What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know

This guide explains appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment, and service participants.

By Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Congratulations! You have been invited to the bar or bat mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. Because this general guide may vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification.

General Expectations for Synagogue Behavior

1.      Dress: Guests at a bar/bat mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes--for men, either a suit or slacks, tie, and jacket, and for women, a dress or formal pantsuit. In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier; women wear hats and are discouraged from wearing pants.

2.      Arrival time: The time listed on the bar/bat mitzvah invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service; however, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.

3.      Wearing a prayer shawl: The tallit, or prayer shawl, is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish women. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it, whether you are not Jewish or are simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.

4.      Wearing a head covering: A kippah, or head covering (called a yarmulke in Yiddish), is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by women in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a non-denominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women may wear hats or a lace head covering.

5.      Maintaining sanctity: All guests and participants are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by:

a)      Setting your cell phone or beeper to vibrate or turning it off.

b)      Not taking pictures. (Many families hire photographers or videographers and would be pleased to take your order for a photo or video memento; in traditional settings photography is strictly forbidden on Shabbat).

c)      Not smoking in the sanctuary, inside the building, or even on the synagogue grounds.

d)      Not writing or recording tapes.

e)      Not speaking during services; while you may see others around you chatting quietly--or even loudly--be aware that some synagogues consider this a breach of decorum.

6.      Sitting and standing: Jewish worship services can be very athletic, filled with frequent directions to stand for particular prayers and sit for others. Take your cue from the other worshippers or the rabbi's instructions. Unlike kneeling in a Catholic worship service--which is a unique prayer posture filled with religious significance--standing and sitting in a Jewish service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief; it is merely a sign of respect. There may also be instructions to bow at certain parts of the service, and because a bow or prostration is a religiously significant act, feel free to remain standing or sitting as you wish at that point.

7.      Following the service: Try to follow the service in the siddur, or prayerbook, and the Chumash, or Torah book, both of which are usually printed in Hebrew and English. Guests and congregants are encouraged to hum along during congregational melodies and to participate in the service to the extent that they feel comfortable. If you lose the page, you may quietly ask a neighbor for help (although it is better not to interrupt someone in the middle of a prayer). During the Torah service (described below), the entire congregation is encouraged to follow the reading of the weekly Torah portion in English or Hebrew.

Major Sections of the Shabbat Morning Worship Service

The Shema ("Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One")

This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy and the three passages that follow constitute a central part of each morning and evening Jewish prayer service. Probably the most important single sentence in the liturgy, the Shema is not a prayer but rather an affirmation of the unity of God.

The Amidah ("Standing Prayer")

The Amidah, a series of prayers recited while standing in silent meditation, is the major liturgical piece of every synagogue service throughout the year. On a weekday, the Amidah contains prayers for the physical and spiritual well-being of the one praying as well as of the entire community of the people of Israel; on Shabbat we praise God for the joy of the Shabbat and the rest that we enjoy. It is perfectly acceptable and even desirable that people recite the Amidah in English, and worshippers are also encouraged to pray from their hearts if the printed words do not speak to them.

The Torah Service

Following the Shema and the Amidah is a transition from prayer to study. The primary study text is from the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. This text has been written on the parchment of the Torah scrolls by a specially trained scribe.

The Torah is divided into--and read in--weekly portions, according to a prescribed calendar, so that the entire Torah is read in the span of one year. The cover and accoutrements of the Torah scrolls recall the priestly garb of ancient Temple times, i.e., breastplate, robe, crowns, and belt.

When the Torah scroll is removed from or returned to the ark, it is carried in a procession around the synagogue, accompanied by song, to show the love and reverence in which Jews hold its teachings; in more traditional synagogues, congregants kiss the Torah as it is carried around.

The Torah reader must learn the Torah portion so well that he or she can chant it accurately without relying on punctuation (which is absent from the Torah scroll). The melodies in the prescribed cantillation system facilitate the learning process by providing proper parsing. All guests and participants are encouraged to follow the reading in the English translation in the printed Torah books.

Usually the rabbi, and sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah child or another congregant, delivers a d'var Torah, a word of Torah, that comments on the weekly Torah reading.

