What is the significance of a bar mitzvah?

When a Jewish boy turns 13, he comes of age in Jewish law and ritual. The term bar mitzvah literally means, “the son of commandment.” At age 13, the young man is deemed mature enough to fully participate in synagogue services, wear tefillin when he prays, and be counted in a quorum of prayer. The bar mitzvah ceremony as we know it today does not have biblical sources, but it is mentioned in historic rabbinic texts dating back several centuries.

A bar mitzvah boy typically spends many months preparing for the big event by learning more about Jewish tradition and practice. When his Hebrew birth date arrives, the boy is called up to the Torah for an aliyah, which is considered an honor. This can take place on any day the Torah is read during services, but often happens on Shabbat. Some bar mitzvah boys recite the whole Torah portion, or read the haftarah (portion of the prophets) corresponding to the date, or they may recite both. The bar mitzvah boy’s father will also recite a special blessing thanking God for freeing him from bearing responsibility for the boy, who is now considered accountable for his own actions.

Tefillin, or phylacteries, are worn by a boy from when he reaches bar mitzvah age, and they are practically synonymous with the rite of passage of a bar mitzvah. Tefillin are black leather boxes containing parchment on which the Shema and other key verses are inscribed. Worn on the head and on the part of the arm closest to the heart, tefillin are a reminder that we should serve God with our hearts, minds, and actions. 

Most often associated with a bar mitzvah is the lively, celebratory party held for the family and friends of the boy. Bar mitzvah parties need not be very elaborate. They tend to include music, dancing, and a festive meal. A boy may undertake a mitzvah project leading up to the bar mitzvah, such as raising money for a charity of his choice, or volunteering with an organization close to his heart. At the bar mitzvah party, the boy often gives a brief speech in which he may describe his mitzvah project, speak about his Torah portion, and thank those who helped him reach this milestone. Family and friends often give the boy a gift at his bar mitzvah. Find something he’ll be sure to love in our bar mitzvah gift guide!

A bar mitzvah is a long-standing tradition that eternally connects a thirteen year old boy to his Jewish heritage. With his early childhood years now behind him, the bar mitzvah marks the first chapter of a meaningful life filled with Jewish rite and ritual. Mazal tov!

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