This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
It's the age of croaking voices, metal mouths and sudden growth spurts a time many view as the most awkward, self-conscious period of their lives.
But for Jews, age 13 is also a time of pride. It's the age when a Jewish boy or girl may stand in front of friends and family to lead a synagogue service for a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. The event marks a major milestone in a Jewish person's life. But, given the Beehive State's relatively small Jewish population, many Utahns might not know much about it.
The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Rabbi Joshua Aaronson of Park City's Temple Har Shalom about the coming-of-age ceremony:
What is a bar mitzvah?
"A bar or bat [for girls] mitzvah is a life cycle ceremony that marks the entry of a Jewish child into the adult Jewish world. … In our tradition [Reform Judaism] we do both boys and girls at 13. There are some traditions that have girls doing it at 12 or 12½."
What happens during a bar or bat mitzvah?
"The ceremony consists of a young man or woman leading the congregation in the, typically, sabbath morning service. There's a series of prayers that, in our case [at a Reform synagogue], could be done in a combination of Hebrew or English. Then there's a reading from a Torah scroll that's the main event. Then, in our synagogue and pretty much every synagogue, the student is asked to prepare a brief teaching about the [Torah] section he or she read."
What changes for a Jewish person after a bar or bat mitzvah?
"That child is able to lead a worship service if he or she would want to. That child is able to be counted in the minimum number of people required to have a worship service, which is 10. ... There are a whole host of ritual activities that someone who is a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah can participate in and someone who is younger cannot."
How long does it take to prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah?
"The typical training course requires religious education, typically based at a synagogue, but that's not always true. Hopefully that begins in preschool or first grade. Then, as the 13th birthday gets closer, as the date of the event gets closer, students would typically be tutored on a weekly basis to learn how to read their respective section of the Torah and any other readings they're doing. Generally, for example, our students prepare in a very rigorous way, anywhere from nine months to a year for their bar or bat mitzvah."
What exactly does a student do to prepare?
"The vast majority of students, besides those who would move into our area [from elsewhere], would begin studying with us from first through third grade. We'll start learning the rudiments of the [Hebrew] alphabet pretty early on, in an age-appropriate way. After that, as they move up, they'll get into really learning how to read Hebrew. Then, within two years of the bar mitzvah, a little more rigorous reading of Hebrew … and then there would be, for approximately nine months to a year before the ceremony itself, weekly individual tutoring.
"At this time, students should have already known how to read Hebrew, how to combine consonants and vowels into syllables and how to combine syllables into words. They'll then be tutored by our bar mitzvah tutor, [starting] that process to learn how to read the Torah both with vowels and without vowels and to learn all the prayers associated with their bar mitzvah ceremony and also start the process of writing d'var Torah, and that is a teaching about the portion of the Torah they're reading. That all comes together and, hopefully, by time they're ready to rock and roll it's all good.
"There's really no one who can achieve bar mitzvah who doesn't study. There might be a degree of memorization but hopefully most of our kids are just reading [Hebrew]. Some students chant, some do not chant [the readings]. … In the case of chanting, that essentially, from our point of view, becomes largely a memorized melody. We don't actually teach the students the nuts and bolts of chanting."
How long has the bar mitzvah existed?
"It is mentioned as a ritual, as a coming-of-age ceremony in relatively ancient Jewish texts, and those texts indicate that really the bar mitzvah indicates you turn 13. Anyone who turns 13 is a bar mitzvah. Certainly, by the 18th or 19th centuries, the ceremony as we know it, where a young man or woman will lead a worship service on a Shabbat morning, [developed]. … At 13, you're an adult in the Jewish world regardless of whether you have the ceremony or not. … The ceremony in its current form is probably 150 to 200 years old. The first actual bat mitzvah of a young woman was in the early 20th century. [The bat mitzvah for girls] didn't become widespread even in the progressive movement until the late '60s or '70s."
Why is a bar mitzvah performed around age 13?
"At the time it was implemented … it was not unusual for a boy at 13 to have to go off, to learn a trade, become an apprentice. … Then it had some meaning because it would have been possible for a 13-year-old manto be very close to leaving his father's house and perhaps even marrying and setting up shop for himself. Today, that certainly doesn't happen, but it was created in a time when 13 had more significance. It was akin to being 18 or 21 today."
Is a boy literally considered a man when he has a bar mitzvah?
"It certainly was correct … 1,000 years ago or 1,500 years ago that a boy would become a man. For example, according to Jewish law, subsequent to 13, the father would not necessarily have to be financially responsible for a boy anymore, but I think today it's more of a metaphor than an actual fact. … It's more of a metaphor in that it's the beginning of adulthood, of manhood or womanhood, of taking more personal responsibility for yourself."
How do families celebrate?
"There's a lot of regional difference. How a family in New York or Florida or Los Angeles might celebrate is different than in Utah. Typically families might have a little reception after the Saturday morning service. … Some families have a bigger reception in the evening."
How can a non-Jewish person help celebrate if invited to a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah?
"Just by attending and wishing the person congratulations of course, in Hebrew, that's mazel tov."