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It’s time to re-think how we “do” a Bar Mitzva

Pressuring bar mitzvah boys to read a full Torah portion may come at the expense of teaching them its meaning

I have been teaching Bar Mitzva lessons for over forty years. As with all other areas of instruction, I love teaching; I love education. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what is the “common” way in many Orthodox circles as to how a Bar Mitzva is celebrated. I am not referring to the celebratory parties. I am talking about the “ritual” aspect of the celebration.

If you go back about sixty years ago, in general, a boy who turned 13 would “celebrate” in one of a couple of ways. Either, he would be called up to the Torah or he might have learned how to read a very short portion of the Parashat Shavua and the Haftara that comes after the Torah reading. That was it…that was how the “boy” became a “man.”

At some point (exactly when I can not say) it became more common that a boy would read not only a small ending portion of the weekly Torah reading but rather, he would learn to read the ENTIRE Parasha of the week.

I think we need to do a little thinking in the public sphere about this development. Yes, on the one hand it is important that every young man learn the skill of Torah reading and the reading of the Haftara, so that if he ever decides he wishes to do it on a part time or full time basis, he will have been given the skill. Or, when the gabbai of a synagogue walks over to ask if he would be willing that week to read the Haftara, he will not be the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights, and will be able to answer in the affirmative.

However, is it really necessary to place the pressure on kids to read an entire Torah portion at this point in their lives? I have instructed every Bar Mitzva boy that I have taught that he will read as much as he is able to do well…I personally never placed pressure on the kids. USUALLY the family agrees with me. There are times though, when a family “insists” that their son not be the one who reads “only” a part of his Torah portion. This places undue stress and pressure on a twelve/thirteen year old boy.

Then, there are the (literally) hundreds of hours of lessons and time spent practicing the material. Since in MOST cases, the young boy, when he becomes a young man, will NOT end up being a weekly Torah reader, he just spent ALL that time; the family just spent all that money; and the boy just suffered through all that pressure, for….for…for what exactly? Because David who lives down the street and is in Adi’s class and since HE read the entire Parasha, then Adi must also?

Perhaps the time has come to say enough is enough and roll back to how things were not that long ago. Yes, indeed teach the skill and have the child read the final part of the Torah portion and the Haftara. But, unless the child expresses his own personal desire to read the entire portion, let’s develop a new model.

This new model can still make use of his Bar Mitzva portion, but in a different way. There are a number of “classic” commentators on each weekly Parasha. Anyone from Rashi and Ramban to Seforno and Ibn Ezra (by the way it is IBN and NOT EVEN Ezra!). I would like to suggest that during the run up to a boy’s Bar Mitzva that he learn with a teacher ALL of the commentaries on his Parasha and understand at least that Parasha in great depth. In addition, a skilled teacher can not only explain and teach the young man all of the commentaries but also the differences in style between the commentators…AND WHO THEY WERE!

That approach will provide a student with a skill set that will indeed impact the rest of his life in the way he will approach learning Torah and the weekly Torah portion.

So, let’s reduce the stress, use the time more wisely and give the young boy a more relevant set of skills.

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.
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