So You’ve Never Been to a Bat Mitzvah

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As you may know, I’m not Jewish. My wife and kids are. From a spiritual perspective, I’m a Gentile living in the land of Messiah. And I’m satisfied that that’s where I belong, at least for now. But none of the unusualness of this increasingly common situation is going to keep my girls from becoming bnot mitzvah. And that means a bunch of my Gentile relatives and friends, who have never been to a bat mitzvah and don’t know what to expect, are going to come to my girls’ bnot mitzvah… and still don’t know what to expect.

When I first started attending synagogue with the rest of my family, I also didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, I found the people at Ruach Israel friendly and accepting. But the liturgy overwhelmed me a little (despite the fact that I already knew a little Hebrew), and I didn’t know what the rules were. And it wasn’t until years later that I had learned enough to begin to truly appreciate some of the magic of the weekly Shabbat Shacharit (or even knew how to spell “shacharit”).

So this post I’m writing primarily for those friends and family who will be visiting for the bat mitzvah, to give them a heads-up on some of the things I wish I had known six years ago.

First things first…

Hebrew Sounds Nothing like Klingon

At our synagogue, we do the liturgy in a mixture of Hebrew and English. And after six years of practice, I think I’ve just about got the Hebrew part down… almost. In other words, if you have trouble following along in Hebrew, remember that you’re not the first.

Fortunately, our siddur (“prayerbook”) contains all the parts of the service, in the order in which they occur, with much of the Hebrew transliterated, and the English translation on each facing page. And the ḥazzan will tell you when to stand and to sit down (or you can simply do what everyone else does). Just remember to flip from right to left.

By the way, on your way into the sanctuary, you’ll want to grab a copy of the siddur, a creme-colored, comb-bound booklet, whose front cover bears the words:

סדור רוח ישראל
שחרית לשבת וחגים

Siddur Ruach Israel
A Prayerbook for
Shabbat and Festival Morning Prayers

And if you’re a guy, you’ll also want to grab a kippah (a.k.a. “yarmulke”). We plan to have a basket of personalized kippot with the bnot mitzvah names on them. And as is customary, you can keep yours as a memento of the day.

Call to Worship

We begin the Shabbat Shacharit—that is, the Sabbath morning service—with a song, Ma Tovu (from Numbers 24:5 and Psalms 5:7), which is a call to worship upon entering the synagogue. Then we begin the Shacharit proper, which consists of six parts:

  1. Psukei dezimra, which is Aramaic for “Hymns of Song”: these consist of a sequence of Psalms and other scripture. In our service, we do a blessing (Baruch She’amar, “Blessed Is He Who Spoke”), followed by three or four songs, capped off with another blessing (Yishtabach, “May He Be Praised”).

    You see this general pattern often in Jewish liturgy, a climax bracketed by other blessings.

    After the psukei dezimra comes the ḥetzi kaddish (“half Kaddish“), which is a separator between parts, leading into…

  2. The Shema and its blessings, “Hear, O Israel,” the famous prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4–9. This is bracketed by blessings: two before the Shema (Yotzer Or, “He Who Forms Light”; and Ahava Raba, “Abundant Love”), and one following (Emet Vayatziv, “True and Certain,” which we prefix with the first few verses of the book of Hebrews—which is a Messianic Jewish thing).

  3. The Amidah, “The Standing Prayer,” is a sequence of seven blessings. This is the high point, that the former parts have been building towards. And in particular, the third blessing, the Kedushah, a meditation on God’s holiness, is the climax of the entire liturgy.

    One should not enter or leave the sanctuary during the Amidah, to avoid disturbing others who are praying. And if you absolutely must leave, you should not reenter until after the Amidah is complete.

  4. The Torah service: This is when the bnot mitzvah read the Torah for the first time. On a typical (non-bar-mitzvah) Shabbat, several aliyot are called to read each part of the day’s parshah in each of Hebrew and English. In our bnot mitzvah, the bat mitzvah will read the entire parsha, at least in Hebrew. And since both of my girls are bnot mitzvah on the same day, they’ll each read three parts of the parsha: from the Torah, from the Haftarah, and from the Besorah (“Gospel”).

    Before we get there, though, the Torah scroll (the “Sefer Torah“) is removed from the ark, and in a joyous ceremony is carried around the congregation. (And it’s customary to look at the Sefer Torah as it is weaves its way through the ailes.)

    There are a number of other blessings in and around these readings. One notable one is Mi Sheberach, a prayer for the sick that is traditionally recited during the Torah service. Being a Messianic synagogue, we add the line, “For Shabbat is a time of healing in the merit of Yeshua,” referring to certain Gospel stories (in Matthew 12:9; Mark 3; Luke 6:6; and Luke 14).

  5. The Drash and speeches: Again, usually there’s a sermon (a “drashah“) given by one of the rabbis or some invited speaker. At a bat mitzvah, the bat mitzvah gives the drashah as well as a speech describing what being a bat mitzvah means to her. And with two bnot mitzvah, that means two sets of speeches… Short ones. I promise.

    Other speakers (including yours truly) will also say a few words about the bnot mitzvah.

  6. Concluding prayers… By this time, when I first started attending synagogue, my stomach was growling and my head felt like it was about to explode. Fortunately, there are only a few concluding prayers, after which we all gather around the front of the sanctuary for kiddush, a blessing over wine and bread, and over the food that we eat, as we proceed into the function hall…

Let’s Party!

Hebrew has, like, 37 different words for “party.” (Actually, more like, just, 7.) Consider the well-known Jewish song, “Hava Nagila,” the words of which you should probably learn:

Hebrew Roughly translated…
Hava nagila! Let’s party!
Hava nagila! Let’s party!
Hava nagila venismekha! Let’s party! And party!
Hava neranena! Let’s party!
Hava neranena! Let’s party!
Hava neranena venismekha! Let’s party! And party!
Uru! Uru akhim! Wake up! Wake up, bros!
Uru akhim belev sameach! Wake up, bros! With a party hearty!
Uru akhim belev sameach! Wake up, bros! With a party hearty!
Uru akhim belev sameach! Wake up, bros! With a party hearty!
Uru akhim belev sameach! Wake up, bros! With a party hearty!
Uru akhim! Uru akhim! Belev sameach! Wake up, bros! Wake up, bros! With a party hearty!

In all likelihood, the band will play a round of “Hava Nagila” while we make our way into the function hall for Oneg (another word for “party”), which is a Shabbat feast. That’s from Isaiah 58:13-14, “…if you call the Sabbath a delight [oneg] and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it… then you will find your joy [related word, anag] in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”

And the best part: the guests get to hit the buffet first!

Oneg Shabbat is a respectable party. But later that evening, the girls are planning a smaller, more wild party, for select invitees, with music and dancing and so forth. That’s the bat mitzvah party that’s usually portrayed in popular TV. I have no idea whether they’re planning a chair dance (or whether they’ll even have “Hava Nagila” in the jukebox). Feel free to bring a present (as it’s customary), but don’t feel obligated (because we’re doing this for the daughters, not for the presents).

And then, complete and total exhaustion.

And the Bat Mitzvah Bird will carry the girls back to their beds and tuck them in, where they’ll dream about standing on the bema in front a full crowd, completely buck naked, and they’ll wake up in a cold sweat, ’cause in their dream they couldn’t remember how any of the Hebrew letters sound.