Etiquette for a Bar Mitzvah for a Non-Jew

by Stephanie Mitchell
The bar mitzvah ceremony is a religious service.

The bar mitzvah ceremony is a religious service.

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A non-Jewish child can grow up with any number of Jewish friends and never visit a synagogue or learn the first thing about Judaism -- until sixth or seventh grade. At that age, he's likely to find himself invited to their coming-of-age ceremonies, called bar or bat mitzvahs. However unfamiliar a Jewish service may feel, the basic etiquette is the same as for any other place of worship, though some details are specific to Judaism.

Dress

At most synagogues, the basic dress code is similar to what it would be at a church -- dress pants and a button-down shirt or a suit for men, and a dress, skirt or nice slacks for women. Because of Judaism's modesty laws, women and girls should cover their shoulders in synagogue; more religious congregations may expect girls to cover their arms and legs as well. Men in synagogue wear head coverings and prayer shawls or tallit. For a non-Jewish guest, it's polite to wear the head covering but not necessary to wear the shawl.

Behavior

Depending on the congregation's denomination, Jewish services can run anywhere from one hour to three or four. Jews and non-Jews alike should be quiet and respectful throughout the service. Turn off your phone and don't take any pictures; traditionally, Jews aren't allowed to use electronic devices on the Sabbath, so using yours would be bad manners. If you need to leave the sanctuary during the service, it's all right to do so, as long as the ark -- the cabinet that contains the Torah scrolls -- is closed. Leave and re-enter the room without drawing attention to yourself.

Religious Customs

Jews understand that non-Jews are unfamiliar with their customs and prayers, and they don't expect you to be able to follow along perfectly. You don't need to recite any of the prayers, in Hebrew or in English, or to bow when the congregation bows. However, it is polite to stand and sit when everyone else does. Putting the prayer book, called the sedor, or the book of holy readings, called the chumash, on the floor is considered disrespectful to the text and the tradition, so keep the books on your lap or on an empty seat in your row when you aren't using them.

Gift-Giving

Just like with any other gifting occasion, the type and value of the present you should give to a bar mitzvah celebrant depends on your relationship with him. If you're not sure what to get for your friend, a cash gift of $18 or some multiple of $18 is always appropriate. The number 18 has spiritual significance in the Jewish tradition and represents the concept of life. However, Jews aren't supposed to handle money on the Sabbath; if the bar mitzvah reception is happening in the evening, after the Sabbath has ended, bring your gift to the party instead of to the service.

About the Author

Stephanie Mitchell is a professional writer who has authored websites and articles for real estate agents, self-help coaches and casting directors. Mitchell also regularly edits websites, business correspondence, resumes and full-length manuscripts. She graduated from Syracuse University in 2007 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theater.

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