You’ve been invited to your first bar or bat mitzvah and haven’t got the slightest clue about what to do or what goes on. A ‘mitzvah is a special ceremony that is loaded with tradition and history that is very unique and special. You want to be able to enjoy the cultural aspect, in addition to having an awesome time at the celebration that follows. On television bar/bat mitzvahs are depicted as humorous, but in all actuality they are a very serious and meaningful occasion for a Jewish family. “Bar/bat mitzvah” literally means “son/daughter of the commandments,” and represents a young Jewish man or woman becoming obligated to observe the commandments of Judaism. From the lingo used to proper etiquette, here’s everything you need to know.
A bar/bat mitzvah celebration tends to be a bit more formal than the average affair. Women are encouraged to wear a dress or nice pantsuit. For men, either a suit or slacks, tie, and jacket. Some communities may be more traditional and women are discouraged from wearing pants, and men should go more formal, so be sure to ask the host if you feel unsure. Be sure to dress modestly: if a dress has bare shoulders, supplement the outfit with a shawl.
Often times a tallit, or prayer shawl, may be offered by an usher at the door. A tallit is traditionally worn by Jewish males and in some congregations, Jewish women. The braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit serve as a reminder to observe the commandments of Judaism.
If you’re a man, put on a yarmulke, a skullcap worn by males. If you don’t have one, don’t worry. Most parents have custom ones made for the big event with their child’s name and date printed on the inside.
Respond and Arrive Promptly
Similar to a wedding, the celebration has taken a lot of time and planning. The hosts need to know how many people will be attending as soon as possible. Make sure to arrive on time on the big day. The time listed on the invitation is most likely when the service will begin and the party will follow after. The ceremony is the special time for the family and the chance for the guest of honor to show their hard work so you wouldn’t want to be walking in while they are mid-read from the Torah. The bat mitzvah will begin reading from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. Follow suit when people sit or stand if you are lost. Look around or look through the prayer book but avoid fiddling with your phone and talking during the service. The guest of honor has been studying for years for this moment and should not be interrupted by the beeping of your phone.
Give a Gift
Giving a gift is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. A tzedakah is a charitable donation you can give on the person’s behalf, but I assume mostly everyone is trying to get the money in their hands, not donated in their name.
Greetings and Lingo
If the service falls on a Saturday or Friday night, you may be greeted at the door with Shabbat Shalom,” which means “Sabbath of Peace” and is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or “Shalom.” You can congratulate the parents or guest of honor by saying “Mazal tov!”
You, as the non-Jewish friend, might feel the need to act like you know exactly what’s going on during the service. Everyone knows you don’t and you don’t need to pretend you understand what is being read. The entire ceremony is based around the fact that the 13-year-old boy or girl is now responsible for their own actions when it comes to their faith. You were invited to simply enjoy some blessings and watch the ceremony. The portion where the boy or girl reads from the Torah is known as the haftorah. Afterwards, an adult might give a speech, speaking good words about the child known as the Dvar Torah. Paying close attention to the reading and service is truly intriguing.
The after party is a fancy 13-year-old birthday party. It is a big deal for the child and family. There will most likely be a theme and entertainment acts from dancers to Justin Bieber impersonators. Be ready to dance and have fun. You will do the horah a dance that involves holding hands with guests in a circle formation. It also involves lifting the hosts and immediate family up into the air on a chair. This tradition has several meanings. One being that being lifted higher brings you closer to a spiritual place and another being that you cannot do anything without the support of your family and others.
Be prepared for a day and tradition and fun. And be prepared to say Mazel Tov, (pronounced ma-zel-toff) a lot!