A prayer that changed the world: Why 10 is more than the sum of 10 units

Dear reader: I am sure that the title has already clued you in to the subject of this article − prayer. However, before getting to the heart of the matter, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the nature of Creation. (The points enumerated below are discussed in greater detail in my book, “From Eternity to Man”):

  1. The Almighty is, in His essence, unknowable. In our language, there are no words to describe Him. In Kabbalah, to indicate the state of the Almighty in His essence, the term Ein Sof (“The Infinite “) is used.
  2. Creation is the act of producing information.
  3. Having created information, the Almighty didn’t create anything else. He shaped, measured and refashioned it to form our world.
  4. This parallels Nachmanides’ statement in his commentary on the book of Bereshit (Genesis), that the only act of creation was the creation of primordial matter (hyle). The Almighty did not create anything else after that, but only shaped it.
  5. In the basic book of Kabbalah Sefer Yetzirah, it is written that creation was made “by thirty-two paths of wisdom”—i.e., the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sefirot (digits). Both the letters and the numbers comprise an informational code.
  6. The “Ten Utterances” with which the Almighty created the world (as described in the first chapter of Bereishit; see Ethics of the Fathers, 5:1) are ten informational commands.
  7. Hence: Everything created at the fundamental level − worlds, sefirot (see Figure 1), souls, angels, space, time, substance − is information.
  8. As an informational structure, the functioning of Creation depends on a constant exchange of information, which flows in both directions—from Creator to Creation, and vice versa—by means of the sefirot.
  9. Man is given enormous power over Creation. All of our actions—including learning the Torah, fulfilling the commandments (mitzvoth), prayer, and charitable acts—are the necessary forms of our participation in the information exchange.
  10. Modern science has likewise drawn a conclusion on the informational structure of our Universe.

Prayer

        Prayer is an important part of the informational process. This is because by praying, we acknowledge the existence of the Creator and express our readiness to follow His will. In prayer, we praise the Creator of the Worlds, bless His name, address our requests to Him, and ask for forgiveness for our sins.

        We can find examples of prayer in the Torah. However, regular prayers were introduced by the sages only after the Second Temple was destroyed, for purposes of replacing the sacrificial rite.

        When we pray, we want to get a positive answer. This requires that the prayer be heard. Obviously, applying such anthropomorphisms as the term ”to hear” to the Almighty is impossible. In this case, the term ”hear” means that the information contained in the prayer should be received at the level of intellectual sefirot — Keter, Binah and Chochmah.

        Using the language of the theory of information, to make your prayer reach the level of higher sefirot, it is necessary to have an information channel with sufficient capacity and signal strength. Let us look at this point in more detail. 

       Any person − even the most notorious sinner − is channeled to the Almighty. The “bandwidth” of this channel is created by studying the Torah, following its laws, doing good deeds, and reciting blessings. The word brakhah, which means blessing in Hebrew, has the same root as the word breikha which is a water basin or a water channel. Blessings said before a prayer are intended to initiate the channel with the Almighty. The signal strength depends on the sincerity of the prayer, and concentration (kavanah).

Individual prayer

        According to the opinion of Kabbalists, prayer (information) originates in the sefirah of Malchut and enters the sefirah of Yesod sefirot, which is connected to the divine name El Hai – “Living God.” In his book “Gates of Light,” Joseph Gikatilla, one of the early Kabbalists who lived in Spain during the 13th century, describes this process as follows:

        “We are compelled to share that the essence of the name El Hai − “Living God”—occupies in the place where the prayers are examined. If the prayer is accepted, then from Yesod it gradually ascends the tree of the sefirot and reaches the sefirah of Binah, from which it enters the sefirah of Chochmah and from there it goes to the supernal sefirah of Keter. The sefirah of Keter represents the will and the desire of the Creator, and in Kabbalah terminology, it is called the “source of desire” (makor haratson).”

       Obviously, in order to grant a positive answer to a prayer, the Almighty must desire to do so. The prayer must therefore “rise” to the sefirah that is the seat of divine will and desire and elicit a positive response.

        This process can be described in the following manner. The prayer which enters the Yesod is examined (for example, by an angel, who is an informational program) for the bandwidth of the channel. If this value exceeds a certain threshold, the prayer is allowed through. If the bandwidth of the channel is not sufficient (due to the petitioner’s sins, for example, or their inability to pray properly), then the strength of the prayer is examined. If this exceeds a certain value, then the prayer is allowed through.

       We will now illustrate this with some examples. 

        Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was once praying in his synagogue. A shepherd boy was sitting in the back. The prayer had so much effect on him that, overcome by emotion, the boy whistled very loudly. The members of the community were outraged and started reprimanding the boy for interrupting the prayer with his whistle. However, the Baal Shem Tov stopped them by saying, “Our prayers today were heard due to this boy’s whistle.” In that case, the bandwidth of the boy’s channel was very small, but the strength of his emotional signal was enormous.

