The Hidden Psychology of the Bar Bat Mitzvah Candlelighting Ceremony

We always squirm during bar mitzvah candlelightings.

We squirm when we aren’t invited to step to the front of the room during the reception and help the bat mitzvah celebrant light a candle on his or her 13th birthday cake. If we consider the family friends or we’re relatives – and we weren’t invited up – we feel a ping of hurt. Reflexively, it seems, we do a tiny calculation in our heads: Apparently, we’re not that important to this child or his parents. So that must mean we’re on the B list. Or the C list.

Or we get a ping of annoyance. “She invited her nanny and her next door neighbors but not us, her cousins, who drove 500 miles to get here?” we grouse.

Normally, we cover beautifully. We smile, sip from our water glass and try to forget it. But not everyone can cover. At one B Mitzvah, when the celebrant’s aunt realized she’d been excluded from the ceremony, she rushed to the ladies’ room and broke down crying. “I thought we were so close!” she told her sisters, half angry, half embarrassed to be seen crying about it. The bathroom soon filled with female relatives trying to console her.

Such an extreme reaction is rare, but it does speak to one of the hurts candlelightings can inflict. Alas, there are more.

Believe it or not, we get an unpleasant feeling even when we are invited to participate in the ceremony. At the last three such bar mitzvahs we’ve attended, we were the only ones at our table to be invited to light a candle. The first time, we made the mistake of returning to our seats, then smiling sociably at our tablemates. Several were doing that tiny calculation described above -- and not doing a great job of hiding it. One, glared at us with unmasked jealousy. She thought she’d been so close to the family. We felt a combination of sadness (we know how that ping feels), relief (dodged that bullet) and guilt (we were honored to have been invited but weren’t we enjoying this feeling while someone else was suffering?).

So what’s the answer? Kill the candlelighting? Problem is lots of kids love the ceremony. It gets them on stage again and gives them the chance to show off their creativity with poem writing and to pose for photos surrounded by adoring friends and family. And the ceremony serves some important logistical functions. That’s why a caterer invented it in the 1950’s. (No, despite what you may have heard, there’s nothing in any Jewish text that mandates a B Mitzvah candlelighting!)

What’re these “important functions”?

• Like a spotlight on a stage, the candlelighting gives the reception an emotional focus.
• It satisfies the guests’ need to interact meaningfully and emotionally with the celebrant. A hug or a pat on the back are great but many people want more.

What’s the solution? How do we let the ceremony serve these functions while avoiding all the emotional danger zones? Click here to read about great, new eMitz candlelighting ideas.