I occasionally hear (in the US) about a community celebrating a bar mitzvah for a child with profound cognitive disabilities (cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, etc). All such cases I've heard about are liberal/progressive communities, not Orthodox.

As I understand it, a child with these kinds of limitations is not halachically responsible for the mitzvot, so his 13th birthday does not mark a transition in that regard -- he's not actually bar mitzvah. As a practical matter, the child in the cases I've heard about is not capable of saying b'rachot and cannot be a sh'liach for the congregation, so the things usually done by the boy at the service are not options. I heard of one (liberal) congregation where the child pressed a button to play back a recording of somebody else saying b'rachot; I don't know what the halachic issues there would be (if done on a weekday).

So I'm aware of some of the halachic issues, and I'm also aware that parents, at least the ones I know, usually want to mark the same milestones for their children that everybody else does. It's really hard to raise children with special needs, it can feel isolating, and the families dealing with these issues want to feel "normal".

How do Orthodox communities balance all this? Do they find some way to celebrate the milestone birthday but don't call it a "bar mitzvah"? Does the issue not come up because parents in Orthodox communities know and accept that things have to be different, and maybe community support structures are stronger so they don't feel as left out? Are there halachic leniencies that can be applied?

I am asking for experienced-based answers about what communities actually do, not opinions or speculation about what they could do.

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    I'm sorry, but I don't feel like this can be answered adequately on this site, because this entire thought really depends on the community, rabbi, and disabled boy involved, and could vary from congregation to congregation. – ezra Dec 19 '17 at 5:20
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    @ezra it seems reasonable that there might be customs, and that this question fits as well as any of our minhag or how-to questions. – Monica Cellio Dec 19 '17 at 13:15
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    Meta discussion: judaism.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4452/472 – Monica Cellio Dec 19 '17 at 14:44
  • You may want to view forward.com/sisterhood/307200/… for an interesting perspective on this subject. – DanF Dec 20 '17 at 0:05
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    This question is asking for experiences, not opinions. Also, the Meta question about it features only answers in favor of it being open. For now, I unofficially cast a non-mod reopen vote, but after some time, I may just go ahead and reopen on the basis of the Meta post. – Isaac Moses Dec 20 '17 at 12:00

You've asked an interesting question. I've seen several Bar Mitzvah affairs done on Shabbat for cerebral palsy kids and those with all kinds of disabilities.

I have a close friend who has an autistic son. (IMO, I pray that no one should ever have to deal with this disability. In some ways, it's worse than dealing with a child with cancer.) He is somewhat verbal, but, he understands little of what's happening.

As I understand from my friend, on Shabbat, they had him come up to the bimah while someone else got the aliyah, and he kissed the Torah (with some help / prompting.) At the end of shul, he sang a song (for an autistic kid, BTW, he has almost perfect pitch and an angelic voice. You never know what talents hide, there!)

This is besides a full Bar Mitzvah "feast" that they made the next day with speeches, singing, dancing and the works. It was a true simcha.

What I mentioned for autism I've seen similarly done with cerebral palsy, cripples, blind and my son who is deaf. (Halachic issues involving cheresh may apply to Torah reading, etc.) The point is that, indeed, these are quite frequent among Orthodox shuls, at least in my neighborhood.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people, fortunately, face fewer shul inclusion challenges today than about 15 years ago. There seems to be a general halachic consensus that profoundly deaf people may read from the Torah. (Definition of cheresh in the Gemarah is disputed, but has generally been interpreted as "deaf-mute" and the thinking, then, was that they were non-intelligent.) Today, many deaf people wear cochlear implants, and there's a general halachic agreement that an implant produces immediate sound equivalent to regular hearing.

You may want to view this article published by Our Way, a division of OU. As my son has been deaf for many years, we have been members of this wonderful group. For his Bar Mitzvah, we had him read maftir and teh haftarah on Shabbat. As his Bar Mitzvah occurred during Chanukah (well, we postponed the celebration a few weeks to coincide with Chanukah, actually,) on Sunday morning, he read the double Rosh Hodesh / Chanukah Torah portion. If I recall correctly, a JSL ("Jewish" sign language. It's mainly ASL, but they translate Hebrew, davening an religious terminology; quite fascinating!) interpreter volunteered to interpret the prayers and reading for the few other deaf that attended on Sunday.

The practical halachot of cheresh today are somewhat complex. But, point is that not only are Orthodox Bar Mitzvah's done by deaf kids, but, they really try hard to include the hearing by publishing a Bar Mitzvah symbol booklet. If you've never been at a mainly "deaf" prayer service, as a hearing person, I can tell you that YOU would need a "reverse" ASL interpreter.

This article cites the numerous Orthodox shuls throughout the U.S. that accommodate various disabilities in various ways. The beginning of the article says:

A recent bat mitzvah program at Young Israel of Toco Hills, in Atlanta, included an ASL interpreter. (Adam Starr) This story is sponsored by the Orthodox Union.

Erik Bittner can pinpoint the exact moment he felt his son with autism was truly included at his family’s Orthodox synagogue, Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, Massachusetts. It was a Shabbat morning and the gabbai – the sexton orchestrating services — called Bittner’s 24-year-old son, Nathan, up for an aliyah, to recite the blessings over the Torah.

“Nathan whizzed through the brachot and he was effusive in his gratitude for going up there,” Bittner recalled, using the Hebrew word for blessings. “He shook everyone’s hand. It was a touching emotional moment.”

But the next week when Nathan showed up late and afterward asked why he didn’t get an aliyah, the gabbai responded: “I only give aliyahs to people who show up on time.”

Bittner wasn’t upset; on the contrary. He was pleased his son was treated like anybody else.

“Real inclusion means those with special needs are held to the same standards as everyone else — as long as those standards do not exclude them,” Bittner said.


I am a charadi yid living in NYC. I can describe what I did for my severely disabled (non verbal, non mobile, blind) son. [He had a stroke as a result of side effect to a medication at 2.5 years].

On the advice of my rov I cleaned him, put on thphilin so he should not be a Karkafto dalo manach thphlin (see zohar).

Also made a seuda/party (that was more of an appreciation event for all the people involved in his care) to mark the day.

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thank you for sharing your experience. May Hashem bring strength and blessing to your whole family. – Monica Cellio Dec 19 '17 at 15:29
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    Would you mind explaining Karkafto dalo manach thphlin? – DanF Dec 19 '17 at 17:47
  • @danf "skull that has never had tefillin [on it]" seen as a very negative characteristic – Double AA Dec 20 '17 at 2:42
  • @DoubleAA New info for me, here. Do you have any link to a source that discusses this? – DanF Dec 20 '17 at 16:01
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    @DanF It's a gemara Rosh Hashana 17a – Double AA Dec 20 '17 at 16:06

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