Is a Kosher diet a healthier lifestyle or is it really just a mitzvah?
Yes and No.
What these laws did was it effectively standardized the Jewish diet. It made sure that our food was prepared safely and it made sure that contamination of food was low.
1) Separating meat and dairy cuts down on food contamination.
By creating separate storage situations for both meat and dairy, we would never have a situation where ALL of the food went bad. If the meat went bad then we would still have the dairy and vice versa.
Not eating meat and dairy together also cut down on food poisoning. If I eat meat and I'm forced to wait a few hours before I can eat dairy (as to keep it separate from inside my body) then this means I'm not mixing two types of food.
2) Kosher slaughter ensures that meat is "pure."
Kosher Slaughter involves bleeding out the animal before we process it. Most disease is spread through the blood. The flesh inside of the body is sterile for the most part. By separating the blood from the flesh, we ensure the purity of the meat by making sure it will not be tainted.
3) Certain types of Shellfish contain toxins which can kill you or harm you.
The blanket ban on Shellfish ensures that we are never putting ourselves at risk of poisoning. Certain types of shellfish contain toxins which can either harm you or even kill you. Today we can differentiate which shellfish is dangerous and which is safe but we still honor the laws because they were as they were given.
4) Eating animals which only chew their cud ensures we aren't eating the flesh of animals which have inefficient digestive (purification) systems.
Animals which chew their cud have extremely efficient digestive systems. They break down their food efficiently and they do it slowly over a long period of time. This means they have the ability to purify their bodies of toxic materials in a more efficient way.
- The digestive system of the pig is extremely short (around four hours) and doesn't remove toxic materials efficiently. A cow takes about 24 hours to fully digest food which allows it to fully purify materials from its body. This means the meat and fat aren't storing toxic crud we shouldn't be eating.
- Pigs lack a number of sweat glands which other animals have. Sweat glands are part of the purification system of the body. This means pork holds a higher amount of waste material.
A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is an affirmation that someone has reached the age where they are obligated in Mitzvot.
It's definitely never too late to have a ceremony.
So, as long as you are over that age, the ceremony can be done at any time. While it is not required, the ceremony often involves doing a mitzvah that you couldn't do as a child, but that you can do now. This is why most people read from the Torah as part of their ceremony, because a child can't do that. Orthodox synagogues don't let women do this, but if you attend a Conservative or Reform synagogue, you should be allowed to read from the Torah as part of the ceremony if you want to.
If you have the ceremony on a holiday where there is a Megillah reading, another option is to read from the Megillah.
The extravagant bar mitzvah drives me absolutely nuts. Call me old-fashioned, but there's always the tried-and-true classic fountain pen. But since it seems to be an obligatory social custom in some circles....
Obviously Israel Bonds have been a mainstay for a long time. Judaica is a good one: mezuzahs, kiddush cup, seder plate and such. Though seder plate is usually more of a wedding gift than a bar mitzvah.
If the kid is non-Ortho he might not have tefillin. They're kind of pricy (probably starting around $400) so maybe it's for a few families to go in on together.
Not a Jewish gift at all, but I'll tell you the best gift I got: a distant cousin bought me about $200 of shares (split between two companies). The week after, he came over to my house and gave me the 101 on how the stock market works. Taught me to check it every day, keep an eye out for news about the companies and such and make decisions for myself about when to buy and sell. I followed them for over a year, selling one around 2 months and the other around 14 months - a fantastic experience that taught me financial literacy and responsibility.
I also got some lovely candles.
For a bat mitzvah candle sticks are a good bet. They probably won't have their own set and it's a nice thing to have, especially if they're pretty. Even if they don't use them, at some time in their lives they may want to light shabbat candles and some small, portable sized ones of their own is a nice option. Still I have seen some really strange bar/bat mitzvahs, and some of the invitations that get sent can be "interesting," especially some of the more decorative one, the best though had zebra print on it (reformed family).
Many people not familiar with how Judaism works, and there are different things. I have collected a couple of common questions together that people may have, as well as the fitting answers.
- The girl whose bat mitsvah it was read aloud from the Torah for the first time. Why is this a big deal? Can't you just go into any book store and pick up a Torah and read it aloud?
- At the front of the temple were two large stones with Hebrew writing on them. What was written on them? (I guessed the 10 commandments, but my wife doesn't think so.)
- They kept talking about the Arc of the Covenant. I know this is something I've heard about in Christian churches too, but I don't have a clue what it is. My best guess: It's the big cabinet in the front of the temple where they keep the Torah scrolls.
- There were three people performing the ceremony. One was the rabbi. The other two were women who sang a lot. What is the role/job of the women? Are they like rabbi assistants?
- At the end of the ceremony the family at the front ofthe temple had grape juice and some kind of bread. It reminded me Communion in a Catholic church. What does that symbolize in Judaism?
- They handed me a book to follow along in. It was backwards. The cover was on the back. The back was on the front. And you turn the pages from left to right. What was the book and why was it backwards?
- We were in a temple, but the Rabbi told a story about a Tabernacle. What's the difference between a Temple and a Tabernacle?
- People told me I'd have to wear a yarmulke. However, when I went in, I didn't notice any such requirement. I saw that only a few old men had them on. 90% of the men did not. What's the rule for yarmulkes?
