What makes a minyan?
February 22, 2006
After erev Shabbat services last Friday I got into a conversation with my friend David about the minyan rule. (A minyan is the quorum of ten required for communal prayer. Though Jews can and do pray alone, we're encouraged also to pray in community, and as a way of strengthening that practice it was decided long ago that many parts of the service -- chief among them, reading from the Torah scroll -- can only be done with a quorum.)
At my shul we are egalitarian, and count women as well as men toward a minyan. (This is true in most non-Orthodox contexts. As normative as it seems to me, it was a radical shift once upon a time; this Reb on the Web article does a great job of explaining how different denominations arrived at gender egalitarianism.) But what if we don't have ten? If we have nine adult Jews and one young Jew who hasn't yet reached b'nai mitzvah, the presence of the Torah taken from the ark is considered to "elevate" the child to adult status temporarily, and in this way we achieve the necessary ten. (I'm told this practice has its roots in the Shulkhan Arukh, though I don't have a citation handy.)
This isn't just academic. We're a smalltown shul with a small membership, and we often have to invoke this rule. Other times we have to eschew taking the scroll out of the ark altogether. We still read and study Torah together, of course; we just do it from our books, instead. Though I try not to let low numbers impact the Torah discussion -- I owe it to whoever's there to offer them as thoughtful and energetic a study session as I can -- I do feel something's missing when we're not able to savor the pageantry of taking our Torah out of the ark.
David likes to ask me hard questions. So he asked, with a twinkle in his eye, why
we're still attached to the number ten. We're happy to break with Orthodoxy in order to count women as well as men, so why aren't we
willing to break with custom on the question of how many people
are required? (After all, it is related in the
Babylonian Talmud -- in Soferim 10:7 -- that in Palestine,
as few as six men were once counted as sufficient to say communal prayers.)
If there's precedent for fewer, why not make use of that precedent?
And if there's precedent for changing on the gender front, why not change on the number front?
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