The Oddities of a Bar Mitzvah

It’s the Jewish rite of passage that is thousands of years old. It’s the entrance into adulthood. It’s the time when, biblically speaking, when a boy would rise up and (figuratively) say, “I am man! Hear me roar!”

And thousands of years ago, when life expectancy probably was around 40 years old, that made a lot of sense. Teenage years brought about puberty and the start of menstrual cycles. Families could be formed with children galore.

But times change. And so do expectations. Yet traditions stay the same. “This is the way we’ve always done it,” they said. “So we have to keep doing it this way,” they add, despite the fact that the traditions are rooted in a language that hasn’t been spoken in 5,000 years and has been translated an umpteen number of times and many messages get lost in that translation…

But, I digress.

I grew up in a Jewish family with a grandmother who was the youth adviser for a regional reform Jewish youth group that spanned from Delaware to the northern half of North Carolina. I went to the Jewish Day school for kindergarten until I attended public school in first grade. My family celebrated Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Hannukah. I attended Hebrew school and participated in events at the synagogues of which we were members.

As I got older, my Hebrew school lessons, which were on Tuesday nights, if I remember correctly, consisted of learning how to read Hebrew and studying various Hebrew texts, mostly in preparation for our bar miztvot (the plural of mitzvah). It was what we all looked forward to because it meant a big party…and usually lots of money in gifts.

My bar mitzvah was scheduled for June 14th, 1997, and everything I did in the preceding year (at least everything that was related to Judaism) prepared me for that momentous event. As I have recently become a father and have agreed with my wife to raise our child with an openness toward all religious beliefs (letting her choose her own when she and we feel that she is ready to embark on a journey), I have reflected on my upbringing and am intrigued at many of the oddities about the situation.

The Torah is a weird book

First is the selection of the Torah portion. As the Torah, the five books of the Old Testament, is read from the beginning every year starting at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year), a child’s birthday determines the approximate book and verses to be read during that service. In the initial preparation sessions, which happen anywhere between six months and one year prior to the scheduled bar mitzvah date, the rabbi works with the child and parents to determine the passages that correspond to the selected date. For me, I was in the book of Numbers, the fourth book. According to the online version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, the book is basically the sacred history of the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness following the departure from Sinai and before their occupation of Canaan, the Promised Land. It describes their sufferings and their numerous complaints against God. Yep. Wandering in the desert bitching about stuff. Definitely not the riveting tales of the creation of the world or the fight against the Pharoah. There’s no burning bush or anything exciting like that.

You’re not really entering adulthood

When I was 13, I was still a child, in so many ways…it’s not even worth getting into. There was nothing about “entering adulthood” that the rite presumed to preach. And don’t even try to pull the “Well, I had a bar mitzvah, so now I’m a man!” line with your parents. That will end poorly for you.

Why the insanely large party?

When I was 13, my family didn’t have a lot of money, but they still managed to throw a party at a local Holiday Inn. We had more than 100 people, half of whom I didn’t know. I invited my male friends, and the girls we invited were from the temple youth group, because again, at 13, I was a boy and hadn’t even had my first kiss yet.

We had a giant cake with 13 candles, and each candle was lit by someone important to me. It was, by far, the longest candle lighting I’ve ever had.

And don’t forget the gift you gave everyone for coming and giving you money. For the $50 or so you got from each attendees, you gave them a crappy t-shirt with “Adam’s Bar Mitzvah” on it that obviously nobody ever wore. My part was “sports themed” and we gave everyone a gym bag as their gift. I still shake my head at that.

You actually have multiple bar mitzvahs…kind of

A bar/bat mitzvah is supposed to be the first time that a young person reads from the Torah. But that’s not actually the case. Before the actual date, I practiced about five or six times out of the Torah from which I would read for my service. So wasn’t the first time I read it during the practice my actual bar mitzvah?

As a 13-year-old, you’re expected to provide a sermon. And yes, it’s terrible.

