It’s Time for the Virtual Minyan

Congregations around the world are facing a difficult challenge.  With the dangers of the Coronavirus as well as the instructions from governments and health organizations, most, if not all synagogues have either cancelled worship altogether, or put in place livestream services wherein the clergy stands alone on the bima, leading to an empty room and a camera.  While livestreaming services is nothing new to congregational life, a completely empty room while doing so, is.  Depending on the denomination of the clergy, choices are made how to conduct a service that is, for all intents and purposes, virtual.  Do we read Torah?  Do we say communal prayers such as the Bar’chu, or the Kaddish?  The larger question that develops out of this new situation is, can we, and if so, do we, count those “virtually present” or “technologically present” via livestream as members of the minyan?

As a Rabbi of Reform Judaism, I turned to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Responsa Committee, and studied the words of Responsa 5772.1 “A Minyan via the Internet?”

The main point surrounds that of the physical presence needed for the minyan, as the responsa notes:

the amora Rav (in B. Pesachim 85b) applies this spatial mapping to the act of public prayer. He holds that one who stands from the middle of the doorway toward the inside of the house or room is counted in the minyan along with those assembled within the house, while one who stands from the middle of the doorway toward the outside is not included in the minyan.[9] The leading codifiers rule accordingly: “all of (the members of the minyan) must be assembled in one place (b’makom echad), and the prayer leader (sh’liach tzibur) must be with them in that place,”[10] i.e., one contiguous, undivided physical space.[1]

The Responsa Committee notes that the “complexity” of the issue surrounding mitzvot fulfilled virtually “does not persuade us.”  Indeed, they conclude:

Whether through dial-in, live-streaming, or video connection, it is a good thing to encourage those who cannot attend the synagogue to be “technologically present.” Such persons, however, are not part of the minyan, because the minyan is the community of those are truly present with us, that is, in the real (as opposed to virtual) sense of that term.[2]

However, here in lies the issue.  As stated above, the sh’elah is not whether those attending the livestream can join those physically present to form a minyan, rather, it is what to do in the extreme circumstances when there is no one physically present to join.

Before progressing, I think it important, at this point, to first lay the groundwork and discuss the bizarre origin of the minyan, itself.  As Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezar (ch. 8) succinctly puts it:

The intercalation takes place in the presence of three; Men who know the principle of intercalation. Rabbi Eliezer says that ten (men are required), as it is said, “God standeth in the congregation. The “congregation” consists of ten, the Minyan; this is derived from the use of the word “congregation” in connection with the ten spies who brought a false report to Moses in the wilderness.[3]

To explain, the minyan constituting ten individuals was first derived from an interpretation of the first verse of Psalm 82:

אֱֽלֹהִ֗ים נִצָּ֥ב בַּעֲדַת־אֵ֑ל בְּקֶ֖רֶב אֱלֹהִ֣ים יִשְׁפֹּֽט

Elohim stands in the eidah of El, or typically translated as “God stands in the congregation of God.”  Before diving into the extension of the term eidah, it is imperative to note that Psalm 82, when read completely, stands as an outlier in theology, dismissing the commonly held ideas of monotheism.  When Psalm 82 is read and translated correctly, it tells the story of how the chief God, El, stands in the divine assembly of elohim, the other gods, and renders judgement upon them, eventually executing them for their failures, and thus becomes the only god around:

I had taken you for gods

sons of Elyon, all of you;

but you shall die as men do,

fall like any prince.

In other words, Psalm 82’s theology is that there were other gods, but monotheism was formed by our god removing them all.

The interpretation, laid out by Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer states that the word used in Psalm 82:1, eidah, was the same term used to describe the 10 scouts which went to “spy” on in the land of Canaan and returned saying “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”

Moses states in response to the fear and lack of faith of the 10 scouts:

עַד־מָתַ֗י לָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר הֵ֥מָּה מַלִּינִ֖ים עָלָ֑י אֶת־תְּלֻנּ֞וֹת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵ֧מָּה מַלִּינִ֛ים עָלַ֖י שָׁמָֽעְתִּ

“How much longer shall that wicked eidah keep muttering against Me? Very well, I have heeded the incessant muttering of the Israelites against Me” (JPS).

