What is Bar & Bat Mitzvah?
"Bar Mitzvah" literally means "son of the commandment." "Bar" is "son" in Aramaic. "Mitzvah" is "commandment" in both Hebrew and Aramaic. "Bat" is daughter in Hebrew and Aramaic. Technically, the term refers to the child who is coming of age, and it is more correct to refer to someone as "becoming a bar (or bat) mitzvah." However, the term is commonly used to refer to the ceremony itself, and you are more likely to hear that someone is "having a bar mitzvah."
Under Jewish law, children are not obligated to observe the commandments, although they are encouraged to do so as much as possible to learn the obligations they will have as adults. At the age of 13 (12 for girls), children become obligated to observe the commandments. The bar mitzvah ceremony formally marks the assumption of that obligation, along with the corresponding right to take part in leading religious services, to count in a minyan (the minimum number of people needed to perform certain parts of religious services), to form binding contracts, to testify before religious courts and to marry.
A Jewish boy automatically becomes a bar mitzvah upon reaching the age of 13 years, and a girl upon reaching the age of 12 years. No ceremony is needed to confer these rights and obligations. The popular bar mitzvah ceremony is not required, and does not fulfill any commandment. It is certainly not necessary to have a bar mitzvah in order to be considered a Jew! The bar or bat mitzvah is a relatively modern innovation, not mentioned in the Scriptures nor is it recorded in the Talmud, and the elaborate ceremonies and receptions that are commonplace today were unheard of as recently as a century ago.
In its earliest and most basic form, a bar mitzvah is the celebrant's first aliyah. During Shabbat services on a Saturday shortly after the child's 13th birthday, the celebrant is called up to the Torah to recite a blessing over the weekly reading.
Today, it is common practice for the bar mitzvah celebrant to do much more than just say the blessing. It is most common for the celebrant to learn the entire haftarah portion, including its traditional chant, and recite that. In some congregations, the celebrant reads the entire weekly Torah portion, or leads part of the service, or leads the congregation in certain important prayers. The celebrant is also generally required to make a speech, which traditionally begins with the phrase "Today I am a man." The father traditionally recites a blessing thanking G-D for removing the burden of being responsible for the son's sins (because now the child is old enough to be held responsible for himself).
In modern times, the religious service is followed by a reception (given by the celebrant's parents) that is often as elaborate as a wedding reception.
One of the most common questions is: do you give gifts at a bar or bat mitvah, and if so, what kind of gifts? Yes, gifts are commonly given. They are ordinarily given at the reception, not at the service itself. The bar mitzvah is incorporated into an ordinary Sabbath service, and many of the people present at the service may not be involved in the bar mitzvah.
When in doubt, it never hurts to ask the parents or the Synagogue's rabbi what is customary within the community.
Shalom - Rabbi Gavri'el