Defining bar/bat mitzvah terms
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by Shira Nanus August 27, 2008

All through the preparations for a child’s bar or bat mitzvah, straight through the big day, lots of Hebrew words get tossed around as if, of course, everyone understands. For those who are not so sure what some of them mean, here’s a glossary of common terms.

The literal definition of simcha is “joy.” Simcha refers to a special happy occasion in a Jewish life, such as a bar or bat mitzvah, bris, or wedding.

B’nai Mitzvah:
B’nai mitzvah is the plural of bar mitzvah and is the term used to describe the coming of age according to Jewish law. Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means the person is obliged to observe the Jewish commandments, and a ceremony, along with a celebration, takes place to mark this moment.  Jewish tradition designates bar and bat mitzvah age as 13 for a boy and 12 for a girl.  Outside the Orthodox community, bar and bat mitzvah is today celebrated at age 13 by both boys and girls.

Torah has multiple definitions, but here it refers to the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Five Books of Moses. For public reading, the Torah is divided into portions (each portion is called a parasha) and read weekly in Jewish prayer services.

The weekly Torah portion read in synagogue. When children receive their bar or bat mitzvah date, they are assigned a specific parasha. A child often reads from that parasha, and delivers a d’var Torah to the congregation highlighting its major themes.

D’var Torah:
Literally "a word of Torah,” d’var Torah is a speech usually delivered by the rabbi after the Torah service. Often the d’var Torah conveys a life lesson or message supported by the story in the weekly parasha or haftarah. When a child becomes a b’nai mitzvah, he or she delivers the d’var Torah, often tying it into personal experiences.

A selected reading from one of the biblical prophetic books. Traditionally, the haftarah is recited after the Torah reading on the Sabbath or another holy Jewish day, and is usually thematically related to the parasha.

In Jewish tradition, sacred text is customarily chanted rather than simply read, whether for public reading or for study.  Trop is the Yiddish word for the 1,400-year-old system of distinctive marks that function as musical notation and punctuation for the biblical text.  The trop determines the actual tune used by b'nai mitzvah and all other readers for their parasha and haftarah.  As part of their preparation, some b'nai mitzvah learn the names and tunes for each trop marking so they can figure out the cantillation for themselves.

Hebrew for stage, the bimah is the raised location in the sanctuary where the Torah is read. At bar and bat mitzvahs, family members and close friends are often called onto the bimah to assist with the service.

In Hebrew, the word aliyah means “to go up, or ascend.” An aliyah is the act of going up to (or ascending to) the bimah to recite the blessing over the Torah. To receive an aliyah is to be asked to do this. It is considered an honor and is often bestowed upon family members and close friends of the bar or bat mitzvah child. The Torah portion is not read as a whole, but rather is divided into seven sections.  Each section is called an aliyah.

The number of people required to be present for certain prayers to be recited. A minyan consists of 10 Jewish adults, or, for Orthodox Jews, 10 Jewish males. When a child becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, he or she is eligible to be counted in the minyan.

This is the blessing recited over wine on the Jewish Sabbath and other Jewish holy days. Kiddush derives from the Hebrew word “kadosh,” which means “holy.” By saying kiddush, one is proclaiming the holiness of the day.

The blessing recited over bread, which allows the subsequent eating of the meal.  On the Sabbath and other holy days, the festive braided white bread called challah is used.