The Torah Blessings (Aliyot to the Torah)

On Shabbat, the weekly Torah portion is read in seven divisions. Each division of the reading provides an opportunity to honor a member of the congregation or a guest by calling him or her (just him in traditionalist communities) up to the bimah (pulpit) to recite the blessings over the Torah reading. This is known as "receiving an aliyah," that is, "being called up" to the Torah. The day of the bar/bat mitzvah celebration is when the child is called to the Torah for the first time to recite these blessings.

At the conclusion of the Torah reading, two people are called to lift up and wrap the Torah scroll. The lifting displays the open Torah scroll to the congregation, showing symbolically that the Torah is an open book and belongs to everyone.

The Haftarah

Once the Torah scroll has been removed from the reading table, another person--usually the bar/bat mitzvah child--chants a portion from the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible. The haftarah (which means, "concluding teaching") is usually chosen to reflect a theme or literary allusion in the Torah portion. The purpose of the haftarah is not only to provide an opportunity to teach from a different section of the Bible, but also to assert that prophecy serves to reinforce the laws of the Torah.

Mourner's Kaddish

Although there is no mention of death in this prayer, the Kaddish is recited at the end of all worship services by family members who have lost a loved one in the past year or who are observing the anniversary of a death in years past. Despite sorrow and pain, the mourner rises to declare continuing commitment in praising God's name, to which we all respond, "Amen."

Kiddush (Sanctification of the Wine)

At the conclusion of the worship service, everyone is often invited to the social hall for kiddush, the blessing over the wine; a Shabbat song; and the ha-motzi, the blessing over the bread. Then everyone is invited to enjoy a festive light luncheon.

Unique Features in a Jewish Sanctuary

The following are architectural or symbolic objects that you may notice in a synagogue:

The Pews (Congregational Seating)

Everyone, Jew or gentile, is invited to enter and attend services. Sit wherever you like.

The Bimah (Pulpit)

Bimah literally means "high place". The bimah is the focus of most ritual activities in the synagogue.

The Ark (Aron Hakodesh)

The ark is the repository of the Torah scrolls and is the central object on the bimah. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

The Eternal Light (Ner Tamid)

Hanging from the top of the ark is an electric light that is never extinguished. This "eternal light" symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  


Many synagogues have a candelabra on the bimah to commemorate the seven-branched gold candelabra that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and was lit each night to provide light for the priests during their evening duties.

Memorial Plaques and Lights

It is a Jewish custom to secure a memorial plaque for a departed family member, usually on a wall in the sanctuary. The light next to the memorial plaque is illumined each year during the week of the anniversary of a person's passing.

The Flags

Many American synagogues display two flags in the sanctuary, an American and an Israeli flag. The Israeli flag, adopted at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, represents the entire Jewish people. In the center is the six-sided star traditionally associated with the Jewish people, and the blue stripes above and below the star represent the stripes of the tallit. The Jewish tradition also requires Jews to be loyal to the country in which they live and to pray for its welfare, hence the American flag, representing the loyalty of the American Jewish community.

Participants in the Service

The Rabbi

"Rabbi" means teacher. The major function of a rabbi is to instruct and guide in the study and practice of Judaism. A rabbi's authority is based solely on learning.

The Cantor

A cantor has undergone years of study and training in liturgy and sacred music; the cantor leads the congregation in Hebrew prayer.

The "Emissary of the Congregation" (Shaliach Tzibbur)

The shaliach tzibbur is the leader of congregational prayers, be it the cantor or another congregant. Every Jewish prayer service, whether on a weekday, Shabbat, or festival, is chanted in a special musical mode and pattern. The shaliach tzibbur must be skilled in these traditional musical modes and familiar with the prayers. Any member of the congregation above the age of bar/bat mitzvah who is familiar with the prayers and melodies may serve as shaliach tzibbur.

The Gabbai

The gabbai, or sexton, attends to the details of organizing the worship service. The gabbai finds a shaliach tzibbur, assigns aliyot, and ensures that the Torah is read correctly.

The Laity

Members of the congregation may participate in all synagogue functions and leadership roles. Any knowledgeable Jew is permitted and encouraged to lead the prayers, receive an aliyah, read from the Torah, and chant the haftarah.

Bar/ Bat Mitzvah

At 13, a young Jewish man or woman becomes obligated to observe the commandments of Judaism; "bar/bat mitzvah" literally means "son/daughter of the commandments." The celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah signifies that the young man or woman is beginning and will continue to function as an active and responsible Jew in the synagogue and in the wider Jewish community.

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.