The Origins of the Minyan

The Origins of the Minyan

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Emor – פרשת אמר

May 14, 2022 – יג אייר תשפב

The Origins of the Minyan

Jewish law mandates that a quorum be present for the public liturgy to be conducted fully and properly. The quorum, known colloquially and in the post-Talmudic halakhic lexicon as a minyan, consists of ten Jewish males over the age of majority.   The notion of a minyan is absent from Scripture. This is not surprising in light of the late emergence of regularized public prayer in the history of Israelite religion. In the Tannaitic period, it was decided which synagogue and extra-synagogue activities could be performed only with a quorum. In the third century CE, late Tannaim and early Amoraim combed Scripture in search of prooftexts with which to support this relatively new Judaic institution, which had quickly come to define “communal” prayer.   The Mishnah teaches that the following liturgical practices may not be performed in an assemblage of fewer than ten men: 1) dividing the Shema (an arcane custom in which people who have already satisfied their morning prayer obligations as individuals assemble as a group to recite Kaddish, Barkhu, and the pre-Shema blessing “Who fashions the luminaries”), 2) precentor’s repetition of the Amidah, 3) priestly blessing, 4) Torah reading, 5) Haftorah reading, 6) standing and sitting tributes at a funeral, 7) mourners’ blessing, 8) wedding blessing, and 9) incorporating God’s name into the invitation to recite Grace after Meals (Mishnah Megillah 4:3).   Rabbi Yohanan explained that “matters of sanctity” may not be uttered in the absence of a quorum (Megillah 23b). He cited the verse “You shall not profane My holy name, and I shall be hallowed in the midst of the Israelites (Leviticus 22:32).” But that verse alone hardly proves anything about the size of the crowd needed to sanctify God’s Name by liturgical (or any other) means. The Talmud cites a teaching in the name of Rabbi Hiyya. Using the hermeneutical principle of gezeirah shavah, whereby two unrelated verses both featuring nearly identical words are assumed to be teaching identical rulings, the word בתוך in Leviticus 22:32 is tied to מתוך in the verse about Korach’s rebellious faction, “Separate yourselves from this community (Numbers 16:21).” A second usage of the gezeirah shavah principle connects the word עדה (community) in Numbers 16:21 with the word עדה in the verse about the spies, “How long for this evil community (Numbers 14:27)?” Just as the evil community of spies numbered ten men – Joshua and Caleb are excluded from that reckoning because they issued a favorable report about the Promised Land – so too the sanctification of God happens in an assemblage of, minimally, ten men.   Rabbi Hiyya’s exegesis is not especially compelling, relying on three disparate verses and twice utilizing a hermeneutical principle seemingly devoid of internal logic. Nonetheless, several other sages borrowed Rabbi Hiyya’s exposition in their own attempts to explain the Biblical basis for a minyan of ten. The Talmud, in explaining why an individual worshipper cannot recite the Kedushah prayer on his own, cites Rabbenai the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba who offered a terse version of the above exposition that omits reference to Numbers 14:27 (Berakhot 21b). Another Talmudic passage, which explains that sanctification of the Divine Name can only be achieved by way of martyrdom if the death occurs in the presence of ten fellow Jews, cites Rabbi Yannai the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba who offered the same clipped version of the above exposition (Sanhedrin 74b).   Possibly because of the weaknesses of Rabbi Hiyya’s exposition (see Torah Temimah Genesis 42 note 2), Yerushalmi offers three other Scriptural supports for the concept of the minyan: a) Rabbi Yohanan noted the appearance of the word עדה in the verse “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy (Leviticus 19:2),” and connected it to the appearance of עדה in Numbers 14:27 concerning the spies. Just as there were ten evil spies, so too does Israel perform the holiest of liturgies in a gathering of ten men. b) Rabbi Simon noted the word תוך, meaning “in the midst,” in Leviticus 22:32, and connected it to the word תוך in the verse “The sons of Israel were among those who came to buy grain, for the famine was in the Land of Canaan (Genesis 42:5).” Only ten sons of Jacob went on the mission to buy grain; Joseph was already in Egypt, and Benjamin was refused permission by Jacob to travel. Just as תוך connotes ten in Genesis, so does it connote ten in Leviticus’ instruction that God be hallowed by the Israelites. c) Seemingly rejecting the first two derivations, Yerushalmi cites a cryptic comment from Rabbi Jose ben Rabbi Bun who was dismissive of the מתוך exposition, focusing instead on the term בני ישראל “the children of Israel” as proof for the quorum of ten (Yerushalmi Megillah 75b).   