Party Jewish Style:
Food, Music, and More
by Rivka C. Berman
• Party Planning
• Why Party
• Historic Overspending
• People of the Book
• Tzedaka Centerpieces
A bar or bat mitzvah meal is a seudat mitzvah, a mitzvah meal, and every
effort should be made to ensure the meal meets the highest kosher standards.
Sensibly plan a party that keeps the bat or bar mitzvah’s meaning intact.
There are Sweet Sixteens and other teen years birthdays to celebrate what it
means to be a teenager. The bar and bat mitzvah are distinguished by their focus
on what it means to be a Jew.
Judaism does not regard physical pleasure as a contradiction to spiritual
growth. Food, music, dance and good times are a part of Judaism. The trick is to
plan the party – and life – to reflect the purity of the Jewish soul that
strives ever upward.
Around the 16th century celebrating a bar mitzvah became a standard Jewish
rite of passage celebration. At that time, Rabbi Solomon Luria, a well-respected
Torah authority, wrote that a bar mitzvah party’s seudat mitzvah, mitzvah meal,
is on the lofty spiritual level of a marriage ceremony and deserved a
celebration befitting this spiritually auspicious occasion.
Rabbi Yehudah Prero, a Project Genesis rabbi, authored a fascinating examination
of the Torah reasoning behind the bar mitzvah party. In the Gemara (Bava Kamma
87a) the rabbis agree that the blind are obligated to observe mitzvot. Rabbi
Yehuda disagrees. Upon hearing this, the blind Rabbi Yosef rejoiced, because he
reasoned if he did mitzvot even though he didn’t have to then he earned
spiritual extra credit. Rabbi Yosef changed his mind upon hearing the Jewish
legal axiom: “Greater is the one who is commanded to do mitzvot and does them
than one who does what he’s not obligated.” Knowing this, Rabbi Yosef exclaimed
“I will make a celebration for the rabbis if someone can find a source that
obligates blind people to do mitzvot.”
The Maharshal, Moreinu Rav Shlomo Luria (1510-1573) author of the Talmudic work
Yam Shel Shlomo, points out Rabbi Yosef’s true obligation to fulfill mitzvot had
truly begun with his bar mitzvah birthday yet he wanted to throw a party for
finding a basis for his obligation. How much greater then is the cause for
celebration when a person actually enters this obligation.
Furthermore bar and bat mitzvah parties celebrate the person a child has been
and is becoming. Babies and small children have their parents’ identities and
goals foisted upon them, and there’s no telling how much each child will accept
or reject. By the time the bat mitzvah year is reached, personality, integrity,
humor, likes, loves and hates have begun to take shape – and (we hope) the
adulthood a child is growing into is reason to rejoice.
Bar mitzvah parties have grown in importance for several reasons. People tend to
get married and have children at later ages than the generations before. This
lessens the chance that earlier generations will live to see a grandchild’s
wedding. Bat mitzvahs, then, become a way to really savor the good times, when
everyone can still be together.
More influential than that touching sentiment is the pressure parents feel to
give their children a party that is on par with the rest of the community – or
outshines it. Hand-engraved invitations are a way for parents to show they are
financially successful. Hiring the “right” caterer can be one way to display
To this, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), the renowned halachic authority who
lived in New York wrote: “If I had the power, I would annul the bar mitzvah
ceremony as it is observed in our country because it is known that this ceremony
has not brought anyone closer to the Torah and mitzvot – not even the boy
himself, not even for one hour. On the contrary, in many places it brings
[participants] to desecrate the Shabbos and other transgressions.” (Orach Chaim,
Section I, Chapter 104)
Kids feel the pressure too. Adolescence is distinguished by the dominance of a
looming behemoth – peer pressure. This force demands regular feedings of what
everyone else does, has or wears. Great strength is needed to create a bat
mitzvah that does not completely bow to the routine of personalized party favors
and balloon arches. There isn’t anything wrong with these things, per se, but it
takes effort to not get lost in materialism without meaning.
Extravagance is not a modern problem. When Jewish communal authorities held
greater sway, they legislated sumptuary laws to limit bar mitzvah celebrations.
In 1595, Polish rabbis placed a communal tax on bar mitzvah parties. A portion
of the celebration budget had to be donated to the community. Reducing party
expenditures was the goal. Apparently, this didn’t work because in 1659 a new
law was enacted to regulate party size. Aside from family members, only ten
friends were to be invited to the bar mitzvah feast. One of the ten had to be a
Before the bar mitzvah experience hit full stride in the prosperous 1950’s, a
celebration was likely to be quite simple. A typical Ashkenazic bar mitzvah in
the 1920’s consisted a bit of schnapps, some herring, and maybe some cake after
services. (The Depression played a role in restricting expenditures.) Less was
expected of the bar mitzvah boy as well. It was acceptable for a boy to learn
the Torah blessings for his aliyah and not much else.
Even the DJ. your son wants to hire may be familiar with the funky new takes on
old Jewish songs. Klezmer, rollicking Jewish music, has made a big comeback in
recent years. There is Jewish music beyond “Hava Nagila.”
of the Book Centerpieces
Instead of or in addition to the themed centerpieces, put a stack of new
prayer books on each table. Aside from being a symbol of the study and spiritual
maturity, dedicating books to a synagogue is a nice way to honor the event.
(It’s also exciting to open a siddur and read: “This siddur was dedicated by
Josh and Johanna Cohen in honor of Danielle’s Bat Mitzvah.”) Books with Jewish
subjects – history, law, and literature - can also be used as centerpieces and
later donated to the synagogue’s library.
Use centerpieces to display your commitment to doing good. Build
centerpieces around posters, ads or brochures from charities who will benefit
from the bat mitzvah celebration. On a card describe a donation of time or money
that has been made to the organization (or a pledge based on expected bar
Jewish charities abound. Each one has a different focus and serves a special
need from infant health networks to Jewish teen crisis lines to meals on wheels
for the elderly. Choose organizations with missions that mean the most to you.
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Bar & Bat Mitzvah Services