Author Archives: Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

About Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the Senior Rabbi of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York; the Co-chair of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.

Today’s Lavish Feasts Derive from Meals with Sacred Status

While some Bar or Bat Mitzvah candidates spend many hours preparing for their ceremony, the party afterward can take on a life of its own. This tension has been portrayed in popular culture through films like Keeping up With the Steins. After reading the following article, consider watching the film with your child and discussing your vision for the Bar/Bat MItzvah party.

Reprinted from Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights Publishing).

The bar and bat mitzvah party has been much criticized over the years, and for good reason. Yet most Jews do not know that the party is an integral part of the bar and bat mitzvah ritual. The first mention of the bar mitzvah party is in the Shulhan Arukh (the classic 16th-century code of Jewish law), “It is the religious obligation of the father to tender a festive meal in honor of his son’s becoming bar mitzvah, just as he might do when the boy marries.” 

A Long Tradition

From a halakhic (Jewish legal) point of view, then, the party has a proud lineage. But references to bar mitzvah parties go back even further. Scholars have a field day in locating the genuine seed of the custom.

Photo courtesy of Party Perfect Orlando

Some say it goes back to Isaac’s weaning. Genesis 21:8 says Abraham threw a feast to celebrate that event. One ancient source suggested that Isaac was weaned at the age of 13 (Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah 53:10)! Therefore, the party, and, therefore, the connection to the age of 13.

Elsewhere, the midrash [interpretive tradition] suggests that Abraham regretted that he had rejoiced and made others rejoice at the feast for Isaac, yet did not make an offering to God. God said to him, “I know that even if I commanded you to offer your only son to Me, you would not refuse” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:4). This midrash teaches that the binding of Isaac was God’s way of showing Abraham that he had not lost the capacity to make an offering to God.

Some say the tradition of the bar mitzvah party goes back to Rabbi Yosef in the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a). Rabbi Yosef was blind. In Jewish law, the blind were exempt from doing mitzvot (commandments). But Rabbi Yosef realized that he was already doing the mitzvot. Why not get “credit” for doing so? He wanted to change his status from someone who didn’t have to do the mitzvot to someone who had to do the mitzvot.

The Personal is Communal

Reprinted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).

I have two calendars on my desk. The first one is a Day Timer, a thick, loose-leaf volume that details my existence into the foreseeable future. The second, sitting next to its leather-bound colleague, is a Jewish calendar, detailing Hebrew dates, dates of festivals, candle lighting times, and Torah portions. I travel back and forth between those two calendars. One tells me about my life, and the other tells me how to live that life—the story and meaning that makes the days that are detailed in the Day Timer into days of value and substance. 

Truth be told, Judaism also has two calendars—the public and the personal. The public Jewish calendar is the festival cycle. It chronicles the story of the Jewish people, our encounter with God, with nature, with history, and with ourselves. It contains moments of joy, of introspection, of gratitude, of serious contemplation of the Jewish past and future, of anger, and of sorrow. We celebrate those moments both in the privacy of our homes and in the public realm of the synagogue and the community.

communal jewish eventsThe private Jewish calendar is the lifecycle—birth, maturity, marriage, and death. We celebrate those moments in the public realm and in the private realm—both in family contexts and with other Jews in community (which deepens and enriches and contextualizes those celebrations).

But note: There has been an interesting and significant shift in the way that Jews live their lives. With the exception of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which remind us of the patterns of life and our own fragility), the spirituality of most modern Jews has usually shifted from the festival calendar to the life cycle—from the public to the private.

When Jews tell the stories of their lives, when the talk about the moments of holiness and transcendence, the stories they tell, invariably, are of brit milah [circumcision ceremony], baby namings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, and funerals. Those are the times when we awaken from our spiritual slumber and realize that there is a God in the world.