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Party Jewish Style: Food, Music, and More
Orthodox Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

 • Food
 • Party Planning
 • Why Party
 • Historic Overspending
 • Music
 • People of the Book Centerpieces
 • 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.

Party Planning
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.

Why Party?
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 gourmand palettes.

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.

Historic Overspending
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 poor person.

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.”

People 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.

Tzedakah Centerpieces
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 mitzvah booty.)

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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Why are the Bat and Bar Mitzvah Celebrated at Ages Twelve and Thirteen
Post Bar Mitzvah Privileges (When Boy Reaches 13 Years of Age)
Evolution of the Bar Mitzvah over the years
Evolution of the Bat Mitzvah over the years
Is a formal celebration of a Bar MItzvah or Bat MItzvah required by Jewish law?
Settings for the Celebration of a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
Setting a Date for the Celebration of a Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah Services and Ceremonial Rituals at the Synagogue
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - The Tallit: Prayer Shawl
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - The Tefillin, Phylacteries
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - The "Hat"
Getting Ready for the Bar Mitzvah - Reading Hebrew & Torah Reading
Preparation for the Bar Mitzvah Celebrations: Ideas and Alternatives
Beyond Party Plans: Meaningful Projects for the Bar and Bat Mitzvah
The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Service: Instructional Booklets and Schedules
The Bar Mitzvah Blessing Recited by the Boy's Father: Baruch Sh'Ptarani
Memorial Prayers during the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Celebrations
Videography and Photography during Bar Mitzvah Services at the Synagogue
Bar Mitzvah boy and Bat Mitzvah Girl of Divorced Parents.  What to do?
"Honors" during Torah Reading at Synagogue Bar Mitzvah Services
Synagogue Etiquette: What to Wear, How to Conduct Oneself

Party with a Jewish Flavor: Jewish Food, Jewish Music, Jewish Dance, and more
Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah Speeches
Candle Lighting Ceremonies
Charity and Good Deeds: The Bar Mitzvah opportunity for doing something good!

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