The Parents' Role in a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service

Traditionally, the father recited one blessing during the service, but today, parents are often much more involved.

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In a strictly traditional bar mitzvah celebration, the role of the bar mitzvah boy's parents (usually, just the father) during the worship service is to recite a blessing, baruch she-p'tarani, declaring the child to be liable for his or her own actions, according to Jewish law. (In traditional circles, girls do not participate ritually in the service and hence do not usually receive this blessing.) In liberal synagogues, parents often say only the shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for being alive to celebrate the occasion, and some are taking on new roles, like presenting a tallit (ritual prayer shawl) to their child and leading parts of the service.

The Father Traditionally Recited a Single Blessing

The baruch she-p'tarani blessing reads, "Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe who has excused me (from being liable) for this one (meaning, the child)." The blessing was traditionally recited by the father, and today is said by both parents in some liberal synagogues. The blessing has two forms, one that mentions God's name and one that does not. Although this seems like a rather strange and perplexing blessing for parents at their child's coming of age ceremony, it is entirely consistent with the spiritual significance of the event.

In traditional Judaism, children younger than bar/bat mitzvah age are exempt from the spiritual obligations of observing the Jewish mitzvot, or commandments. This means that children are not required to fast on Yom Kippur, observe Shabbat (Sabbath) prohibitions, or perform other religious rituals, although in actuality children are slowly educated about the commandments and inculcated into their eventual observance.
 
When children attain their Jewish legal majority, or adult status (at age 12 for a girl and 13 for a boy), they become legally and morally responsible for their own actions and religious observances in the eyes of God. At the same time, the parents are no longer responsible for any sins committed by the child. When parents recite baruch she-p'tarani, they are publicly declaring their children to be both ritually and legally responsible adults in the Jewish tradition.
 
For some rabbis in the liberal movements, the concept of religious liability no longer resonates, and they have chosen to omit this blessing. Yet others are either encouraging its use or offering it as an option. These rabbis are re-visioning the meaning of the blessing in a more modern context--as symbolizing a new stage in the child's life and in the parent-child relationship. It is a form of "letting go," in which children are becoming their own persons and must make their own moral judgments. To make the blessing more palatable to the modern ear, some of these rabbis have developed kavvanot (spiritual preparations) to introduce it or new translations of the blessing itself.
 
In the liberal movements, most parents recite the shehecheyanu, which reads, "Praised are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has kept us in life, sustained us, and brought us to this day." In fact, Jews recite this blessing at every momentous occasion and holiday, thanking God for the privilege of being alive to celebrate the event. Because of the joyous nature of this blessing, it is a significant moment in many bar/bat mitzvah celebrations in synagogues around the world.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.