It was this combination that led the rabbis to decide that 10 was the number to constitute a “congregation,” or an “assembly.”  That’s right, the idea of ten was built on the death of gods and a wicked assembly of faithless Israelites.  I bring this up only to allow those to understand that their concept of the halachic minyan stands not firmly on solid ground, but on sand, to say the least.

In any case, the rabbis ran with it and by the end of the 6th century CE, there was rabbinic law that ten individuals (traditionally men) was required for public prayer and assembly.  Throughout Jewish history of oppression and discrimination, whether it be through the Crusades, the pogroms, or the Holocaust, communities under attack and/or devastated by outside forces have encountered the challenge of forming a minyan for prayer services.  Even small communities today are challenged each Shabbat, sometimes making calls and knocking on doors to create the rabbinic idea of an “assembly.”  Today, however, the Jewish minyan is under attack by an unseen force; one that requires quarantine and social distancing.  One wonders how Jewish communities coped with this issue during the Black Death and other pandemics.  Nevertheless, this is our challenge now, and we have a solution, “the virtual minyan.”  As stated above, the CCAR (as well as other denominational governing bodies) has deemed this to be an unacceptable practice.

However, in the times of pandemic and with the improvement of modern technology, the t’shuvah to the responsa must be altered.  Certainly one can understand from a halachic point of view that the ten individuals present has been solidified through the centuries, as the Shulchan Aruch, states in Orah Haim 55:13:

צריך שיהיו כל העשרה במקום אחד

“All ten must be in one place”[4]

We must give Joseph Karo’s work, as well as all our rabbinic works, the historical distance it deserves.  The possibility of remote viewing, virtual reality and livestreaming were nothing more than fantasy in the 16th century CE.  In the 21st century, to be “in one place,” means something quite different.  Meetings take place online, people call in, students learn (and degrees are earned) in online classrooms, and friends and family speak via phone, Facetime, Skype, and countless other technological vehicles connecting us in a way Karo and his predecessors never imagined.

More to the topic, there are hints of “distance praying” hidden in the Shulchan Aruch and other texts, as Rabbi Haim Ovadia, points out in his work: Torah Ve-Ahava, Finding insights of love, dignity, and social commitment in the Torah’s narrative and laws.  Ovadia states that certain works allude to the idea that

…ten people who pray simultaneously but in separate places are not a community, but in relationship to whom are they considered separated? They are separated from each other, but God knows of all of them. Had it been possible for them to know of each other’s actions, they would be able to congregate even though they are in remote places.[5]

One text Ovadia brings up is that of Shulchan Aruch, Orah Haim 90:9:

One should strive to pray in the synagogue with the community. If he is unable to come to the synagogue, he should coordinate his prayer with that of the community. Similarly, those who live in [remote] villages and do not have a minyan, should pray Shaharit and Arvit at the same time the community prays.[6]

The Mishnah Beruah expounds upon the word “unable” used in the text above:

Unable – because of physical weakness, even if he is not sick. If it is a financial consideration, and he stands to lose money because of his insistence on praying with the community, he can pray at home alone… at the same time – meaning at the time the communities of Israel pray.[7]

Ovadia beautifully interprets this to reflect the challenge we are addressing here, regarding being “present” without being physically in the same room:

We learn from these words that if one cannot come to the synagogue, he could coordinate his prayer with the community. That means that if one knows that others are praying and he prays along with them, God combines the prayer of the individual with that of the community.[8]

In other words, if the clergy or shaliach tzibor (service leader) knows that at least ten others are praying with him “at the same time,” as Mishnah Beruah states, then the creation of a “virtual” or “spiritual” minyan in that situation could be argued.

