What a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Guest Needs to Know

This guide explains appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment, and service participants.

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Congratulations! You have been invited to the bar or bat mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. Because this general guide may vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification. 

General Expectations for Synagogue Behavior

1.      Dress: Guests at a bar/bat mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes--for men, either a suit or slacks, tie, and jacket, and for women, a dress or formal pantsuit. In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier; women wear hats and are discouraged from wearing pants.

2.      Arrival time: The time listed on the bar/bat mitzvah invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat, or Sabbath, service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service; however, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.

3.      Wearing a prayer shawl: The tallit, or prayer shawl, is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish women as well. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it, whether you are not Jewish or you're simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.

4.      Wearing a head covering: A kippah, or head covering (called ayarmulke in Yiddish), is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by women in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a non-denominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women may wear hats or a lace head covering.

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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.