Asking a child to interpret a story that was written 6,000 years ago that has been translated in and out of multiple languages is like asking a sloth to run a race. It’s not going to go well. The idea behind the rite is that you’re supposed to learn from the passage and convey its meaning to the congregants. But as I mentioned above, the Torah is a weird book. Here are the 22 verses I read:

1The Lord spoke to Moses saying: אוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
2Command the children of Israel to banish from the camp all those afflicted with tzara’ath or with a male discharge, and all those unclean through [contact with] the dead. בצַ֚ו אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וִֽישַׁלְּחוּ֙ מִן־הַמַּֽחֲנֶ֔ה כָּל־צָר֖וּעַ וְכָל־זָ֑ב וְכֹ֖ל טָמֵ֥א לָנָֽפֶשׁ:
3Both male and female you shall banish; you shall send them outside the camp, and they not defile their camps, in which I dwell among them. גמִזָּכָ֤ר עַד־נְקֵבָה֙ תְּשַׁלֵּ֔חוּ אֶל־מִח֥וּץ לַמַּֽחֲנֶ֖ה תְּשַׁלְּח֑וּם וְלֹ֤א יְטַמְּאוּ֙ אֶת־מַ֣חֲנֵיהֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲנִ֖י שֹׁכֵ֥ן בְּתוֹכָֽם:
4The children of Israel did so: they sent them outside the camp; as the Lord had spoken to Moses, so did the children of Israel do. דוַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־כֵן֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיְשַׁלְּח֣וּ אוֹתָ֔ם אֶל־מִח֖וּץ לַמַּֽחֲנֶ֑ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר יְהוָֹה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה כֵּ֥ן עָשׂ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
5The Lord then spoke to Moses saying: הוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
6Tell the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any of the sins against man to act treacherously against God, and that person is [found] guilty, ודַּבֵּר֘ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַֽעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכָּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּֽיהוָֹ֑ה וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא:
7they shall confess the sin they committed, and make restitution for the principal amount of his guilt, add its fifth to it, and give it to the one against whom he was guilty. זוְהִתְוַדּ֗וּ אֶת־חַטָּאתָם֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂוּ֒ וְהֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ֙ בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וַֽחֲמִֽישִׁת֖וֹ יֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֑יו וְנָתַ֕ן לַֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָשַׁ֥ם לֽוֹ:
8But if the man has no kinsman to whom to make restitution, the debt which is restored to the Lord, [is to be given] to the kohen. [This is] besides the atonement ram through which expiation is made for him. חוְאִם־אֵ֨ין לָאִ֜ישׁ גֹּאֵ֗ל לְהָשִׁ֤יב הָֽאָשָׁם֙ אֵלָ֔יו הָֽאָשָׁ֛ם הַמּוּשָׁ֥ב לַֽיהוָֹ֖ה לַכֹּהֵ֑ן מִלְּבַ֗ד אֵ֚יל הַכִּפֻּרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְכַפֶּר־בּ֖וֹ עָלָֽיו:
9Every offering of all the children of Israel’s holy things which is brought to the kohen, shall be his. טוְכָל־תְּרוּמָ֞ה לְכָל־קָדְשֵׁ֧י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־יַקְרִ֥יבוּ לַכֹּהֵ֖ן ל֥וֹ יִֽהְיֶֽה:
10Everyone’s holy things shall belong to him; whatever a man gives to the kohen shall be his. יוְאִ֥ישׁ אֶת־קֳדָשָׁ֖יו ל֣וֹ יִֽהְי֑וּ אִ֛ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִתֵּ֥ן לַכֹּהֵ֖ן ל֥וֹ יִֽהְיֶֽה:
11The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: יאוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
12Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man’s wife go astray and deal treacherously with him, יבדַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאָֽמַרְתָּ֖ אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אִ֥ישׁ אִישׁ֙ כִּֽי־תִשְׂטֶ֣ה אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וּמָֽעֲלָ֥ה ב֖וֹ מָֽעַל:
13and a man lie with her carnally, but it was hidden from her husband’s eyes, but she was secluded [with the suspected adulterer] and there was no witness against her, and she was not seized. יגוְשָׁכַ֨ב אִ֣ישׁ אֹתָהּ֘ שִׁכְבַת־זֶ֒רַע֒ וְנֶעְלַם֙ מֵֽעֵינֵ֣י אִישָׁ֔הּ וְנִסְתְּרָ֖ה וְהִ֣יא נִטְמָ֑אָה וְעֵד֙ אֵ֣ין בָּ֔הּ וְהִ֖וא לֹ֥א נִתְפָּֽשָׂה:
