In a strictly traditional bar mitzvah celebration, the role of the bar mitzvah parents (usually, just the father) during the worship service is to recite a blessing, baruch she-p’tarani, declaring the child to be liable for his or her own actions, according to Jewish law. (In traditional circles, girls do not participate ritually in the service and hence do not usually receive this blessing.) In liberal synagogues, parents often say only the shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for being alive to celebrate the occasion, and some are taking on new roles, like presenting a tallit (ritual prayer shawl) to their child and leading parts of the service.
The baruch she-p'tarani blessing reads, "Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe who has excused me (from being liable) for this one (meaning, the child).” The blessing was traditionally recited by the father, and today is said by both parents in some liberal synagogues. The blessing has two forms, one that mentions God's name and one that does not. Although this seems like a rather strange and perplexing blessing for parents at their child’s coming of age ceremony, it is entirely consistent with the spiritual significance of the event.
In traditional Judaism, children before bar/bat mitzvah age are exempt from the spiritual obligations of observing the Jewish mitzvot, or commandments. This means that children are not required to fast on Yom Kippur, observe Shabbat (Sabbath) prohibitions, or perform other religious rituals, although in actuality children are slowly be educated about the commandments and inculcated into their eventual observance.
When children attain their Jewish legal majority, or adult status (at age 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy), they become legally and morally responsible for their own actions and religious observances in the eyes of God. At the same time, the parents are no longer responsible for any sins committed by the child. When parents recite baruch she-p'tarani, they are publicly declaring their children to be both ritually and legally responsible adults in the Jewish tradition.
For some rabbis in the liberal movements, the concept of religious liability no longer resonates, and they have chosen to omit this blessing. Yet others are either encouraging its use or offering it as an option. These rabbis are re-visioning the meaning of the blessing in a more modern context--as symbolizing a new stage in the child’s life and in the parent-child relationship. It is a form of “letting go,” in which children are becoming their own persons and must make their own moral judgments. To make the blessing more palatable to the modern ear, some of these rabbis have developed kavvanot (spiritual preparations) to introduce it or new translations of the blessing itself.
In the liberal movements, most parents recite the shehecheyanu, which reads, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this day.” In fact, Jews recite this blessing at every momentous occasion and holiday, thanking God for the privilege of being alive to celebrate the event. Because of the joyous nature of this blessing, it is a significant moment in many bar/bat mitzvah celebrations in synagogues around the world.
Over time parents have taken on new roles in their children’s bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, which vary by synagogue and community:
1. Presentation of a tallit. The tallit is worn by adult Jews over the age of bar/bat mitzvah, though some traditionalist Jews don't wear one until marriage. In some synagogues the parents publicly present their child with a tallit on the occasion of his or her first worship service as an adult Jew, sometimes accompanied by a few personal remarks to their child.
2. Passing the Torah through the generations. When the Torah is removed from the ark, many communities invite the grandparents and parents of the child to the bimah (pulpit) and physically hand the Torah from one generation to another--symbolizing the chain and continuity of the Jewish tradition within families.
3. Receiving aliyot to the Torah. Receiving an aliyah--that is, being called to the Torah at a Shabbat morning service to recite the blessings before and after the ritual chanting of the weekly Torah reading--is the essential ritual activity of the bar/bat mitzvah at the worship service. To honor the parents and make it possible for them to be at the reading table during their child's aliyah and Torah reading, a custom has developed for the parents to receive an aliyah.
4. Participating in leading the worship services, along with other family members. While nepotism is generally frowned on in the business world, the celebration of bar/bat mitzvah is considered an ideal opportunity for other members of the family to participate in the worship services. Family members, including parents, brothers and sisters, as well as more extended family members, may lead parts of the worship service, chant other sections of the weekly Torah reading, or lead English readings.
5. Making speeches to the bar/bat mitzvah child. At the end of worship services involving a bar/bat mitzvah celebration, many communities invite the parents to the bimah to share a few personal words of reflection and blessing with their child before the entire community.
These rituals are merely custom and vary from one synagogue to the next. Some are even considered controversial, as their inclusion lengthens the worship services and turns a public, communal worship service into a seemingly private event. Other communities value these customs as they emphasize the transformation of children into fully participatory adults in the Jewish community. In either case, the celebration of bar/bat mitzvah in modern synagogue worship services continues to be a case of evolution, change, and development.
Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality, and currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.