Know what happens at a Bar Mitzvah - be prepared for your son's or a friend's celebration!
Whether you’re starting to prepare for your son’s big day or planning to attend a friend’s upcoming celebration, knowing what typically takes place at a Bar Mitzvah is a great first step.
This guide is meant to help parents prepare, but more importantly to put you at ease. This is a big day to be celebrated and cherished – not to be stressed over and hurried.
And for those who have been invited to the Bar Mitzvah of a friend or family member: congratulations! This post will help you prepare as well, and ensure your experience is comfortable and positive.
As we explore different aspects of a Bar Mitzvah, keep in mind that services, service lengths, celebrations, and other particulars of a Bar Mitzvah may vary widely from congregation to congregation, depending on its leadership.
As mentioned, different Bar Mitzvahs may be celebrated in different ways. But in general, you can expect something like this:
The Bar Mitzvah, Hebrew for “son of commandment,” takes place when a Jewish boy reaches the age of thirteen. Once he turns thirteen, he steps into all the responsibilities of a Jewish adult, primarily the commandments (or mitzvahs) of the Torah.
Note that the Bar Mitzvah isn’t first and foremost an event, but a state of being. The ceremony is simply a way to celebrate and impress upon the boy the significance of his milestone.
Many in the Jewish faith may comment, “I was never “Bar Mitzvahed.” It’s true they may have never had a ceremony to celebrate, but all Jewish boys step into the obligations of a Jewish adult at age thirteen – regardless whether a ceremony was held or not.
The Bar Mitzvah ceremony celebrates a Jewish boy’s spiritual coming of age and elevation to adult status in Judaism, and is held after his thirteenth birthday on the Jewish calendar.
Traditionally, a boy’s Bar Mitzvah will take place on Saturday – on Shabbat. However, many will hold the Bar Mitzvah service on a weekday morning as well.
Parents, not sure what what your son’s Jewish birthday is and when his Bar Mitzvah should take place? Check out this calculator from chabad.org to help you work it out.
For the most part, a boy’s Bar Mitzvah service will be held at the synagogue, though some may opt to hold it in a hotel lobby or private venue.
Following the Bar Mitzvah service is typically a celebration or reception that may be held in a private room, restaurant, or synagogue social hall.
The Bar Mitzvah service is often celebrated by a service held in the synagogue with Torah readings, speeches, and blessings. When the service is held during the week and not on Shabbat or a major holiday, the service will usually include tefillin wearing.
At this prayer service, the boy may be asked to lead parts or they may not – it depends on the synagogue’s tradition and leader’s preference.
If the Bar Mitzvah celebration is on Shabbat or Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Jewish month), the Torah will be read as part of the service and the boy may be asked to read from the Torah scroll.
Preparing for the Torah reading is all about review, review, review. Parents: ensure your son is reviewing their Torah portion on a regular basis leading up to his service.
He can be trained to learn the sounds of each cantorial note, enabling him to learn the chant of any piece of Torah. Alternatively, he can be given a recording from your rabbi to listen to over and over. This can definitely be much easier for Bar Mitzvah boys.
When the Torah is publicly read in the synagogue, congregants are called up for an aliyah: reciting one’s blessings over the Torah. Aliyah means “ascent,” and refers to the physical ascent to the platform as well as the spiritual ascent experienced during the blessings.
The Bar Mitzvah boy is traditionally honored with an aliyah on the first day the Torah is read following his thirteenth birthday, and it may be a part of the service, depending on what day it falls.
Following the aliyah, it’s customary in most synagogues for the boy’s father to recite a special blessing thanking G-d for relieving him of moral responsibility for his son. This blessing often draws a laugh from the congregation.
Fathers, don’t stress over your role. Remember, this is a day of celebration. If you are anxious at all, talk to your rabbi to learn more about what might be expected of you. And as for the blessing itself, consider reading a transliteration if you’re anxious about it (it doesn’t have to be read in Hebrew).
Following the aliyah, it’s often customary to shower the boy with candies prompting the singing of Mazal Tov.
