I didn’t realize that my going to minyan was a problem, until about a year ago when I came home from shul. It was late Friday night after a very long week, so we weren’t hosting. Our 2-year-old son had already gone to bed, so it was just me and my wife ready to do Shabbos dinner. “Did you have a minyan?” She asked. She must have sensed I was satisfied with how the service had gone. It happens that we did get a minyan that night. But that was not what had made the evening so successful.
The singing was particularly moving, the conversational dvar Torah had led to a particularly insightful thought from a usually quiet congregant, a meal was arranged for visitor, and nearly everyone had stuck around for an extra couple of minutes to eat a piece of the brownie I had taken out of the oven not even two hours earlier. All in all, a nearly perfect Friday night davening.
Her question struck me. Why was her only question about minyan? She didn’t ask who was there, or if the chazzan sang well or if congregants had responded to my short d’var Torah. The focus was on one quantitative measure of success.
When you are a Rabbi in a small community, attaining a minyan — the ritual gathering of ten men — takes on outsized importance. When I first began leading our congregation a few years back, nearly every Friday night was centered around attaining that elusive, numerical goal. To gather the coveted ten, we would often resort to ambushing someone relaxing on the couch at home waiting on a street corner to ask passersby if they were Jewish, or even heading into the bar across the street to nab some unassuming Israeli if we ever really got desperate.
Thankfully, our community has been growing, so gathering a by-the-book minyan has become less difficult and so less of a focus. But the message — that attaining a minyan was a main metric of a service’s success — lingered.
For the most part, when Rabbis discuss minyan, they discuss the parameters of the obligation. Some, like Rav Moshe Feinstein, believe it to be an absolute obligation upon each adult male. Others, like Rav Hershel Schachter, believe it to be important, but non-essential — “icing on the cake” to the real obligation to pray with reverence to the Almighty. This conversation has many practical ramifications (especially to those traveling), but as it was Parshat Shlach this past week, I decided to look closer at the original source for needing a minyan.
Many lay people don’t realize that the entire idea of gathering ten for a minyan comes from the story of the spies in Parshat Shlach. When God discusses the punishment for the spies who slandered the land of Israel, he calls the cohort an Edah, or a congregation (Numbers 14:27). In two completely separate instances, the Talmud understands this to mean that a congregation consists of no less than ten.
The first is in tractate Sanhedrin (74b) where the Talmud understands this to mean that sinning in front of ten carries extra stringencies because ten is considered a public congregation.
The second is in tractate Megillah (23b) where, by the transitive property through Korach’s rebellion, the Talmud understands that with ten one can make a Kiddush Hashem, or the sanctification of God’s name, by praying with a minyan.
What seems clear from these two sources is that when ten people gather, actions and impact are magnified, whether for good or bad. The spies used a minyan for evil purposes — having a group of ten reek havoc in the Jewish camp. When a minyan comes together to pray, they hopefully achieve the opposite by joining together in meaningful prayer. In a sense, when one musician is alone, they are singing to one person; when ten people come together, a proverbial sound-system amplifies what they are doing and broadens its importance.
When my wife asked me if we had a minyan that night at services, I realized the focus that should be on the music was being misplaced on the sound system. On many Friday nights when we did not manage to gather a minyan, we may have missed out on something, but we did. The only failure would have been if we didn’t take the opportunity to find meaningful prayer in a 90-year-old building with our close-knit friends, guests, neighbors, and community.
So, I don’t go to minyan anymore. I go to shul, I go to davening, and I go to Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv. When asking others to join in, I do not ask them to join for the minyan. Minyan is an important tool, but not the essence of our communal obligation to gather and pray. Come to daven, come to sing, come to learn. Come to connect with others who are there for the same reasons. Display your commitment to Judaism to yourself and to your family by taking a commitment to communal prayer seriously.
If everyone did that, I’d venture to bet that nearly no one would ask: “so, nu, did you get a minyan?”