Kippur, to count in a minyan (the quorum required to recite certain communal prayers, such as the memorial prayer for the dead), and to lead prayers for the congregation. Although the term bar mitzvah is often used as the name of the ceremony (e.g., David’s bar mitzvah is next Saturday), the boy actually becomes a bar mitzvah (e.g., David will become a bar mitzvah next Saturday.)
Where do Jewish girls fit into this program? In modern times, ceremonies have developed to welcome girls as “bat mitzvah,” which translates “daughter of the commandment,” a parallel coming-of-age ritual for a girl of at least 12. Both bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah are incorporated into ordinary services, with the young person taking responsibility for leading parts (or all) of the service, chanting in Hebrew all or part of the Torah portion of the week and a corresponding selection from the Prophets, and delivering a d’var torah, (literally, word of Torah)--a speech in English that explains the Torah portion and how it relates to and shapes the young person’s own life and ideas.
So how do these celebrations result in a bar mitzvah season? A young person can become a bar or bat mitzvah at any regular worship service when the Torah is read throughout the year once he or she is old enough. This could be a Tuesday or Thursday, but is most often at a service on Shabbat (translation: Sabbath), a Saturday morning. Children study for several years to learn to read Hebrew and to understand basic Jewish concepts, beliefs, and practices, but for the year or two before coming of age, the focus is often on Torah reading and cantillation. Reading from the Torah scroll is particularly challenging because it is written without vowels or punctuation, and it is chanted in a traditional melodic and rhythmic manner that is not indicated in the scroll. Most students need as much time in Hebrew school as possible to learn to read and chant from the Torah scroll, so they invariably want to complete a full school year even if it means they will be past the actual day they are of age. Hence: bar mitzvah season—the end of the Hebrew school year in May or June (after mud season and before black fly season!) when many students feel their education has prepared them and they are ready to celebrate their achievement with family, friends, and the entire congregation at a Shabbat service. And “celebrate” is the key word—after the service is over there is usually a festive celebration, a big joyous party that the young person will remember long after forgetting the stress and strain and nervousness of preparing for the big day.
This year the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community’s bar mitzvah season encompasses services on Saturdays in May and June, along with some “post-season” services in August and October. You don’t have to be a member of the congregation and you don’t have to be Jewish in order to experience bar mitzvah season services (or any Shabbat service). You don’t even have to know the bar mitzvah boy or the bat mitzvah girl. Because our synagogue is too small to accommodate the large number of family and friends who attend a service for a bar or bat mitzvah, we usually hold these services at the West Village Meeting House on South Street in West Brattleboro, just two streets east of our synagogue on Greenleaf Street.
Contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or go to the congregation’s website (www.bajcvermont.org) for information about dates, time, location. You’re welcome to visit services at our community any time.