14But a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he became jealous of his wife, and she was defiled, or, a spirit of jealousy had come upon him and he was jealous of his wife, and she was not defiled. ידוְעָבַ֨ר עָלָ֧יו רֽוּחַ־קִנְאָ֛ה וְקִנֵּ֥א אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֖וֹ וְהִ֣וא נִטְמָ֑אָה אֽוֹ־עָבַ֨ר עָלָ֤יו רֽוּחַ־קִנְאָה֙ וְקִנֵּ֣א אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהִ֖יא לֹ֥א נִטְמָֽאָה:
15Then the man shall bring his wife to the kohen and bring her offering for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall neither pour oil over it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousies, a meal offering of remembrance, recalling iniquity. טווְהֵבִ֨יא הָאִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אִשְׁתּוֹ֘ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן֒ וְהֵבִ֤יא אֶת־קָרְבָּנָהּ֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ עֲשִׂירִ֥ת הָֽאֵיפָ֖ה קֶ֣מַח שְׂעֹרִ֑ים לֹֽא־יִצֹ֨ק עָלָ֜יו שֶׁ֗מֶן וְלֹֽא־יִתֵּ֤ן עָלָיו֙ לְבֹנָ֔ה כִּֽי־מִנְחַ֤ת קְנָאֹת֙ ה֔וּא מִנְחַ֥ת זִכָּר֖וֹן מַזְכֶּ֥רֶת עָוֹֽן:
16The kohen shall bring her forth and present her before the Lord. טזוְהִקְרִ֥יב אֹתָ֖הּ הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וְהֶֽעֱמִדָ֖הּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹֽה:
17The kohen shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and some earth from the Mishkan floor, the kohen shall take and put it into the water. יזוְלָקַ֧ח הַכֹּהֵ֛ן מַ֥יִם קְדשִׁ֖ים בִּכְלִי־חָ֑רֶשׂ וּמִן־הֶֽעָפָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִֽהְיֶה֙ בְּקַרְקַ֣ע הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן יִקַּ֥ח הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנָתַ֥ן אֶל־הַמָּֽיִם:
18Then the kohen shall stand the woman up before the Lord and expose the [hair on the] head of the woman; he shall place into her hands the remembrance meal offering, which is a meal offering of jealousies, while the bitter curse bearing waters are in the kohen’s hand. יחוְהֶֽעֱמִ֨יד הַכֹּהֵ֥ן אֶֽת־הָֽאִשָּׁה֘ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָֹה֒ וּפָרַע֙ אֶת־רֹ֣אשׁ הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֣ן עַל־כַּפֶּ֗יהָ אֵ֚ת מִנְחַ֣ת הַזִּכָּר֔וֹן מִנְחַ֥ת קְנָאֹ֖ת הִ֑וא וּבְיַ֤ד הַכֹּהֵן֙ יִֽהְי֔וּ מֵ֥י הַמָּרִ֖ים הַֽמְאָֽרְרִֽים:
19The kohen shall then place her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and you have not gone astray to become defiled [to another] in place of your husband, then [you will] be absolved through these bitter waters which cause the curse. יטוְהִשְׁבִּ֨יעַ אֹתָ֜הּ הַכֹּהֵ֗ן וְאָמַ֤ר אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ אִם־לֹ֨א שָׁכַ֥ב אִישׁ֙ אֹתָ֔ךְ וְאִם־לֹ֥א שָׂטִ֛ית טֻמְאָ֖ה תַּ֣חַת אִישֵׁ֑ךְ הִנָּקִ֕י מִמֵּ֛י הַמָּרִ֥ים הַֽמְאָֽרְרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה:
20But as for you, if you have gone astray [to another] instead of your husband and have become defiled, and another man besides your husband has lain with you…” כוְאַ֗תְּ כִּ֥י שָׂטִ֛ית תַּ֥חַת אִישֵׁ֖ךְ וְכִ֣י נִטְמֵ֑את וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אִ֥ישׁ בָּךְ֙ אֶת־שְׁכָבְתּ֔וֹ מִבַּלְעֲדֵ֖י אִישֵֽׁךְ:
21The kohen shall now adjure the woman with the oath of the curse, and the kohen shall say to the woman, “May the Lord make you for a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord causes your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell. כאוְהִשְׁבִּ֨יעַ הַכֹּהֵ֥ן אֶת־הָֽאִשָּׁה֘ בִּשְׁבֻעַ֣ת הָֽאָלָה֒ וְאָמַ֤ר הַכֹּהֵן֙ לָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה יִתֵּ֨ן יְהוָֹ֥ה אוֹתָ֛ךְ לְאָלָ֥ה וְלִשְׁבֻעָ֖ה בְּת֣וֹךְ עַמֵּ֑ךְ בְּתֵ֨ת יְהוָֹ֤ה אֶת־יְרֵכֵךְ֙ נֹפֶ֔לֶת וְאֶת־בִּטְנֵ֖ךְ צָבָֽה:
22For these curse bearing waters shall enter your innards, causing the belly to swell and the thigh to rupture,” and the woman shall say, “Amen, amen.” כבוּבָ֠אוּ הַמַּ֨יִם הַֽמְאָֽרְרִ֤ים הָאֵ֨לֶּה֙ בְּמֵעַ֔יִךְ לַצְבּ֥וֹת בֶּ֖טֶן וְלַנְפִּ֣ל יָרֵ֑ךְ וְאָֽמְרָ֥ה הָֽאִשָּׁ֖ה אָמֵ֥ן | אָמֵֽן:

