How bar mitzvah grew and grew

I realize that some of our friends, both Jewish and Christian, may never have attended a bar mitzvah ceremony. Therefore, we offer this background to the day’s activities. A bar mitzvah is full of tradition — like raisins in a fresh baked challah; still it’s the foundation of our Judeo-Christian culture.

All ancient cultures used some sort of maturity rite to assess the worthiness of the adolescent for membership in the adult community. In Judaism, this test is spiritual and intellectual. Hopefully, our brief explanation of the ceremony will allow you to enjoy the service as well as the reception that follows.

Nothing the bar mitzvah student has accomplished so far in his 13 years of life has demanded the hard work and dedication this task has required; unless his name was Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart, who gave up soccer for symphonies at 4 years of age. It’s stressful; it’s heavy neural traffic for a young man. Occasionally, he’ll call his teacher the Friday before the big day. “Teacher, I’ve got, kinda feverish feeling and I’ll bet I gotta temperature so I won’t be at the synagogue Saturday. Would you just bring the presents over? I’ll pay the rental fee for the truck. And tell Rabbi Grossberg thanks for his help, too.”

Bar mitzvah teachers, experienced in crisis therapy, handle such emergencies with ease.

Like they say, timing is everything and unfortunately bar mitzvah time is adolescent time in the human lifecycle. Boys are beginning to notice that half of their classmates wear skirts and have really long hair. Their heroes are Barry Bonds, Shaquille O’Neal and Peyton Manning, not Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah.

Stress is everywhere. Mama is worried, too; about a) the child’s performance, b) the caterer’s performance, and c) whether Aunt Hannah will bring her six married daughters — with kids — who delight in pillaging a Kiddush table.

Pop goes around muttering, “I’ll bet even Elijah never had a bar mitzvah like this.”

And he’s right. There’s no record whatsoever of Elijah’s folks laying out appetizers and expensive delicacies for a flock of friends and relatives. Nowhere in our entire Bible, nor in the rabbinic literature, is there a commandment to mortgage the family home for an evening of food and drink.

The bar mitzvah boy’s performance and the subsequent celebration is not a commandment, only a custom. It developed slowly, like the pickling of cucumbers.

The b’nai mitzvah tradition, like most traditions, grew in meaning and ceremony as the years went by. Some proud parent, a couple of centuries ago, must have said to his friends, “Hey, young Binyomin is 13 tomorrow. Come by the house, have a piece of cake, and shake his hand.” That was the simple beginning. Then some papa, shiny-faced with pride, must have brought the child to synagogue so he could display his prodigal son to all of his friends. And since this admirable young man was at services on the Sabbath, when the Torah was read, why not have him read a section or two from the holy scroll. And after the Torah reading, why not dazzle the congregation with his erudition. Let him say a few words. And since by the time Binyomin had finished displaying his erudition it was lunchtime, why not feed the multitudes with cold cuts and pickles. That’s how it began.

Today, the good news is that friends and relatives will shower the bar mitzvah boy with trinkets unless he sings his Torah section to the tune of the Notre Dame fight song. The bad news is that had he approached the age of 13, say a few hundred years ago, he’d have received a free pass to adulthood in the Jewish community. No speeches, no Torah reading. Nothing.

Ted Roberts is a humorist based in Huntsville, Ala.