TEXAS BAR MITZVAH
The meaning of “coming of age” in Judaism derives from a three-thousand year tradition: at 13 years of age a Jewish boy becomes a man (a Jewish girl attains womanhood at 12).
“Bar mitzvah” in Hebrew literally means “son of commandment”, referring to the fact that the celebrant is now bound by all the obligations of Judaism. All the attendant privileges and rights are likewise conferred on him henceforth. He is a full member of the Jewish community in every sense.
Only a few centuries ago it was still not unusual for a man to celebrate his bar mitzvah and wedding together, or not very far apart in any case.
It is customary for a bar mitzvah to read from the Torah for the first time as he and his family observe and celebrate the event. Even one day earlier he was not permitted to do so according to Jewish law. This is the most readily public display of the monumental transition he has made by virtue of three medium stars being visible in the night sky last night, on the eve of his thirteenth birthday. (In Judaism the new day always begin with nightfall — what most of us think of as “the previous night”. But the Jewish view is otherwise.)
In the year 5774 since the Creation (corresponding to 2014 of the ‘Common Era’), Betzalel Moskovitz of Houston became a bar mitzvah. Btzalel’s father is Rabbi Gideon Moskovitz, rav (Orthodox rabbinical leader and authority) of the Meyerland Minyan in that city.
Since photography is not permitted on shabbat, the photos you see were taken on the weekday during a “practice run” of Torah reading some days prior to the actual bar mitzvah day.
The torah scroll you see, like all those that are read publicly in the synagogue with the mandatory quorum of ten, is written in a prescribed manner that is also of very ancient origin. Each of its 304,805 letters must be written by hand by a qualified and experienced “sofer” (scribe). Even just one missing letter (or even part of a single letter) will invalidate the entire scroll, rendering it unkosher for ritual use.
The writing of a Torah can rarely be accomplished in less than six months. It is written entirely on parchment taken most often from a sheep, kid, or calf (a kosher species in any event).
The letters whose count was just mentioned above are (with limited exceptions) consonants, not vowels. The latter must be memorized by the Torah reader, as must the musical notes that precisely accompany each and every word. There are thousands of them in a single Torah portion! No wonder that a bar mitzvah boy often spends no less than a year learning the one portion that he will read publicly on his Big Day.
So what about the party? Yes, there usually is a party. Jewish law requires not a raucous, flamboyant party, but just a festive, dignified event with good food (wine optional but encouraged). In humbler times the vestibule or side room of the synagogue usually sufficed. Today it is more common for the family to rent a banquet hall to accommodate the numerous guests, including the bar mitzvah’s own friends and classmates, and family members galore.
Everyone is in their finest garb and in the best imaginable frame of mind — the perfect photo opp. Even the very youngest members of the family, often still in diapers, instinctively sense the inimitable joy that fills the air. It’s not a Jewish event without the toddlers and tots! As Moses told Pharaoh, “We need to get away for three days. And we’ll be taking with us both young and old, for it’s our celebration to G-d.”
Oh, and the dancing… what marvellous dancing. Life is such a smorgasbord of emotions and fates, happy and sad. “There’s a time to mourn and a time to dance,” we read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Dance when you can, with every fiber of your being. (And eat fiber so your being will have more of it to dance with.)
And rabbis, too?… I mean, who would’ve guessed? That even rabbis go to bar mitzvahs. Meet Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian and Rabbi Yossi Grossman, both of Houston. (I bet you can’t guess from their surnames which hails from Iran and which from Brooklyn, New York?)
Below is Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe with his son. The latter’s grandfather was an illustrious rabbinical educator of the previous generation in Israel. Rabbi Wolbe of Houston is a leading member of TORCH, the Torah Outreach program of that city, which focuses on teaching Judaism to those of limited Jewish education background. There are many of those, unfortunately, but thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Wolbe and others, their ranks are steadily shrinking, as Jews reclaim their heritage.
Rabbis come in all shapes and sizes, with and without beards. In the latter camp, meet the very dynamic Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox synagogues of Houston. And his lovely wife Gabi.
So, if you’ve never seen a bar mitzvah, find one soon and GO! But a small word of caution: A bar mitzvah that is more ‘bar’ than ‘mitzvah’ just might not be the genuine Jewish article. So keep looking. It might take you a few tries and a little practice. But eventually you’ll know one when you see one, and you’ll accept no substitutes.