How to Be a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest: Now That You’ve Been Invited, A Guide to the Synagogue Service

By Rabbi Daniel Kohn

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ST. LOUIS, April 10 (JTA)–Congratulations! You have been invited to the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. It includes appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment and service participants. Because customs vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification.

General expectations for synagogue behavior include:

  • Dress: Guests at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes–for men, either a suit or slacks, tie and jacket, and for women, a dress or formal pantsuit. In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier.
  • Arrival time: The time listed on the invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the Bar/Bat Mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service. However, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.
  • Wearing a prayer shawl: The tallit, or prayer shawl, is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish women. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it, if you are not Jewish or are simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.
  • Wearing a head covering: A kippah, or head covering (called a yarmulke in Yiddish), is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by women in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a non-denominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women may wear hats or a lace head covering.
  • Maintaining sanctity: All guests and participants are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by setting your cell phone or beeper to vibrate or turning it off, not taking pictures, not smoking in the synagogue or on the grounds and not writing or recording tapes.
  • Sitting and standing: Jewish worship services can be very athletic, filled with frequent directions to stand for particular prayers and sit for others. Take your cue from the other worshipers or the rabbi’s instructions. Unlike kneeling in a Catholic worship service–which is a unique prayer posture filled with religious significance–standing and sitting in a Jewish service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief; it is merely a sign of respect. There may also be instructions to bow at certain parts of the service, and because a bow or prostration is a religiously significant act, feel free to remain standing or sitting as you wish at that point.
  • Following the service: Try to follow the service in the siddur, or prayerbook, and the Chumash, or Torah book, both of which are usually printed in Hebrew and English. Guests and congregants are encouraged to hum along during congregational melodies and to participate in the service to the extent that they feel comfortable. During the Torah service (described below), the entire congregation is encouraged to follow the reading of the weekly Torah portion in English or Hebrew.
  • Major sections of the Shabbat morning worship service include:
  • The Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”). This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy and the three passages that follow constitute a central part of each morning and evening Jewish prayer service. Probably the most important single sentence in the liturgy, the Shema is not a prayer but rather an affirmation of the unity of God.
  • The Amidah (“Standing Prayer”). The Amidah, a series of prayers recited while standing in silent meditation, is the major liturgical piece of every synagogue service throughout the year. On a weekday, the Amidah contains prayers for the physical and spiritual well-being of the one praying as well as of the entire community of the people of Israel; on Shabbat we praise God for the joy of the Shabbat and the rest that we enjoy. It is perfectly acceptable and even desirable that people recite the Amidah in English, and worshipers are also encouraged to pray from their hearts if the printed words do not speak to them.
  • The Torah Service. Following the Shema and the Amidah is a transition from prayer to study. The primary study text is from the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. This text has been written on the parchment of the Torah scrolls by a specially trained scribe. The Torah is divided into–and read in–weekly portions, according to a prescribed calendar, so that the entire Torah is read in the span of one year. The cover and accoutrements of the Torah scrolls recall the priestly garb of ancient Temple times, i.e., breastplate, robe, crowns and belt. Usually the rabbi, and sometimes the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child or another congregant, delivers a d’var Torah, a word of Torah, that comments on the weekly Torah reading. Once the Torah reading is over, another person–usually the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child–chants a portion from the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible. The haftarah, which means concluding teaching, is usually chosen to reflect a theme or literary allusion in the Torah portion. The purpose of the haftarah is not only to provide an opportunity to teach from a different section of the Bible, but also to assert that prophecy serves to reinforce the laws of the Torah.
  • Mourner’s Kaddish. Although there is no mention of death in this prayer, the Kaddish is recited at the end of all worship services by family members who have lost a loved one in the past year or who are observing the anniversary of a death in years past. Despite sorrow and pain, the mourner rises to declare continuing commitment in praising God’s name, to which we all respond, “Amen.”

Reprinted from MyJewishLearning.com, a project of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation with additional funding from the Abramson Family Foundation, co-produced by Hebrew College and Jewish Family & Life.





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About Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn is Rabbi-in-Residence at Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, California, a proud father and author of Kinesethic Kabbalah: Spiritual Practices from Martial Arts and Jewish Mysticism.