83 is the new 13, and Rabbi Stiffman is all in for his second Bar Mitzvah

Rabbi+Stiffman

Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

The custom of a second bar mitzvah, which has become more and more popular in recent years among men, is based on the reading of Psalm 90:10, which says that 70 years is the expected lifespan of most humans. Reaching age 70, then, can be considered a new start – and therefore, age 83 would be the equivalent to reaching b’nai mitzvah age again.

The reason this ritual is becoming more common is simple: Men are living longer, healthier lives. The reason that most of the second bar mitzvah celebrants are men is very simple: Women of previous generations weren’t allowed to have a first.

According to writer Amy Oringel, “For these second-timers, studying, chanting and interpreting are, again, part of the process. And while there may be no DJ or gift checks written in denominations of chai, participants tend to agree that it can be more gratifying the second time around.”

The second time around

For many a young person, the decision to become bar mitzvah was not voluntary. For many, it was just expected. That’s what makes the second bar mitzvah a bit more personal. A second bar mitzvah simply seems like a nice way to reflect on a lifetime.

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“Some years ago, Rabbi (Bernard) Lipnick of B’nai Amoona celebrated his second bar mitzvah and I was in attendance,” remembers Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey Stiffman of Congregation Shaare Emeth. “It was such a fun time, as he reminisced about his bar mitzvah in a synagogue near my childhood home in Baltimore. I said to myself that I would love to do that if I were to live and be healthy.”

Luckily, both factors have come true, and now Stiffman is preparing for his second bar mitzvah.

“My colleagues at Shaare Emeth urged me to celebrate with them and the congregation. My rabbis and cantor have been wonderful in asking me to teach Torah that evening.”

A date is set

On Friday, March 25th, during Kabbalat Shabbat Services in the sanctuary that bears his name, Stiffman will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah for the second time. His Torah portion is Shemini, Leviticus, Chapter 10, just as it was 70 years ago.

“My cantor in Baltimore was my bar mitzvah tutor. When we began, he said, “Jeffrey, you have one of the worst portions of the Torah. It is hard to justify in modern terms.

“My portion covered the story of two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, who offer ‘strange fire’ to God and are struck dead by a bolt from God. We don’t know what their strange fire was and can only guess. The point of the story seems to be that the ancient priests had laws of ritual that they had to follow.”

Stiffman remembers thinking that this was a harsh and unjust punishment. That belief led him to say in his speech that Reform Jews should not take every story in the Bible literally and maybe this Torah portion was written to teach a lesson.

Do rabbis need to practice their Torah portions?

You better believe it.

“Yes, I have been practicing reading and translating the portion,” said Stiffman. “I was careful to do this every time I read Torah so that I read the Hebrew as well as the English as perfectly as possible. And since it is 70 years since I last read the portion this way, I figure that I better not embarrass my family by screwing up.”

Sadly, there will be no follow-up bar mitzvah party at Saints Roller Rink, and believe me, I asked. And you don’t have to worry about getting your invitation on time either, because everyone is invited, but you do need to RSVP, which can be done online.

“For me, it is a chance to express my gratefulness for being alive, in good health, with a wonderful family, many friends, and a warm congregational family. The blessings that I recite that evening will be heartfelt,” said Stiffman.