Tip for parents: Consider buying Sunkist gems or a similar soft candy for this portion of the celebration. This is a big day for your son, let’s celebrate him – not injure him :)
Tefillin is one of the most important parts of the Bar Mitzvah service. Tefillin are black leather boxes containing parchments inscribed with the Shema and other biblical passages.
The Torah commands adult Jewish men to bind the tefillin onto the upper arm and head with leather straps in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 6:8. They are worn during weekday morning prayers.
(Credit: Serraf Studio)
Young boys are educated to keep most mitzvahs prior to their Bar Mitzvah – with the exception of wearing the tefillin. For this reason, this part of the service is held in high regard for many congregations, and a moment of great pride for parents and grandparents.
It’s often customary for the boy to give a speech at his service, or following the service at the reception. This speech is usually crafted around a thought from his Torah portion and how he will apply it to his own life.
He might also take this time as an opportunity to announce his Mitzvah project, express gratitude to his parents, thank the rabbi, and show appreciation for his family and friends in attendance.
Credit: Serraf Studio
The My Bar Mitzvah Prep school offers completely done-for-you Bar Mitzvah speeches, crafted specifically for your son around his Torah portion. Learn more about our courses and valuable add-ons.
Speeches may also be given by the parents and the rabbi at this time – keep it under ten minutes, rabbi ;)
Parents, this is a massive opportunity to impress upon your son how much he means to you, who he is, and what truly makes him unique. It might be tempting, but fight the urge to copy and paste something from the internet. Lean into this moment. Here are a few tips:
There’s a good chance there will be dancing at the Bar Mitzvah service. It’s relatively common for the boy to be danced around the bimah (the table from which the Torah is read) inside the sanctuary.
If the Bar Mitzvah isn’t held on Shabbat, there might also be music and some dancing held at the reception.
Following the Bar Mitzvah prayer service, it’s customary to hold an after-party or reception where the Bar Mitzvah is celebrated with food, music, and gifts.
Parents, don’t stress over the catering and party planning. Instead, outsource as much as you possibly can. This is a big day for your family – you should be enjoying it and soaking it in, not stressing over whether you bought enough ice or hors d'oeuvres.
You should plan to bring a gift of some kind. Any and all gifts will be appreciated by the boy, but it will be much more meaningful if you give a gift that wouldn’t be given on a typical birthday.
If you really want to give him something classic – that’s okay – but consider combining it with an element of meaning.
Here are a few meaningful gift ideas for a boy’s Bar Mitzvah:
One question often asked by attendees is, “What do I say to the boy?” or, “What’s appropriate to write on his card?”
Of course, the most appropriate congratulatory wish to bestow upon the Bar Mitzvah boy is “mazal tov,” or “good luck.” Anything that expresses your excitement and hope for him is appropriate.
We’d encourage you to consider going a step further than this. Think before you write, and aim to be creative and original. Remember: your goal should be to make an impression on the boy. Make the most of this opportunity by thinking about what’s truly important for him. If you can think of a single sound bite that might stick with him and guide him, that would be powerful.
Most Bar Mitzvahs will have some kind of toast to honor the guests and those who have played a critical role in the boy’s life. Many opt for a candle lighting.
A classic candle lighting may happen at the Bar Mitzvah. This is a way to publicly honor people who have been important in your child’s life. The candle lighting ceremony allows all of these influential people to experience a moment of appreciation.
That said, these ceremonies can take a long time and feel cumbersome, and take the focus off of the Bar Mitzvah boy. They can also exclude people and make them feel uncomfortable.
Parents, consider the alternative below. If you’re attending, honor those who are a part and don’t feel left out if you aren’t.
A nice alternative to candle lighting is a cup of blessing. Place a cup on a table, place 1oz shot glasses with grape juice around it, and invite different family members and friends to come up and offer a brief 30 second blessing to the boy. They will pour their glasses into the big cup and once everyone has given a blessing, the boy recites a blessing over the grape juice and drinks the cup down.
Whether you’re a parent, friend, or family member – aim to make the most of this upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Savor it yourself, but may your focus be on celebrating the boy. Make this day memorable and meaningful for him.
Keep in mind: this isn’t a graduation from Judaism for him – it’s just the beginning. Make the day vibrant and fulfilling for him, that he may continue to learn, grow, and flourish.