An even stronger argument for the virtual minyan occurs just one verse from the very stringent idea of “All of the 10 need to be in one place.”  In Orah Haim 55:13-14 we read the full text:

All of the 10 need to be in one place and the prayer leader with them. And the one who stands in the middle of the doorway between a part of a building and outside such that when one closes the door [one is] in a place from the inside [lip] of the thickness of the door and outwards – it is like outside. One who stands behind the synagogue and in-between them is a window – even if it is several stories high [and] even if it’s not 4 wide – and his face is seen by them from there, he joins with them for the 10.[9]

Again, I applaud Rabbi Ovadia for his cleverness and wit on the issue when he states, “Now, though the Shulchan Arukh spoke of Windows, he would probably agree that Mac or any other OS will do.”

But, the truth is, in the 21st century, would it even been that far of a rabbinic stretch to compare physical windows to that of our computer screens which allow us to look through and see someone on the other side?  Why not?  The person sees the other, and is more present in that room (in a manner of speaking) that someone not watching the livestream and not physically in the room.  Thanks to programs like Facetime, Zoom, and Skype, we can look through a window and see into a sanctuary, hear the words, and pray along with the leader.  There is great precedent for the creation of a virtual minyan and for its acceptance by even the strictest of halachic observers.  That being said, the argument here is not to be the standard.  Certainly, Karo’s words of the Shulchan Aruch show that the service leader would prefer those in the room rather than looking through a window; in the same way, we prefer that all be physical present for a minyan under normal circumstances.  It is not unreasonable, however, to use this understanding of the minyan through a “window” during extreme settings such as during a pandemic.

A final point on the subject is that of the rabbinic idea of pikuach nefesh.  The preservation of life, the saving of life, the protection of our health, according to the rabbis, takes precedence over any commandment.  For example, Shulchan Aruch tells us in Orah Hayim 328:2:

For someone who has a dangerous illness, it is a commandment to break Shabbat for him. One who hurries to do this is praised. One who asks about this is a murderer.

Pikuach Nefesh, is understood as a “duty to ignore the law, if necessary, to safeguard health.”  In a time of pandemic, such as our struggle with the Coronavirus, it is our duty to “ignore the law” of the need for a physical presence to create a minyan, in order to safeguard our lives.  If we cannot be together in a minyan physically, and we are instructed to override commandments for the safety of our souls, would not the rabbis say “al achat kama vekama” (how much the more) should we not discount the minyan altogether but produce a virtual ability to say the prayers necessary and create that sacred space?

In conclusion, the t’shuvah to the sh’elah regarding if a virtual minyan is acceptable should be altered from its original supposition that those “persons… are not part of the minyan, because the minyan is the community of those are truly present with us.”  The points to consider should be:

1) that the origin of the minyan is built upon rabbinic notions of a “congregation” or “assembly” that are a stretch, to say the least,

2) that under extreme circumstances such as during a pandemic, halacha has been altered, and the Shulchan Aruch provides precedent of those not physically in the same room but able to hear and see the service through a “window,” can be strong parallel to livestreaming and “virtually” joining a worship group, and

3) that if pikuach nefesh allows us to “ignore the law,” how much more so would the rabbis agree that instead of ignoring the law of the minyan completely, a safe alternative could be found in its place?

It is my hope that the Central Conference of American Rabbis, as well as all the governing bodies of all denominations reconsider this issue through a new 21st century lens.  As Michael Marmur, Vice-President for Academic Affairs of the Hebrew Union College, once stated, “the most traditional thing a Jew can do is change.”  May we embrace the changes needed during this pandemic with thought, grace, and humility, and understand the need for the halachic acceptance of the virtual minyan.

[1] https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/minyan-via-internet/

[2] Ibid.

 

[3]https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_DeRabbi_Eliezer.8.6?ven=Pirke_de_Rabbi_Eliezer,_trans._Gerald_Friedlander,_London,_1916&lang=bi

 

[4]https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Orach_Chayim.55.13?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[5] Ovadia, 5

[6]https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Orach_Chayim.90.9?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[7] Ovadia, 6

[8] Ibid.

[9]https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Orach_Chayim.55.13?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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