Judaism, much more perhaps than other religious traditions, is practiced at least as much in the private sphere as in the public domain. Unquestionably, our tradition places significant emphasis on “public prayer,” by which we mean that there is a higher value to prayer in the context of a Minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults, than on prayer practiced privately at home alone. Public prayer is perhaps the quintessential raison d’être for the synagogue. All the other functions of the synagogue, such as being a Beit Midrash, a place that fosters studying Jewish texts, and such as being a Beit Kenesset, a place that provides space for communal and social activities like weddings, B’nai Mitzvah and yes, even Super Bowl parties, are all ancillary to the prime function of the synagogue as a Beit Tefillah, a place designed to permit the community to gather for public prayer.
A synagogue that maintains a daily Minyan, twice daily, seven days a week, 365 days a year, shines with an extra glow. The men and women who commit to attend a daily Minyan, whether they commit to participate daily, weekly, or just when they are observing a Yahrzeit, contribute enormously to ensuring that we, at Shaare Zion, never lose sight of our congregation’s true raison d’être, public prayer. By the same token, the Minyan does not exist for the sole purpose of allowing mourners to recite Kaddish. Mourners’ Kaddish is only one dimension of public prayer, but the Minyan exists and needs to exist to ensure that public prayer, communal prayer, never disappears, even if no one is saying Kaddish and no one is observing a Yahrzeit. Public prayer, communal prayer, is a reason in and of itself, a reason that requires no further justification to justify its inherent legitimacy and necessity.
Many more dimensions of Judaism, however, are practiced in the private sphere. As lovely as an occasional communal Shabbat dinner is, experiencing Shabbat dinner at home with children, grandchildren, siblings and close friends, with Shabbat candles on the table, with an heirloom Kiddush cup filled with wine, with fresh-baked warm Hallot and Shabbat recipes, both ancient and modern, has a caché that cannot easily be expressed in words.
The same is true of the Passover Seder. Large or small, the family Seder at home, using wine-stained Haggadot and wine-stained table cloths, recipes for Haroset, matza balls and roast beef that go back three or four generations, is the hallmark home Jewish celebration and festival when children and grandchildren all return to Montreal from their far-flung homes across Canada and the United States.
From biblical times on, the essence of the Seder has been a family-based event. Already in Egypt, even before the Exodus, God instructs Moses to prepare the Israelites for their departure from Egypt. On the tenth day of Nisan, fully five days before the Exodus, “each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb for each household.” The Passover lamb was to be slaughtered, its blood placed on the doorposts of each Israelite home. Then the lamb would be roasted and eaten, household by household, with Matzah and bitter herbs. That family celebration, called Pesah Mitzrayim, the Passover of Egypt, became the foundation of our own Pesah Seder as a home-based, family celebration.
Not all celebrations are meant to be private. Certainly that is true of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations. Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrates a child’s initiation into the adult Jewish community. Becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah fundamentally means that a thirteen-year old boy and a twelve-year old girl become responsible for their own religious behavior. Becoming responsible for personal religious obligations also brings privileges. In the public square, attaining the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah brings with it the privilege of being called to the Torah for an Aliyah and counting to the quorum of ten adults who make-up the Minyan that allows for public prayer. To mark this transition into adult privilege and responsibility, Jewish tradition encouraged a public celebration.
That celebration has morphed over the centuries, depending on social and economic circumstances, from a modest event with a Kiddush of cake, herring and schnapps to the galas that many of us have attended over the past half century. But common to all was that the Bar Mitzvah boy (and now the Bat Mitzvah girl) read from the Torah and demonstrate to the community to which they are now becoming an integral part, their knowledge of Torah and their competence in the skill set required to be an active participant. In the world of pre-war Eastern Europe, which has now been transferred to the Yeshivot of Israel and North America, the Bar Mitzvah boy was and still is expected to prepare and deliver a Pilpul, a sophisticated discussion on an intricate passage from the Talmud, utilizing the commentaries and insights of the leading rabbinic thinkers of the past millennium. In our congregation and in others like ours, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah boy or girl is expected to show more than a passing understanding of the weekly Torah portion and to be able to explain an aspect of its applicability to modern, contemporary society in general and Jews in particular.
Over the past decade, more and more families are asking me and my colleagues across Canada and throughout North America to arrange separate services for their children’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The reasons vary from household to household and in isolation, almost all of these reasons make sense. But by the same token, each of these exceptions result in the privatization of what once was a public celebration of a boy or girl joining the larger, adult Jewish community. As a result only family and close friends participate in the celebration and as a consequence, neither the parents nor the child become engaged with the religious community into which the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child is now ostensibly being welcomed as a full member. This year, only one third of our B’nai Mitzvah are being celebrated on Shabbat morning. This year, only one in three B’nai Mitzvah will be welcomed into the synagogue by its community of men and women who attend shul regularly. The private celebration of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah means that the community does not have the privilege of seeing and hearing the child and the child and his/her family miss the chance to appreciate the community of worshippers whose weekly presence actualizes our raison d’être as a synagogue.
Over the next decade, many young Shaare Zion families will be planning a Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration. The synagogue community wants to celebrate these Simhas with you. Shabbat morning is the time our synagogue community is most present. Pesah Seders and Friday-night Shabbat dinners are the ideal occasions for celebrating in the private sphere. Let’s now think harder about bringing the celebration of Bar and Bat Mitzvah back into the public square by celebrating together with the synagogue community on a Shabbat morning.
Hag Kasher v’Same-ah
Rabbi Lionel Moses