Seven Alternatives to Traditional Bar Mitzvah Candle Lighting Ceremonies


Many mitzvah moms struggle with the tradition of candle lighting.  They worry about offending or excluding family and friends, their kids spend hours writing rhyming poems instead of studying their Haftorah portions and song selections become a family debate.  All the while, the underlying question remains – how can a Bar Mitzvah candle lighting ceremony be unique, memorable and “cool”, all at the same time? 

 Well, let’s start by considering the history of the candle lighting ceremony.  Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in any Jewish text that describes or mandates this tradition. No one knows exactly when it began or who started it, only that the popularity of the candle lighting ceremony has grown to the point where it’s now an expected occurrence at any New York Mitzvah celebration.  But what does it all mean?

Technically, when Jewish children “become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah”, they become responsible for their own actions. The term mitzvah has also come to express any act of human kindness.  By using these definitions, I have found and created 7  non-traditional alternatives to candle lighting ceremonies which are inclusive and meaningful.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll start a trend!

  1. CUP OF LIFE – Created by Rabbi Anchelle Perl. Fill 14 small cups of grape juice or wine (13 for each year plus one for good luck). One by one, they are poured by each honoree into a large brandy snifter. At the end, your child recites Kiddush and drinks from the snifter. Each cup represents an ingredient in the “recipe” for a good life:
  1. Cup of Good Health
  2. Cup of Wisdom
  3. Cup of Faith
  4. Cup of Compassion
  5. Cup of Good Humor
  6. Cup of Dedication
  7. Cup of Success
  8. Cup of Prosperity
  9. Cup of Generosity
  10. Cup of Friendship
  11. Cup of Happiness
  12. Cup of Humility
  13. Cup of Patience
  14. Cup of Love

2. ALL INCLUSIVE – Place a votive candle and a book of matches at each place setting.  For young adults and children, use battery operated flameless candles which can be purchased from Michaels craft store or Save-On-Crafts.com.  Also consider giving everyone flash lights in lieu of candles which double as favors.  Check out the assortment at from FarFromBoring.com. If you call, ask for Sheila.

Dim the lights.  As your child lights each candle, he/ she will call upon a particular group of guests to light their own candles. Ideally, by the time your child lights the last candle, everyone has lit theirs and the room is glowing.  Some examples below.  Create your own groups.

 “Because you mean so much to me and I’m grateful that you’re all here today to help me celebrate, I’d like to call upon each of you to participate in my candle lighting from your tables.” 

1. I would like to light a candle for those who could not be here with us tonight (mention names)

2. Would my immediate family please stand and light their candles now (mention names). 

3. Would my grand parents please stand and light their candles now (mention names). 

4. Would all my aunts, uncles and cousins please stand and light their candles now.

5. Would those of you who knew my family before I was born, please stand and light your candles now.

6. Would those of you who I met in elementary school please stand and light your candles now. 

7.  Middle School

8. Summer Camp

9.  after school activities (hockey, gymnastics, etc.)

10. Family friends

11. My parents work colleagues and their spouses

12. Those of you who took care of me as a child (babysitters, nannies)

13. Neighbors

These are a few examples of grouping guests so get creative. Use common interests or geographic locations.  The possibilities are endless.

2.  VALUES  – Work with your child to identify qualities in your honorees which he/she hopes to incorporate into his/her own life. Have your child tell a short anecdote about how each quality is reflected in that person or group of people. For instance, “I remember my grandfather whistled everyday. I think it was because he was content with his life, everyday.  Now, when I whistle, I realize it’s because I’m content.  Thank you, grandpa.”  Other qualities to consider are Consideration, Strength, Compassion, Honesty, Reliability, Humor, Courage, Honor, Tenacity, Creativity, Intelligence, Cooperation, Love and Patience. 

3.  MITZVAH PLEDGE – Have your child pledge 13 mitzvah or good deeds that he or she plans to achieve, either over the next year or over his or her lifetime.  It can range from helping around the house without being asked to organizing volunteers at soup kitchens.  Ask each guest to silently light his or her candle at their table and make a mitzvah pledge of their own.

4.  WISDOM – Combine the montage with the candle lighting by hiring a company that specializes in combining video and photos, such as rewindpics.com/.  Have them film interviews with honorees.  Long distance relatives can be recorded by phone.  Each honoree offers words of wisdom your child.  Candles can be lit live by your child as he/she watches candles being lit in the video.

This idea can also be accomplished without a montage.  Ask honorees to offer a blessing or words of wisdom to your child when they’re called up to light the candle. Be sure give enough advance notice so that honorees can prepare something appropriate and don’t forget to tell them to keep it short.  One or two sentences per candle is perfect.

5.  PLANT A TREE – Instead of lighting candles, plant 14 trees in Israel.  Display 14 saplings during the reception in the same way you would display a cake with a small card in front of each explaining the Honorees they represent. his is a great option for families who don’t actually want a candle lighting ceremony.

6.  VOLUNTEER – Take photos of your child doing 13 volunteer projects and create a montage.  Have him/her dedicate each mitzvah to an honoree.  For example, “To my Grandmother, who always read to me and continues to inspire my education, I donated  books to our local library” or “To my Aunt and Uncle, who taught me to reuse, renew and recycle, I planted a tree in Israel”.

7.  REMEMBER US PROJECT – The simple act of remembering someone restores that person’s value and meaning, and adds meaning and value to your own life. One-and-a-half million Jewish children were lost during the Holocaust before they had a chance to grow into Jewish adults, many before their own call to the Torah. Visit www.remember-us.org to request a name of one of these children.  Dedicate the first candle to this lost child and ask your child make a commitment to saying the Kiddush prayer on the anniversary of his/her Bar/Bat Mitzvah each year, so they never forget.

8 comments

  1. Janet Messcher

    Dear Madam/Sir:
    Thank you! I have been trying to come up with a candle lighting ceremony that honors all the cousins, grandparents, etc. It solves a lot of the problem of letting everyone know how special they are to us for making this special trip & celebration without singling out 13 persons; and gets everyone standing up to join us on the dance floor for the hora!

      • Janet

        Update: This idea went very well. We used little glo-sticks to give to everyone and the kids took turns announcing family. After they honored their friends, they asked the friends to come up and get lights for their parents. We then asked special friends (who didn’t fit a category, like former babysitter and her fiance) and then the congregation. It was a fairly small celebration and announcing everyone’s name didn’t take long.

  2. Jacki

    Greetings,

    I appreciate your alternate ideas–I agree that candle lighting ceremonies often only serve to make the “uncalled” feel excluded. We did a variation of your second idea for my older son’s bar mitzvah 3 years ago. We put a few LED tealights on each table and I went around and introduced everyone at every table, so no one would be left out. We wanted to honor everyone who had made the effort to share my son’s special day with us. I explained (quickly!) their relationships to my son and then had them light the lights. Of course the event manager forgot to dim the lights first (and so did I) so the impact was less spectacular at the end than I had hoped, but everyone loved the idea! Oh and I also forgot to bring my son around with me! If we do that again for my younger son, he’s definitely coming along. :)

  3. Jacki

    There were 90 guests, including about 25 kids. I’m still not sure what we’ll do this time around. I’m pretty sure my younger son won’t want to do a candle lighting though…

  4. Patty Berman

    Thank you for the great ideas. We are having our party right after the service at Chabad, so we can not do the candle lighting. I love the idea of the tree planting, and honoring people. I’m going to order the trees, so that the certificates will be here for the Bar Mitzvah, and that way I can give the honorees the certificate.

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