Recording a bar mitzvah service

Lights, camera, bar mitzvah!

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

Do people ever make videos of the bar mitzvah service? Are we allowed to do that? Should we?

— Ready for my Close-up

Dear Close-up,

Sure. But, all I can think of after reading that question is a particular moment, years down the road: you bring home your new girlfriend to meet your parents, then Mom and Dad proudly screen your bar mitzvah from long ago, and thoroughly embarrass you.

That makes it hard to resist, doesn’t it?

So let’s rewind and take everything in slow motion.

First, the question of whether you can use a recording device of any kind during the service will depend on the policies of your synagogue. It’s forbidden by Jewish law to use any kind of electronics or similar machines (cameras, cell phones, tape recorders, etc.) on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. In fact, you’re not even supposed to write, because there’s a prohibition against making a permanent record of something. And it doesn’t matter if you can erase it later — it’s the same thing. So, recording the service would run afoul of both of those laws — using electronics and making a record.

Therefore, in an orthodox synagogue, as well as many conservative ones as well, it’s not allowed.

Yet, there is a loophole.

If you’re in a reform or other liberal congregation, you likely have the green light to record the service. And even in a traditional congregation, remember that these rules only apply to Shabbat. If you plan a bar mitzvah service for another day of the week — perhaps a Sunday morning or Rosh Chodesh (new month) — then there would not be any Jewish law telling you not to use a recording device.

But, should you record the service?

Here is a question you might want to ask yourself: is this a video that you think you will watch again?

It sounds funny, but I have found that some families go through great effort and considerable expense to record every minute of the bar mitzvah service, and then end up never watching the video. Or they play it once soon after, and then put it away forever. It might be nice to have, but I wonder if anyone will ever really use it in the future.

You may also want to ask yourself if the recording will distract from the service?

Sometimes a temple will have a camera pre-installed in an inconspicuous location for families to use. In other situations, the rules might state that the person who is taping the service has to remain in one specific spot behind the congregants, and record from the back of the room. But I’ve seen a guy with a hand held camera move about the congregation and jockey for the very best position, all the while annoying and distracting the guests who are trying to watch and listen. The video (which no one may ever actually watch) will come out great, but all anyone in the congregation can really focus on is the guy moving all over the room. The recording process may also take a religious and meaningful service and turn it into a type of performance.

My advice is to keep things simple. Don’t bring in some production expert with a load of heavy equipment. If you feel that you want to record the service, consider putting a small camera on a tripod in a back corner and letting it record the action. That way, if you actually watch it later, you will feel like you did when you were sitting in the congregation, watching, and being a part of the bar mitzvah service.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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