Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Shir Ami
At Shir Ami, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is celebrated by participating in Shabbat worship, by reading and interpreting Torah and by assisting in the leading of the service. In truth, however, it is even more than this. At Shir Ami, when a young Jew becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah, it is a public statement that represents:
• an elementary knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish studies
• a commitment to seek a mature understanding of Jewish history, customs, ethics, and theology
• acceptance of moral responsibility for individual actions
• acceptance of the necessity of deepening and enriching one's Jewish identity
• a commitment to tzedakah
The Meaning & Responsibilities of Bar/Bat Mitzvah
Bar/Bat Mitzvah and its attendant period of preparation constitute an important experience in the life of a young Jewish man or woman. At the same time, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is only a stepping-stone in his or her Jewish educational and religious growth, and not the culmination or end-point of the learning process. Bar/Bat Mitzvah students are expected to continue their studies at Shir Ami through Confirmation.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not a culmination but a beginning -- the opening of the door toward a more mature understanding and appreciation of Judaism as a way of life. There are a great many ways in which this more mature understanding may be expressed, such as:
• translating ethical principles into moral actions, consonant with the great teachings of our tradition
• reading and discussing writings of Jewish interest and relevance
• the celebration of Jewish holidays in a spirit of respect and joy
• the observance of Shabbat as a time of rest and refreshment, of quiet study and family sharing
• studying our tradition, customs and beliefs in an effort to deepen our Jewish identity and commitment
A Message from Rabbi Joel Simon
The Meaning of Bar/Bat Mitzvah - In Ancient Times and Today
The original Bar Mitzvah, as described in the Talmud, simply involved the father of the new thirteen year old boy standing in front of the community, reciting the words, “Baruch shepatrani mi-zeh - Blessed is the one who has freed me of my obligation of this one.” From that point forward, the new “adult” was not only obligated to follow all of the ritual laws, but he was also completely responsible, financially and legally, for himself. (2,000 years ago, there was no such ceremony for a girl as she would be the responsibility of her father until she was married). While you may have your days where you wish this was possible, none of our thirteen year olds are being thrown to the curb just yet… While the custom evolved to the new “adult” participating in the Torah service, and later helping to lead the service, the early Reformers looked at this custom and its obvious incompatibility with modernity and eliminated it. They replaced it with Confirmation, a service that more appropriately represented a child’s acceptance of his or her Jewish life.
Luckily, later generations of Reform Jews saw that the elimination of the custom entirely was a case of throwing away the baby with the bathwater, and the ceremony returned to Reform Judaism beginning in the 1950’s, soon to include both Bar and Bat Mitzvah. There was an acknowledgment that the meaning was quite different today, serving as a celebration of the child’s Hebrew education and ability to lead the service, while adulthood was still a ways away.
While the thirteen year old is not an adult, however, they are now a teenager, and the teenage years give a tremendous opportunity to learn how to be an adult, epitomized by those ancient ideas of obligation and responsibility.
As Reform Jews, we are not obligated to follow the ritual law, but we do understand obligation to our family, to our synagogue, and to the wider world. Obligation means doing the right thing even when it’s not the easiest or most fun option. This means helping with chores around the house, not because we will be punished if we don’t, but because it is the right thing to do as a member of the family. It means volunteering in the community even if we’d rather be hanging out with friends or playing video games. And it means continuing in our Jewish education, at least through Confirmation, because we know it will help us in the continued journey of learning to be a Jewish adult.
The thirteen year old will not be financially responsible for him/herself, but they can begin to learn what it means to be responsible for one’s actions. Doing homework without being told, waking up without parents’ help, making lunch, and studying Hebrew without arguing are all examples of how a teenager or soon-to-be teenager could start to take more responsibility for themselves. They will find that with this responsibility comes the potential for more freedom as well, but it also means accepting the consequences of not taking the responsibility seriously.
Now, in addition to taking a new role in the Jewish community as someone who can lead the service, Bar/Bat Mitzvah returns to its origins and becomes a celebration of adulthood, in this case the beginning of becoming an adult and beginning to take on new obligations and new responsibilities. Confirmation is then, indeed, a confirmation that the child took this lesson to heart, fulfilling the obligation to the Jewish community made at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and taking on the responsibility to take that Jewish life, including the Jewish responsibility of Tikkun Olam, taking care of the world and those around you, with him/her after leaving his/her parents’ home.
In these ways, Bar and Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation have the potential to mean much more in today’s world than our ancestors ever could have imagined. I hope you will take the opportunity ahead of you to explore with your child what it means to be an adult - in your home, in the Jewish community, and in the world. We look forward to being a part of that conversation with you, and we look forward to celebrating this special occasion in your family’s life with you.
Rabbi Joel Simon