Trust me, there are no rules about bar or bat mitzvah speeches. As a b’nai mitzvah teacher who has spent 25 patient years coaxing, wheedling and threatening his lovable students, I promise you there are no rules about that post-haftarah speech. In fact, there are few rules about the bar or bat mitzvah itself.
Considering the antiquity of Judaism, this ceremony is a post-talmudic newcomer, meaning that the talmudic contributors didn’t blueprint the requirements.
Nowhere in our holy books is there a manual for the ceremony, the speech or the Kiddush that follows. You can delight your guests with gefilte fish and pastrami, cinnamon-sprinkled apple strudel or noodle kugel. It’s your call.
So is the speech, which should be like an ideal visit to the dentist—short and painless—for both speechmaker and audience.
There are two guidelines that define successful bar or bat mitzvah speeches:
Keep It Short—10 Minutes at the Outside
Mark Twain said nobody, after the first 10 minutes, could recall a single word spoken by a minister or rabbi unless it was his own name. And he’s talking about pros, so imagine the recall factor with a 13-year-old orator talking to a hungry mob with lunch on their minds.
Keep It Colloquial
Keep the speech compatible with the lingo of a 13-year-old, just as though the honoree is talking to family or friends. The child should not sound like the president of a major Jewish organization at an annual fundraiser. The “speech” should not be a speech. Far better—a simple conversational communication with the congregation.
The structure of the speech should contain the following three elements:
Welcome and Expressions of Appreciation
A brief thanks to teachers for their instruction and family for their patience or Uncle Nathan for bankrolling the Kiddush. Then maybe special recognition for cousin Hannah, who flew in from London, or benedictions on a favorite aunt or remembrance for a grandparent who is gone. Kids always overdo this (because it’s easier than the exegesis on their Torah section).
Talk About Torah and/or Haftorah
The student displays his understanding and insight of these biblical passages. Why are they important? What do they mean to him? Are they relevant today? If not, why not?
It’s best for the child—with the aid of the teacher—to offer his or her personal understanding. If the passage is convoluted, there are plenty of outside sources like rabbinic commentaries to lean on.
The Meaning of the Ceremony
This is the most difficult part of the speech because it requires the young student to intensely examine his or her own feelings. Phony-baloney is not acceptable.
The bar or bat mitzvah student leaves behind the ethical dependency of childhood. He is now responsible. So, it’s appropriate to ask: Did I learn anything? Did this matriculation improve my understanding of Judaism? How many mitzvahs (commandments) will I now observe? Do I see new responsibilities to family and friends?
Remember, short and sweet, colloquial and informal. It works every time.
The trick is to provoke and then extract the child’s reflections about the biblical passage and the meaning of this milestone. Begin by explaining any obscurities—ask the student to express his or her ideas on paper and then help to refine the ideas.
One final note: For some reason that bar mitzvah teachers and psychotherapists have never understood, kids rush through the speech like fire in a hayfield. They are—to say the least—nervous.
With threats, pleas, bribes or tears, somehow you must slow them down. There’s no foolproof technique.
Ted Roberts, a longtime b’nai mitzvah teacher, is also a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Disney Magazine and Hadassah.