Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ask Chaviva Anything: What's the Deal with Minyans?

This question on Ask Chaviva Anything! made my heart sing. Why? I love getting questions that are genuine, and this is one of those that is seriously trying to understand a concept in Judaism. So here we go!

I saw your tweet about Mr. T helping making minyan at Ikea, and it made me curious. I'm not Jewish myself, and while I'm familiar with the concept of making minyan, it's not something I would have expected at Ikea. Can you tell me a bit more about making minyan and the contexts in which it occurs?
Before I answer the question, I have to express to you how amazing Ikea in Israel is. Yes, everyone complains that it's more expensive than in the U.S., and although that is true, it's completely written over by the fact that they have kosher food at Israeli Ikeas! Yes, you can go and get breakfast or lunch or dinner and a coffee and a 2 shekel ice cream cone (alas, they only put it in cones because it comes out of a machine, so no ice cream for this gluten-free foodie), and not worry about anything. It's like ... heaven. Especially as someone who used to go to Ikea and relish in the cheap food there. Being able to get a filet of salmon with two sides and a beverage for 35 shekel is a major shocker, especially because at just about any restaurant in Israel you can't get a salmon dish for even double that amount.

Sorry for the tangent, I couldn't help myself.

Now, minyan refers to the amount of men over bar mitzvah age required for public prayer in Judaism for the typical morning, afternoon, and evening prayers and a bounty of other public prayers. Although it's permissible to pray alone, there are some medieval commentators (Rashi) who suggest that one is obliged to pray in a minyan of at least 10 men and should travel near and far to seek out a minyan, while others rule that it's okay to pray on your own and not seek out a minyan (Ramban/Nachmanides). The downfall is that we understand that HaShem's presence rests with a group of at least 10 men praying together in a way that it doesn't with the individual who prays alone. But either way, Judaism praises any individual who manages to pray three times daily.

The term minyan comes from the Talmud and its origins are in the Hebrew root mem-nun-hey (מנה) meaning to count or number. It's also related to the Aramaic word mene, meaning numbered, which appears in Daniel 5:25. The way that the Talmud (the Oral Torah) -- both the Babylonian (Bavli) and Jerusalem (Yerushalmi)  -- arrive here in basically the same way based on a concept called gezarah shavah, meaning that if it's said here, then it's also said the same over there.

We start with Leviticus 22:32, which uses the word "midst" in the following way: "And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel." Then comes the word midst in Numbers 16:21: "Separate yourselves from the midst of the congregation." Lastly, the term "congregation" appears in a verse about the 10 spies that returned to give a negative report of Israel in Numbers 14:27:  "How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmur against me?"

Bam! The conclusion here is that a congregation of HaShem comprises 10 men. The Yerushalmi arrives there in a similar way, but with a bit more of a connection to Jacob's ten sons.

When do you need a minyan? Basically any time that the Torah is being read publicly, any time you need to say Kaddish (the prayer for the deceased), at a wedding, and any time that you are going through the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers (among a slew of other times, really). In Judaism, when in doubt, you need a minyan to say anything that puts you publicly with the congregation of HaShem.

There are loads of "cheats" involved in the minyan, like if you live in a secluded area and only have nine men plus a boy under bar mitzvah age, but an entire book could be written about the history of when 10 wasn't doable and what we used to do in times of crisis when finding 10 men required loss of life and limb.

Does this help answer the question?