        In his same book “Gates of Light,” Joseph Gikatilla writes: “In the sefirah of Yesod sefirot, which is connected to the divine name El Hai, there is a place called the Gates of Tears,’ regarding which it is said: ‘Even when the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears will always remain open.’”

        We will give two examples which affirm this notion.

       When Hannah, the mother of the future prophet Samuel, was praying to God that she might have a son, she wept and her request was granted. 

        Hundreds of years later, the Prophet Isaiah announced to King Hezekiah that the king “would die and not live,” as punishment for refusing to father children. The phrase “die and not live” means death in this world, and the absence of a place in the next world. In reply, Hezekiah turned to the wall and wept bitterly. And those very tears changed the Almighty’s decision, after which Isaiah told Hezekiah that he had been granted fifteen more years of life.

Collective prayer

        Collective prayer is a prayer made by two or more people. However, according to the rule established by the sages, certain prayers require a minyan (“quorum”) consisting of at least ten men over the age of 13. A necessary condition for the minyan is that its participants should see and hear each other. This aspect is extremely important, as we will discuss later. 

        According to the Babylonian Talmud, the source for the minyan is a passage in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) where the Almighty says, “How much longer [shall I abide] this evil congregation, who are inciting to complain against Me?” (Bamidbar 14:27). This passage is talking about ten  of the“spies” who were sent to the land of Israel by Moses. 

        According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the source for the minyan is from the book of Bereshit: “Ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt… And the Children of Israel went down to buy rationed grain from Egypt…” (Bereshit 42:3 and 42:5). We can thus deduce that the term ‘Children of Israel’ refers to the ten men. 

        In the book of Zohar, the concept of the minyan is based on the passage from the book of Bereshit in which Abraham pleads with the Almighty that Sodom and Gomorrah might be saved if 50 righteous people can be found there. After that, Abraham asks for these cities to be spared if forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and then ten righteous people can be found. But the number doesn’t go any lower (Bereshit 18:24-32).

        In my view, the information given above explains the origins of the minyan, but it doesn’t explain why a minyan consists of precisely ten people.

        Without any pretense of authority, I can only venture the following explanation. 

        Let’s do a mental experiment. Let us imagine that nine tzaddikim (perfectly righteous people) are praying in a synagogue, and in the next synagogue over are the ten most notorious sinners. 

        Intuitively, we understand that the sum of the informational channels of the nine tzaddikim far exceeds that of the ten sinners. However, the nine tzaddikim do not make up a minyan, and they are prohibited from saying certain prayers, while the ten sinners do make up a minyan and they can say these prayers. It would seem that this is a paradox. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it.  

        From this example, we can conclude that the same mathematical operation (i.e. adding one more to the quantity of praying men) can lead to totally different results. Of primary importance is the number to which the addition occurs. Thus, increasing the number of praying men by one from one to two, from five to six, and even from eight to nine will not change the fundamental value. Whereas, the same operation, which increases the number of praying men from nine to ten, radically changes the situation.

        To understand this phenomenon, we can refer to the principal of Holism (from Greek holos – ”all, whole, entire”). In a broad sense, holism is a position in philosophy and science concerning the correlation between a part and the whole, which comes from the distinction and priority of the whole in relation to its parts. The ontological principle of holism says that the whole is always something more than just the sum of its constituent parts. 

        Let’s take a simple example. Assume that we have to assemble an airplane, which consists of a thousand parts. Regardless of how many parts we assemble − one, two, or nine hundred and ninety-nine − the system doesn’t acquire any new features; it still remains just a block of parts. And only when we add the last thousandth part, a miraculous change arises: out of the simple accumulation of parts, the system turns into an airplane. 

        As such, we can conclude that the number “ten” represents the value of wholeness, and the minyan itself represents the whole. Thus, ”ten” in this case is more than just the sum of ten units. But here we come to a question − why ten and not any other number?

        To explain this, let us turn to the tree of the sefirot, as shown in Figure 1, below. As we have already mentioned, the act of Creation requires the circulation of information in the system of sefirot, both top-down and bottom-up. For this, information channels are necessary to connect the sefirot. One of the main principles of Kabbalah is the statement that as a result of the sin of Adam, and the subsequent sins of humanity, the informational channels between the sefirot are broken. This can be described by the famous saying of the sages, “As it is below, so it is above.” As a result of learning the Torah, following the laws, and reciting prayers, these channels are restored. But here we face the question of how many channels need to be restored. Figure 1 shows that the number of channels can exceed ten. However, there does exist a minimum threshold.

        If we organize the ten sefirot as one line (Fig. 2), there will be nine channels between them. However, in the book of Sefer Yetzirah, it is written about the sefirot that “their end is embedded in their beginning.” This is the tenth link − the tenth channel which connects the sefirah of Malchut with Keter, the highest of the sefirot

        The notion of wholeness (holism) can be illustrated by examples from the Torah.