Establishing the quorum for public prayer at ten was consistent with the rabbinic notion that God’s presence is found a) where ten Jews engage in Torah study (Mishnah Avot 3:6), b) in the synagogue, and c) anywhere ten Jews gather to pray (Berakhot 6a). Support for all these assertions about the presence of the Shekhinah are mustered from the verse “God stands in the congregation of the mighty (Psalm 82:1).”.   Though unrelated to prayer or public worship, Scripture records several instances in which ten people constitute the smallest recognizable community: a) When Abraham petitioned God to spare Sodom, he went no further than to ask for the city to be saved in the merit of ten righteous people (Genesis 18:32). Rashi explained that Abraham already knew not to beseech God for Divine mercy in the merit of fewer than ten persons because God had not held back the flood waters in the collective merits of Noah and his sons and their wives (a total of fewer than ten). Alternatively, the Midrash suggests that Abraham thought God would show mercy in the merit of Lot, Lot’s wife, their four daughters, and four sons-in-law (Genesis Rabbah 49:13). b) Jethro encouraged Moses to appoint officials who would share the burdens of leadership with him. The lowest ranking officials were captains of ten (Exodus 18:21). c) In orchestrating his takeover of the redemption and pseudo-levirate marriage processes from the potential redeemer who was a closer kinsman, Boaz assembled ten elders at the city gate (Ruth 4:2). A Baraita cites the verse as proof that the blessings invoked under the wedding canopy require the presence of a minyan (Ketubot 7b).   Outside the rabbinic canon, there is evidence from the literature of the Qumran sect that a quorum of ten was needed for prayer, Grace after Meals at the Messianic banquet, and Torah study (Community Rule 6:6). Some scholars find an allusion to the minyan concept as far back as early Hasmonean times. “But Judas Maccabeus, with nine others, got away to the wilderness… so they might not share in the defilement (II Maccabees 5:27).”   The Talmud concedes that for certain purposes, notably funerary rites and the invitation to recite Grace after Meals, the quorum was established at ten men merely because it would be unseemly for the activity in question to be done in a smaller group (Megillah 23b). Since the minyan is not a Biblical rule, and its parameters were determined, in part, by sociological factors, some sages were willing to countenance leniencies in exigent circumstances. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi allowed an infant to be counted as the tenth man for the purpose of Grace after Meals. Rav Huna permitted counting the synagogue’s ark as the tenth man. Rav Nachman questioned the leniency, rhetorically asking “Is the ark a man?” Rav Huna responded that a gathering of nine people looks quite similar to a gathering of ten people (Berakhot 47b). Rav Huna’s concern for appearances rather than for an objective standard illustrates the causal manner with which he treated the minyan rule.   An even more radical relaxation is found in the Minor Tractates (Soferim 10:6). After stating that the public liturgy and Torah reading cannot be executed in the absence of a minyan, the text notes that in the West (Eretz Yisrael) those sacred aspects of the synagogue service are performed even if only seven men are present. The text then notes that “others” permit the recitation of such prayers even if only six are present. The Scriptural basis for those astounding leniencies is a verse from the Song of Deborah: “When uprising broke out in Israel, when the people rallied for duty, bless the Lord (Judges 5:2).” The verse contains seven words, alluding to a quorum of seven. Alternatively, the verse alludes to a quorum of six because “bless” is its sixth word.   The major halakhic codes do not rule in favor of the more extreme leniencies in the minyan law. However, if a quorum is present at the beginning of the service, the precentor may continue without pause even if some people step out and the quorum is lost (Shulhan Arukh Orach Chaim 55:2).   It is reasonable to suggest that the minyan requirement for certain rituals and liturgical formulae did not begin with an official decision by the sages, but instead emerged from the living reality of early Common Era Judaism. The Mishnah merely codified existing practice already being enforced by the synagogue wardens, themselves lay leaders. Yet it is also reasonable to suggest that the sages purposely added certain prayers (e.g., Kaddish, Kedushah, and Barkhu) to the list of compositions requiring a quorum as a means of attracting Jews to communal worship services. People inclined to satisfy their prayer obligations in a private setting came to believe, by way of homiletic hyperbole, that their spiritual well-being demanded minyan attendance. These messages continue to be delivered from the pulpit and lectern to this very day.