How Great Was Your Bar Mitzvah?

“When was your barmitzvah?” “What was your barmitzvah sidra?” These are questions which occasionally Jewish men ask one another. In some coded way, we compare notes. “My sidra was Yitro” (This is nearly always said with a feeling of great pride — as if the reading of the Ten Commandments within that portion elevated his special day.) “My sidra was Shemini.” (All the accent here is on the word ‘my’, as if having a barmitzvah on that day meant taking ownership of that particular Torah portion for all time.) “Mine was Beshallach.” A moment of silence and deep respect, not to mention a little pity, in the knowledge that this person had to wade through some 52 verses to complete the longest Haftorah of the entire year. And so it goes on – everyone has their own story.

I recall once explaining to a non-Jewish musician, who was often hired to play and sing at our simchas on Sydney’s North Shore, how a bar mitzvah date is calculated. He gave me his date of birth, and after consulting with the Jewish calendar found in Volume 1 of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, I told him that if he would have been Jewish his sidra would have been Vayyigash. He told me some months later that an Eastern Suburbs Hungarian Jewess who had never met him before, approached him and complimented him on the way he was singing the Jewish and Israeli songs. “Is it true what they say, you are not even Jewish?” He replied in an instant, “What do you mean, not Jewish, my bar mitzvah sidra is Vayyigash!”

It is strange how a bar mitzvah always falls on Shabbat Hagadol. There are 52 weeks in the year; 54 sidrot – Shabbat Bereishit, Shabbat Shirah, Shabbat Nachamu and Shabbat Shuvah to name but a few – yet, it seems to me that all Barmitzvahs fall on Shabbat Hagadol! This, I admit, is a strange thing to say, since Shabbat Hagadol is in fact the Shabbat before Pesach and clearly we do have boys becoming bar mitzvah at other times of the year. The ‘Spring’ festival of Pesach holds no monopoly on bar mitzvahs. I myself became bar mitzvah a couple of weeks before Chanukah and my two sons celebrated their bar mitzvahs in May — the warm summer of Britain, and in November, the slightly warmer summer of Australia! So what do I mean when I say that every bar mitzvah falls on Shabbat Hagadol?

Throughout the year when a bar mitzvah boy is called to the Torah for the first time, we should, without reservation, name that day, Shabbat Hagadol — the Shabbat of the Gadol, the Shabbat of Adulthood. I could give you dozens of reasons why the Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol, but for me the real reason is simple enough: When this particular Shabbat ends, the week of Pesach is upon us — the excitement, anticipation and thrill of this unique festival beckons and the dawn of our nationhood is about to be re-lived.

This Shabbat is therefore not just a ‘great’ Shabbat, it is the ‘greatest’ Shabbat. It reminds us of how our people went from being a katan (a minor) to a gadol (an adult) in the eyes of God and man. It was as if Israel turned from pre- to post-bar mitzvah when they were freed from slavery and released from Egypt. After all, before Pesach there were no mitzvot; God had, as yet, given us no commandments. And the reason is obvious: How could a slave find the time to keep Shabbat, daven regularly, wear Tefillin, or go looking for kosher food? Every mitzvah requires time, even before the requirements of knowledge, effort and concentration. It was the one thing that a slave did not have.

In a similar way, the Shabbat a boy becomes bar mitzvah is not just a ‘great’ Shabbat, not just a big day for presents and acclamation, for family gatherings and lengthy speeches, it is in fact the ‘greatest’ Shabbat. It symbolises for us how he has changed from being a katan (a minor) to a gadol (an adult) in the eyes of God and man. It is as if our bar mitzvah boy has suddenly been redeemed and released from many other concerns to concentrate on growing up as a practising, knowledgeable and proud Jew. For from this moment on, a young person is able to join the ranks of Jews, past and present, whose lives have been governed by the commandments and whose main objective in life has been to observe, to the best of their ability, the mitzvot found in the Torah.

Throughout the year when a bar mitzvah boy is called to the Torah for the first time, we should, without reservation, name that day, Shabbat Hagadol — the Shabbat of the Gadol, the Shabbat of Adulthood.

We have many reasons for celebrating this particular rite of passage: it draws families closer together, it makes the minyan more of a possibility within the kehillah and it demonstrates a young man’s ability to learn and display new skills. But above all, it is as important to us as the day when another adult Jew joins our ranks. After a century when we have lost so many, every Jewish child who reaches the age of majority is to be blessed and welcomed with a full heart and with immense joy.

The above article is by Rabbi David Freedman who was formerly rabbi of Kehillat Masada (St Ives) and now serves at Central Synagogue (Bondi Junction).

This article republished thanks to the Australian Jewish News.

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