        Apart from the second day, the Torah’s account of each of the six Days of Creation ends with the statement, “And God saw that it was good” (ki tov). According to the opinion of Joseph Gikatilla, the attribute of ki tov (“because it is good”) corresponds to the divine name El Hai, which is associated with the sefirah of Yesod. The attribute of ki tov does not appear in the sphere of separation. That is why on the second day of Creation, the Almighty did not view His creation as “good,” as on that day the separation between lower and upper waters was implemented (Bereshit 1:8). 

        Upon completion of the Creation, in which all ten sefirot were employed, it is written in the Torah: “God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good (tov me’od)” (Bereishith, 1:31). Much commentary from the sages exists on this topic. We will cite some of them here,from Midrash ‘Bereshit Rabbah.’ 

        Rabbi Hama ben Rabbi Hanina said, “There is a proverb about a king who built a palace. The king looked at it and liked the palace… So like the Holy One, may His Name be praised, said to His world: My world, may you be dear to my heart always as you are dear to me in this hour.” We should note that these words were said at the moment when the palace was completed, i.e. it had reached a state of wholeness. 

        Rabbi Jonathan said, “There once was a king who was marrying off his daughter, and made for her a chuppah, decorated its walls, painted it, covered it with a roof, and decorated it with pictures. And he looked at it and he liked it. He said, ‘My dear daughter, may this chuppah be as dear to me, as this hour has been dear to me.'” Again, we should note that the king said these words only once the chuppah was already completed, i.e. it had reached a state of wholeness.

        It is written in the Torah: “And God said, ‘It is not good (lo tov)  for man to be alone’ (‘le-tov’) (Bereshit 2:18).” Thus, we can conclude that a man and a woman taken separately do not make a whole, and it is not “good.”

        Throughout the Torah’s account of the Six days of Creation, the Almighty acts under the divine name Elohim, which expresses the concept of law and judgement, and relates to the sefirah of Binah. But at the end of Creation, we read in the Torah: “These are the creations of earth and heaven on the day when God (Havayah Elohim) made them” (Bereshit 2:4). Jospeh Gikatilla expresses an opinion that the usage of the name Havayah Elohim, which comprises all ten sefirot, is a manifestation state of wholeness achieved by the act of Creation.

       What is the mechanism of a minyan‘s effect? It is impossible to give a conclusive answer to this question, but one can venture a few ideas. According to the theory of Alter Rebbe, founder of the Chabad movement, the soul of a man is like the created worlds and has ten “garments” − ten sefirot. Let us recall that a primary condition of the minyan is that the people included in it should see and hear each other. In Kabbalah, sight is associated with the sefirah of Chochmah and hearing with the sefirah of Binah. We can suppose that when people see and hear each other, their intellectual sefirot join into one whole. Let us also recall the Torah’s statement, “God saw that it was good”—specifically ”saw,’ not “heard” or “said.” In such cases, the word “saw” is an anthropomorphism, but in reality, it symbolizes the sefirah of Chochmah. 

        Thus, it becomes clear how a minyan achieves a state of wholeness.

A prayer that changed the world

        In the process of generational change from Abraham to Moses, the level of service by the Jewish people to the Almighty changed. Abraham was blessed by the Almighty, and not only blessed, but also made a blessing to the nations of the world. Abraham granted this blessing to Isaac who in turn gave it to Jacob. Jacob blessed his sons before his death, thus dividing the blessing among all. 

        Jacob’s sons already served the Almighty at another level. This can be proven by the following observation: The three patriarchs addressed the Almighty using different Names – Havayah (comprising the whole system of sefirot), Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai, etc. Joseph and the other sons of Jacob referred to the Almighty only by the name Elohim (“God”), which shows a lowering of the level of service in comparison to the years of the patriarchs. Unfortunately, in subsequent generations the level continued to decline, and in Egypt all of the Jews except the tribe of Levi fell into idolatry.

        Let us once again remind ourselves of the saying of the sages, “As it is below, so it is above.” In the book of Torah-Or, Alter Rebbe calls this state mochin de-katnut (”small mind”). The meaning of this phenomenon is that if the influence from below almost ceases, the influence from above is also hampered. Figuratively, this state of the system of Sefirot can be compared to the state of hibernation. In such a situation, the Jews lost the right to get the special Divine Providence.

        However, when the conditions of their slavery became unbearable, the Jews cried out to the Almighty. It’s critical to note that they did not pray or cry, but rather ”cried”.

        When these millions of sinners prayed, Creation was shaken. And near Mount Sinai, a bush caught fire…

About the Author
Eduard Shyfrin received a Ph.D. in metallurgy from the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, and went on to found several businesses. He is a member of Chabad and his Torah commentaries have appeared on Chabad.org. He is the author of From Infinity to Man: The Fundamental Ideas of Kabbalah Within the Framework of Information Theory and Quantum Physics.
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