Although many bar mitzvah guests at the synagogue and reception will be members of the Jewish community, non-Jewish people will also be invited. If you have been invited to a bar mitzvah but don't know what to expect or what is expected of you, you'll want to know some basic etiquette before attending the service and reception.
Receiving the Invitation
Try to respond to the invitation as soon as you receive it. Bar mitzvahs are complex celebrations and, like a wedding, require a lot of time and planning. It is polite to respond to the invitation as soon as possible so the host family can plan accordingly.
What to Wear
Bar mitzvahs are typically a formal affair. The bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and guests are expected to dress accordingly. If you in are in doubt about what to wear, consider wearing clothes that would be appropriate for a wedding.
The bar mitzvah will take place in synagog and guests should wear appropriate attire. Males should wear a suit or dress pants, shirt and tie. In traditional Jewish communities, male guests, even non-Jewish attendees may be asked to wear a yarmulke (also known as a kippah), or small skullcap, while in the synagogue. The host family will provide brand new yarmulkes for guests if they are needed.
Female attendees should wear dresses or pantsuits. If the ceremony is within a particularly traditional community, women may not feel comfortable wearing pants, but may want to add some dressy accessories such as a beautiful hat. Make sure your clothing is modest and avoid wearing clothing with bare shoulders, cleavage and high skirt slits. The women, particularly those who are married, at the service may wear a head covering. If this covering, which is typically a scarf or hat and is usually simply referred to as "a head covering" is required, it will likely be provided for you. Look for a basket full of what looks like round lace doilies, which is usually placed next to the mens' yarmulkes. Women pin them onto the back of their heads with pins. They're usually placed right next to the yarmulkes.
An usher may offer women a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, when you arrive. It is your option to accept or decline it, for any reason, including your own comfort level.
The reception that follows the service may include a cocktail party and be a black tie affair, or might be more casual. If the invitation doesn't give you a clue, you should contact the honoree's parents for clarification. If the service is in the morning and the reception in the evening, plan to change clothes between the two events.
What to Expect at the Service
The service is the main event of the celebration and is what is most feared by non-Jewish people who don't know what to expect. This will give you an idea of what to expect.
Be sure to arrive on time for the service, just as you would for any other formal occasion. Silence cell phones and other devices. It is considered very rude to play with your phone, talk or text during the service. Many traditional communities would prefer if guests simply left these modern devices at home.
When entering the synagog, someone may say "Shabbat shalom!" which is the traditional greeting for Sabbath day. The term is translated as "Sabbath of Peace!", according to Coffee Shop Rabbi. Guests should respond by repeating the greeting or they can respond by saying "Shalom!"
"Mazal tov!" is an appropriate term to use any time you wish to congratulate someone in the Jewish community, including the honored boy and possibly his parents.
In most synagogues guests are allowed to sit wherever they please, but in more traditional congregations, men and women may be seated in separate areas which may or may not have a physical barrier between them.
Traditions and Responses
The honoree may lead the service and will likely read in Hebrew from the Torah Scroll. There will also be blessings given by the rabbi and the family will give short speeches. There will likely be other readings too.
There will be times of sitting and listening and times to respond. Watch the rest of the congregation to know how to react. It's likely that the rabbi will indicate when to stand and when to be seated.
In some congregations, guests will throw candy at the bar mitzvah boy after the Haftarah reading. This represents the transition from childhood to adulthood. Children are invited to come up to the bima, a raised platform with a reading desk, to gather the candy. Candy is distributed prior to the service and be sure not to eat it prior to this part of this service and throw the candy with care. Though it is likely to be soft candy, you want to be careful not to hurt the honoree. According to the book The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times by Ivan G. Marcus (page 118), this tradition is likely derived from an ancient wedding tradition.
The party following a bar mitzvah, which may be referred to as the seudat mitzvah, may be a very simple gathering or a very elaborate affair and is likely to include a meal, DJ, dancing, and plenty of traditions. Normally children will sit separately from the adults at the reception. Each party will be as unique as the honoree and his family, but there are certain things that you might expect.
At the beginning of the reception, a rabbi will give ha-motzi (a traditional Jewish blessing) over a loaf of braided egg bread known as challah which will be served at the reception. A respected family member, such as a father or grandfather, may do the blessing instead of a rabbi. Guests should be respectful and listen to this ceremony and will be invited to eat the bread after the blessing. This marks the beginning of the party and will be followed by other traditions.
After the family of the honoree has been introduced by the master of ceremony, the candle lighting ceremony will begin. Honored guests, starting with the family, may be introduced and invited to light a candle on the birthday cake or to light larger candles on a table. There will be thirteen candles, one for each year of the child's life. There might be a fourteenth candle which signifies "one to grow on." According to Doctor Simcha, an online bar mitzvah planning website, a different song will be played for each person who lights a candle. Each candle may be lit in remembrence or to honor a loved-one who can't be there at the ceremony. Guests are not obligated to participate, only watch this ceremony.
Gift giving is expected at bar mitzvahs and are typically presented at the reception. Money is always an appropriate gift to give at a bar mitzvah. Sometimes guests give money in increments of $18 ($36, $54, and so forth) because that number represents both a blessing and the Jewish symbol for "life", according to Chabad.org. Parents and close family members usually give the honoree traditional Judaic gifts, but guests can also give these types of gifts. Examples include Sabbath candlesticks or a Hanukah menorah. Other possible gifts include electronics and special requests from boy himself.
As with most parties, dancing is a main activity. Here are some traditional moments you should expect to see.
- Hora - The DJ will invite all the guests to enter the dance floor for the hora circle dance. The traditional dance is fast paced and full of joy. Attendees will dance in a circle and hold hands while the honoree and his parents are lifted up in the center of the circle while sitting in chairs.
- Son and mother dance - The bar mitzvah guest and his mother will have a traditional dance which is typically a tender and memorable part of the evening.
It is easy to be intimidated by new experiences, especially when it involves a life-event with social and religious significance, such as a bar mitzvah. But the main thing to keep in mind is to use common sense, common courtesy and to relax and savor the moment. The reason you are in attendance is to honor a special person.