Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

Bat mitzvah in the United States.

Bat mitzvah in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

You or your child have been invited to attend a bar (or bat) mitzvah. The only problem is, you’ve never been to one. The closest you’ve come was a bit of one on TV, perhaps Freddie Crane’s bar mitzvah, where his dad blessed him in Klingon. Now what?

Despite the fact that the service is often given a humorous treatment in movies and on TV, the bar or bat mitzvah is a major event in the life of a Jewish family. The young person works for years to prepare for it, and the family saves and plans for just as long. A bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl) falls sometime around the 13th birthday, and it marks the beginning of ritual adulthood.  That is, once a Jew has reached that age, they are responsible for themselves in keeping the commandments and participating in Jewish life.

There are a few things to know about attending a bar or bat mitzvah.  Here are some basic tips:

1. RESPOND PROMPTLY. As with a wedding, these are complicated affairs and numbers matter. Respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Do not ask to bring extra people.

2. DRESS MODESTLY. Dress will depend on the synagogue, but do not depend on your 13 year old for the dress code. The service will be fairly formal: a bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and tie. Dress for girls should be tidy, clean, and modest: outfits cut “up to here” or “down to there” are inappropriate.  A party dress with bare shoulders can be supplemented with a shawl for the service.

3. PRESENTS. Gift-giving is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. One may give money to the bat mitzvah, or make a charitable donation (tzedakah) in her name. Bar mitzvah money often is put towards college or study in Israel. That said, if you cannot afford a present, it is not required.

4. THE SERVICE. Arrive on time for the service. The bat mitzvah may lead the service, and she will read from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. She’s been studying for years for this moment. Just follow the rest of the congregation in sitting and standing. If you have never been to a Jewish service before, you may find another article on this site “New to Jewish Prayer?” useful. It’s OK to look around you, or to look through the prayer book. However, fiddling with a cell phone (much less talking or texting on one!) is not appropriate. Electronics should be turned off and put away, if they are carried at all. (In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, the use of such devices is forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. Using one will immediately inform everyone that you are an outsider and a bad-mannered one, at that.)  For more about the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests.

5. THE PARTY. The party afterwards may be very simple or very elaborate. For dress and other specifics, check your invitation. Again, do not bring uninvited guests!  Usually there will be speeches at the party, and it is polite to listen. There will also be dancing, which is optional but lots of fun. Even if you aren’t much of a dancer, circle dancing for the horah is fun. There will be food.

6. GREETINGS. If the service falls on Saturday (or in some congregations, on Friday night) you may be greeted at the door with “Shabbat shalom!”  This literally means, “Sabbath of Peace!” and it is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or simply “Shalom!”  If you wish to congratulate the parents or the young person, you can say “Mazal tov!” 

7. ENJOY! This is a moment of great joy for a Jewish family, a milestone in a young Jew’s life. It will involve good music, a beautiful service, good food, dancing, and new friends. Open yourself to the experience, and enjoy.

25 Responses to Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

  1. Why thank you for the kind pingback. Our son just had his bar mitzvah on 6/23 and it was truly amazing to see it all som together: all that hard work. I was kvelling!

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      Mazal tov on your son’s bar mitzvah! Given that at this moment you are a TRUE expert on the subject, Renée, is there anything you’d add to this list, or anything you’d like for me to add? What should guests who have never been to a bar mitzvah know?

      Like

  2. julia christine stephen says:

    Thank you for this. My best friend is an Anglican priest and his wife is Jewish…at times I feel a little out of the loop with the Jewish ceremonies. :)

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  4. Geovana says:

    This video is almost as fun as being at the party. You can tell in every frame that Ali dlnefitiey had the time of her life! It’s a shame we all can’t have a video like this to watch and remind us of how much we are loved and just how fun life can be.

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  5. davidfcooper says:

    You might add that at Jewish services applause is inappropriate, and that the appropriate responce after the bar/bat mitzvah concludes hir davar torah is to say “Yashir Koach!”

    Like

    • rabbiadar says:

      Good point! I’ve been thinking of writing an update to this post, and I will be sure to include that! Anyone else have suggestions about what should be included in a post about bnei mitzvah etiquette?

      Like

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  18. Jen says:

    My child only was invited to a barmitzvah party. Both he and I attended the service and luncheon, but I did not feel comfortable dropping him off alone to the party being held at a somewhat posh venue. When I told the mother that my child couldn’t attend the party portion unless accompanied by me, she said they couldn’t afford to invite all the school moms. I noticed that most of the Jewish school moms (and dads) were invited, but none of the non-Jewish moms, even though I socialize with some of them. It just felt kind of rude, and so my child did not attend the party. I didn’t feel comfortable dropping off my child at a huge reception with mostly strangers and no one really looking out for him. Why was it so difficult for her to understand that? I read news stories where the kids often go unsupervised at these parties and end up drunk and sometimes molested by certain guests who target these type of events because of that. I also don’t want my child exposed to the hypocritical party after spending all morning at this supposedly spiritual service. Why do some people spend money on big parties like this when they can’t seem to afford to invite everyone? I noticed the mom invited other kids to fill in the spots of the few that declined for the same reason as me and she picked kids of parents who often “drop” their child off anywhere alone. I asked my kid if I was being too over protective? But he said “no”, smiled, and was relieved to not go. The safety and well-being of my child is more important to me than a clueless parent. The audacity of this mom trying to talk me into just dropping off my child up to the day of the event was so annoying when all she had to do was add one more person to her guest list. I know that most places plan for those possible extra 5 or 6 people and so she really had no excuse. It kind of made me feel like they were just using the non-Jewish children somehow. In any case, we stayed home as a family and had the most wonderful time not having to get all dressed up in suit and tie again.

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