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Bar Mitzvah Guide: Learning Hebrew & Torah Reading
A Conservative Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

Although a good part of the training for a bat mitzvah is absorbed by Hebrew reading and chanting lessons, many religious school programs will include topics like Jewish history, Israeli politics, and ethics. As bar and bat mitzvah kids pass this milestone they cross the line to Jewish adulthood, so mature topics are appropriate. For many this is the end of their formal Jewish education. Topics might be chosen to explain the Jewish approach to lifelong issues and decisions.

Learning Hebrew and the Torah Reading
Hebrew is decidedly easier to read than English – once you know it. In English “the” looks like it should sound like “ta-ha-eh,” and “enough” would logically be sounded out like “ee-ne-oo-ga-ha,” all the strange exceptions in English turn it into a confusing language. Hebrew is completely phonetic. Combine the letter and its vowel sound together, and you’ve got it. Not so many crazy-sounding blends to remember.

Complicating things is the different place vowels are given. In English, vowels are included in the word itself, like “bat mitzvah” has the “a,” “i,” and “a” inside the word. Using the Hebrew vowel structure, the word would like more like this “BaT MITZVaH.” Vowels are dots and dashes written underneath and above the letters. No vowels appear in the Torah. It’s a little hard, but definitely doable.

A special book, called a Tikkun, is printed with the verses as they appear in the Torah and the same words in regular Hebrew type with vowels – side by side. Practicing in a Tikkun helps the reader get ready for the vowel-free Torah.

A few weeks before the big day, schedule a viewing of the portion in the actual scroll to get even more comfortable with how the words look and their layout. If the reading will take place on Shabbat, bnei mitzva may get in some practice time on the Monday or Thursday morning Torah reading.

The Trop – Torah Tune
You’ll notice that the Torah is not just read, it’s chanted. The tune is ancient and is indicated by dots, dashes, jagged zigzags, horseshoe shapes, and v-marks above and below the words. These don’t appear in the Torah scroll itself, but they are in the Tikkun and the Chumash, where the Torah text is printed in book form.

Education Requirements
Bnei mitzvah parties, where more time was spent contemplating the invitation envelope than the day’s meaning, have lead synagogues to require lengthy bar mitzvah preparations before the ceremony. Attending religious school all the way through seventh grade is one synagogue’s rules. Another requires students to stay on for post-bat mitzvah Hebrew High School classes.

Mitzvah quotas have become popular. A certain number of mitzvot must be performed by the bat mitzvah girl. Some programs break up these requirements into three categories: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim. Torah stands for Torah study and different forms of Jewish intellectual inquiry. Avodah literally means service and can be interpreted as prayer or community service. Gemilut chasadim are acts of kindness performed for others: charity, volunteering at hospitals, visiting senior citizens and sick friends, helping moms bring in the groceries.

At many synagogues, bnei mitzvah must attend anywhere from a handful of services to as many as every Shabbat morning services a year before the ceremony. Going to services is a good thing unto itself, attending several services will help the family get more familiar with the synagogue’s layout, customs, songs, cantor and rabbi.

Private Tutors
To learn all that Hebrew, the prayers and the trop, it is sometimes necessary to study one to one with a tutor. Pick a good one. A good tutor can add depth and enthusiasm to the whole preparation process. One essential difference between a good and a bad tutor is patience. Learning the trop can be frustrating. Select a tutor who can offer corrections without criticism.

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