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Introduction to Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs
In modern Jewish practice, Jewish children come of age at 13. When a child comes of age, he or she is officially a bar mitzvah ("son of the commandments") or bat mitzvah ("daughter of the commandments"). The terms are commonly used as a short-hand for the bar/bat mitzvah’s coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration.
In its earliest form, the only ceremony associated with a child becoming bar mitzvah was a blessing by the child’s father thanking God for freeing him from responsibility for the deeds of his child, who is now accountable for his own actions. By the 17th century, boys celebrating their coming of age were also reading from the five books of Moses (the Torah), chanting the weekly Haftarah portion from The Prophets, leading services and delivering learned talks.
In 1922, the founder of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement, Mordecai Kaplan, held the first bat mitzvah ceremony, for his daughter Judith.
A typical bar mitzvah or bat mitzvahs involves the child taking an active part in Friday night and Saturday morning services on a Shabbat close to his or her 13th birthday. Training for participating in the service typically begins at least a year before the ceremony. (See Ways the Child May Participate in the Ceremony.) Reserving a date for the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony at a synagogue also may require advance notice of a year or more.
A child’s family typically participates in the celebration by participating in some way in the Shabbat services and by hosting and attending a celebration that Saturday afternoon or evening. (See Ways the Family May Participate in the Ceremony.)
There are numerous ways an interfaith family can be involved in the celebrations, but what is permitted varies widely from synagogue to synagogue. Different congregations offer different restrictions and opportunities for non-Jews to participate in the ceremony. (See What’s Permitted and What’s Not.)
One of the best ways to involve non-Jewish guests is by distributing a supplement explaining Jewish rituals on the day of the ceremony. (See Educating Your Non-Jewish Audience.)
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ideas and Primer for Interfaith Families is also available as a PDF document.