- It's cultural. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah used to signify that someone was a legal adult, waaay back when. Children don't lead their communities in prayer; adults do. Your Bar or Bat Mitzvah is your first time standing in front of your community as an "adult" (for given values of adult; depending on the congregation, it does often mean more responsibilities, but they don't exactly expect you to have the rational decision-making capabilities of a 25-year-old). It's a big deal, one that isn't exactly the same as buying a copy of the Torah in a bookstore.
- I'm not sure. Was it inside or outside? Was it by where the rabbi stood, was it given special importance, anything like that? It could be the names of donors to the synagogue or deceased members of the congregation.
- It's written "Ark of the Covenant", also known as the Tabernacle. It's not a temple or building. It was a chest that held the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments when Moses brought them down from Mount Sinai. The reason you may hear about the ark of the covenant is that this weeks Torah portion talks about it. Normally it would be only rarely mentioned in the synagogue, but it is part of the bar mitzvah girls portion. Think of it like the horoscope, except with one portion for each week of the year.
- Again, I'm not sure. It's probable that the singing you heard was recitation of various parts of the service--a lot of the readings are very musical, which makes them less likely to be recognized as readings by first timers. They may have been leading the service just as much as the rabbi was. It depends on how conservative that congregation happens to be. More conservative places don't let women lead and separate the congregation by gender; less conservative places let women lead, let the congregation mix, and sometimes have female rabbis.
- The bread is challah, and it symbolizes the Manna that God made fall from the heavens to feed the hungry Israelites when they were wandering in the desert for 40 years after escaping enslavement by the Egyptians.
You may have noticed that the bread was sweet and rich. It and the wine/grape juice (usually both are provided, wine for adults and grape juice for children, though it varies from place to place) symbolize the sweetness of the coming day of rest, Shabbat. (Shabbat = the Sabbath, starting sundown on Friday and going until sundown on Saturday. It's a day of rest and prayer.)
- It wasn't backwards, it was exactly the way it should have been! While English is written and read from left to right, Hebrew is written and read from right to left. Because of that, the cover direction is "reversed" from an English-speaking perspective. If you'd grown up only reading Hebrew, you'd think English books were backwards instead.
The book was a prayer book. The purpose of it is so that you can follow along with the service. There is typically a weekday version, a Shabbat (Friday evening/Saturday) version, and versions for some holidays since the service varies on those dates. Other than the Torah and Haftarah portions, which change from day to day or week to week, all of the prayers used in the service are in that book, so you can read and follow along. Some prayer books have English translations of the Hebrew text, or a transliteration--that's the Hebrew words written in English letters so you can sound it out without knowing Hebrew.
- Answered above, with 3.
- "Yamika" should actually be spelled yarmulke, which looks a little weird until you realize it's Yiddish. They're also called Kippot (kee-POTE, plural; a single one is called a kippah, pronounced kee-PAH). Technically, Jewish law says a man has to cover his head during prayer, but there's a lot of debate on what exactly that means! Again, this is one that depends on how conservative the synagogue is. In more relaxed places, the people might consider wearing a kippah to be optional; in more conservative ones, you'll be stopped from entering if you don't have one on, or just politely handed one. It sounds like the synagogue you were in was one of those more relaxed ones.
One last thing- if you hear the word synagogue the bat mitsvah is orthodox. And a reform temple, which is different from an orthodox one.
Reform jews use the word temple, orthodox would say synagogue, but there are other differences. Orthodox judaism is very segregated by sex - men and women sit separately, they don't have female rabbis or practice bat mitzvahs, and don't have female Cantors, that is if they have cantors at all.
Reform judaism is traditionally adverse towards strict jewish law which is why you will see few men wearing yarmulkes.
Can your son/daughter get a bar/bat mitzvah without joining a synagogue? Bat mitzvahs are intended to introduce a new young adult to their religious community.
The community part isn't optional.
It really depends on where you live. If there are no other congregations near by with less strict policies, and no unaffiliated rabbis, you may not have another option. But check the Yellow Pages for other congregations in your area. A bat mitzvah with no congregation can be arranged if you find a rabbi who will do it in a loaner space with invitation only guests.
If you live in an area with a fairly high population of Jews, there may be a local Chabad that may be willing to do a Bat Mitzvah if your daughter is halachically Jewish (that is, if her mother/mother's mother is Jewish) even if you're not officially part of their congregation. Chabad is Orthodox, black hat in fact, but at least my old Chabad rabbi in the Austin suburbs tried to be very accommodating to secular families who wanted their kid to have a bar/bat mitzvah without having to commit to community. That's what Chabad's there for--their idea is often exposing Jews to some (Orthodox) Judaism is better than none at all.
This might not be the right option for you, but it might also be exactly what you want.
A lot probably depends on the personality of the Chabad rabbi--some are pretty relaxed, others less so. Otherwise, the rabbi will insist on it including the congregation. And the rules for that are usually that the family join the congregation.
Another option might be flying a rabbi out if you can't find one locally.
In short, if you give your son/daughter a bar/bat mitzvah without giving her the experience of a Jewish community, you end up giving her a rather in complete view of what Judaism is.
Judaism is not generally something you can do alone.
And a bar/bat mitzvah traditional is also not just a party, but your entrance as a full member of the community. Again, that might not affect your thinking, but I'd feel remiss if I didn't point it out. I grew up in a Humanistic Jewish community, which is a Jewish domination that is not even adamant on the existence of God, but even for them, existing in a Jewish community is very important.
There's a reason that many rabbis insist that you join the community, and it's not just to receive your annual dues this year.