Coming of Age as a Jew: Bar/Bat Mitvah

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Stephen Wise

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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I happen to be a very lucky person. I work a lot. I have a number of great part-time jobs, but my favourite job of all is tutoring each of the students at our synagogue in preparation for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Having such a small Jewish community in Oakville, means that many of the guests at our bar/bat mitzvahs are not Jewish and for most of them, it is a very strange and unique experience. In Reform and liberal Judaism age of bar and bat mitzvah is 13 years old. In Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, it is 12 for girls and 13 for boys. It does seem to be almost an impossible task that we expect of our youngsters, but it’s a process that actually begins many years prior.

What is actually done by the bar or bat mitzvah (which is how we refer to the children who are “becoming” bar or bat mizvah that day) during the service is as follows:

– They have 4 Hebrew blessings to sing.
– They have a Torah “portion” to chant. This is 21 verses of the Torah, all in Hebrew. The Torah comprises the first 5 books of the bible, so when we say “verses”, we are referring to verses of the bible which is usually the equivalent of a sentence.
– They have a Haftarah “portion” to chant as well. The Haftarah portion is selected from a section of the bible referred to as the “Prophets” – these are the books in the bible from Joshua to Malachi. The Haftarah portion selected has a similar theme to the Torah portion of the day
– They have a “D’var Torah” to write and deliver. This is an explanation of their Torah portion, how it relates to them and what they can learn from it.
– Some of the b’nei mitzvah (plural form of bar and bat mitzvah) also lead parts of the regular Shabbat service with the rabbi.

It should be mentioned that the Torah and Haftarah portions that are being chanted that day are the EXACT SAME portions that are being done in every single synagogue throughout the world on that same day. These are not random portions – they are set with the calendar and go in order of the books of the Torah. That often resonates with our children as it’s pretty impressive to think that they’re doing what other children who are celebrating their bar or bat mitzvah all around the world are doing.

Hebrew Letters

Hebrew Letters

So, how do they learn all of this – reading in a strange language, singing strange tunes and being asked to discuss and analyze what scholars throughout the centuries have discussed and analyzed – how is this possible for a child who is only in grade 7 or 8? It’s certainly a process. Typically, they spend a number of years in supplementary school learning to read Hebrew. Then around 8 months prior to their service, they begin to meet with me, their tutor. We learn how to do the chanting which is done through symbols that represent musical phrases. Once they learn to decipher all of the symbols, they must apply it to the Hebrew text of the Torah and have it so well learned, that they have practically memorized it as the Torah has no musical symbols at all. No numbers at all to tell you what verse you’re at. No punctuation and no vowels (in Hebrew vowels are symbols that are not letters) – just letters and words.

Once they have mastered the Torah portion and learned the Torah blessings (of which there are 2), it’s time to do the same with the Haftarah portion. For this, they have to learn NEW tunes and apply it to the Hebrew text of the Prophet section for their portion, and 2 new blessings.

Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah is a lot to learn, a lot to practice, and a lot of time to commit to it. The children must make sacrifices in their social lives during the year while they’re preparing, but for anyone that has been or will get to go to a bar or bat mitzvah will attest to the fact that each one of these kids is completely able and does a beautiful job. And each time that I am at one of their bar/bat mitzvah services, I have my own sense of pride as I help another youngster enter the world of Jewish adulthood.

By Susan Polgar



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