Even today, I have a hard time understanding what this is about, but it seems like I was reading the ancient Jewish rules of adultery and what happens to a woman when she lays with another man. The last two verses speak to something about a sort of potion made of water than will cause pain and suffering. And I don’t want to guess at what the writing refers to when it says “causes a woman’s belly to swell and thigh to rupture”…

A new age development: a social cause/donations

As my younger cousins started to have their rites of passage into adulthood, a new trend had taken over the Jewish community: social action. Most of the other Jewish kids I knew came from well-to-do households and the fact that they threw parties to get thousands of dollars from other kids and their families seemed a bit absurd. So someone came up with the idea to support a social cause. My cousin’s, for instance, was genocide in Africa. Others have been homelessness, LGBTQ rights…really anything you can think of.

In the end, I haven’t been to a bar/bat mitzvah in some time, and I’m not sure when I will again the future, and I’m sure things will continue to change. Looking back, it is a memorable experience, but I don’t know if the rite was as impactful as some of the other things I did at that age. If anything, it brought a lot of family and friends together for a seemingly important day. And for that, I am grateful. It’s still an odd experience…

Here are some pictures of my endeavor.

For more on my heritage and history, check out the blogs I wrote on my family trees:

Ancestral Recall: Tracing My European Jewish Heritage to Poland, Moldova, and Russia

Ancestral Recall: Explaining My Genealogical Ties to 15th Century Germany (and a Dash of France)

Ancestral Recall: Discovering My English Heritage and My Ancestors from Colonial Maryland and Virginia

Ancestral Recall: Learning That One (and Probably More) of My 4,096 10th-Great-Grandparents Owned Slaves

Ancestral Recall: Yes, My 7th-Great-Grandfather, Colonel Joseph Belt, Has a Historical Marker in DC

Ancestral Recall: The Extensive Military History of Service of My Ancestors From the French and Indian War to the Present Day

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