Busting the Myth of Bar Mitzvah Bling

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By Lynne Lechter

 

As the recent United Nations sanctimonious sanction against Israel demonstrates, myths should be confronted and now more than ever. “Jews should avoid stridency, but not remain silent,” one rabbi recently exhorted. One such myth is that the Jewish Bar Mitzvah is all about the bling.

In Judaism, a boy becomes a man one day after his 13th birthday. This is a fact, even if there is no private or public ceremony. Thus, the boy is no longer considered a minor.


Under Jewish law he assumes adult religious rights and responsibilities. That means the young man can wear a tallit, be called for an aliyah to recite the blessings before and after the reading of a Torah portion, chant from the Torah itself and be counted in a minyan. During ancient times, he would have been deemed responsible for betrothal, entering into contractual agreements and incurring debts.

What does it take today, in our modern world, to become a Bar Mitzvah? A lot! From nursery school or early grade school age, the typical American Jewish boy starts attending religious Sunday school. From third or fourth grade, he will attend religious classes two to three times a week. He will learn to read and speak in Hebrew, which has its own alphabet. Moreover, the Hebrew language has no capital letters and no punctuation. Those are supplied from two sources: chironomy and trope.

Chironomy is a series of hand signals used by the Levitical musicians during the time of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The Levites used the hand signals to teach readers how to chant. Each hand signal specified the melody to be used. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the hand signals were transcribed into the written symbols known today as trope.

Trope serves as punctuation and also to indicate the requisite melody in which the Torah portion is to be chanted. Chironomy and trope are both used today, so the student must be proficient in each. During the last year of study, the typical student will take trope chanting classes with the rabbi, cantor or synagogue educator designated to ready him for Torah reading. At this time, parental anxiety will increase, usually taking the form of constant questioning such as: “Are you studying your portion?” As the bar mitzvah date nears, parental reminders increase.

In many communities, preparing to become a Bar Mitzvah also includes the study of ethics, Jewish history, holidays and synagogue etiquette. The child must also complete a significant mitzvah project. These projects include reading to the blind, assembling and delivering food baskets to the needy, sports-related fundraising projects for charitable organizations, and working hands on with groups such as Habitat for Humanity.

All of this study, practice and service is occurring while the child is also handling a

full school curriculum, and any other activities in which

he might normally engage, including sports, music and family events. He may not have yet experienced a growth spurt. His voice may still sound like that of a child. Then again, his voice might change just before his Bar Mitzvah, requiring additional chanting preparation.

So what is the outcome of all this preparation?

The young man, at the age of barely 13, conducts part or all of a two hour or longer Jewish service in Hebrew, in front of up to 400 family, friends, neighbors and strangers. He starts with an opening speech. The speech provides an analysis of the Torah portion being read, describes the mitzvah project, thanks all who helped him and then chants from the Torah portion using trope and hand signals as guides.

At the end of the main service, the Bar Mitzvah boy is then required to read, in Hebrew, another biblical portion called the Haftorah.

Americans cite public speaking among their top fears. Imagine the journey the 13-year-old has taken to prepare for and become a Bar Mitzvah.

The party that follows the service is a joyous occasion commemorating the milestone. Yes, there are gifts — gifts with an eye to future education and a wedding. But the party is secondary, at best, to the rigorous educational journey and religious service that has preceded it.

Lynne Lechter is an attorney in Philadelphia.

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