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, 2017 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. Dec 19, 2017 at 13:15
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    Meta discussion: judaism.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4452/472 Dec 19, 2017 at 14:44
  • You may want to view forward.com/sisterhood/307200/… for an interesting perspective on this subject.
    – DanF
    Dec 20, 2017 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, 2017 at 12:00

6 Answers 6


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. Dec 19, 2017 at 15:29
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    Would you mind explaining Karkafto dalo manach thphlin?
    – DanF
    Dec 19, 2017 at 17:47
  • @danf "skull that has never had tefillin [on it]" seen as a very negative characteristic
    – Double AA
    Dec 20, 2017 at 2:42
  • @DoubleAA New info for me, here. Do you have any link to a source that discusses this?
    – DanF
    Dec 20, 2017 at 16:01
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    @DanF It's a gemara Rosh Hashana 17a
    – Double AA
    Dec 20, 2017 at 16:06

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 the 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.


Having a severely autistic son, we had a mini concert with Yaakov Shwekey, who is his favorite singer. At the Bar Mitzva concert I spoke, said a Dvar Torah, a story from Rabbi Paysach Krohn as to the value of a severely disabled child, and thanked all the people that have assisted him over the years.


I have been involved with special needs children for a few years, and I have seen multiple Bar Mitzvos for children. Usually, the leining is from a set of pesukim without Hashem's name, and someone else leins for many of them. In the more Chasidish communities, I have seen some children who get Acharon every week (although more usually in their own minyan rather than the main one).


At my brother’s Bar Mitzvah (downs syndrome) he worked for years and was able to squeeze through reading a chapter of Tehillim. My father made a siyum and we had a regular bar mitzvah celebration.

For shabbos, we asked a prominent Rav who said that if he knows that he’s being different, then he can get maftir, otherwise it’s better to skip it.

  • do you mean that if he knows that it is something special- even if he does not understand how or why- he may be called up to read the Brochos? Oct 10, 2023 at 5:12
  • For Maftir. He felt that ben adam lchavero was more important, if he knows that it is something he should be doing like everyone else.
    – Chatzkel
    Oct 10, 2023 at 14:17
  • Oh, so the "being different" was because he would not feel bad unless he realized? Oct 10, 2023 at 15:58
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    Yes. Basically if he asked why he is not getting called up then you can call him up for Maftir
    – Chatzkel
    Oct 10, 2023 at 16:12

A respected Rosh Yeshiva I know ruled that if a child can be taught to recognise the 22 letters of the alphabet (cut out from construction paper or the like) and call them by name it should be celebrated (similar to many children who finish a section of Mishna or Talmud to mark their Bar Mitzva) and this will be a true Seudat Mitzva on the "Completion of the Torah" at which one could serve meat, even during the Nine Days (of Chodesh Av).

The Rabbi added that compared to the unlimited, endless scope / depth of Torah, we are all like that Bar Mitzva boy "simply learning the Aleph Beis".

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