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Counting to 10, the hard way

06/10/2021 01:19:04 AM


This coming week, our daily minyan will be meeting in person every evening, and Sunday, Monday and Thursday mornings, enabling us to test and finalize our procedures. The following week, we will be “open for business” with live services twice a day every day, with zoom still as an option.  Based on the guidance of our task force, our daily services will be mask-optional, but in-person attendance will be open only to those who are fully vaccinated (Shabbat services will still be open to all).  These logistics beg a more basic question- why pray as a community at all, and why require 10? What's wrong with praying alone?  What happens to “zoom minyan” when COVID is truly gone?  Our Torah portions last week and this week  provide some insight.

One reason for the minyan requirement is that some rituals and experiences are far more impactful if they are public. Kaddish is at its essence a call and response.  It only achieves its full spiritual effect if there is a community responding to the one reciting it.  Another is that is not possible to fully praise God without a crowd.  In  Leviticus 22:32, God declares “I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.   One can always study Torah as an individual, but it is embarrassing if one is reading from the scroll and there are more people on the bimah than in the seats!  .  But why are 10 required to constitute this sacred quorum?  Couldn’t 9, 7, or 6 be sufficient? 

There are many potential Biblical reasons for the magic number of 10.  For example, in Genesis, God agrees that the evildoers of Sodom will be saved if there are ten righteous people present.  Boaz summons ten of the townspeople to witness the transactions that enable Ruth to become his wife.  

The Talmud’s answer (Megillah 23b) follows a circuitous route, weaving together three disparate passages from the Torah.  From the verse in Leviticus I cited above, it connects to this week’s Torah portion, where God says to Moses and Aaron, regarding Korah and his rebels “separate yourselves from the midst of this assembly.  The shared word midst creates a link, but still does not give us a number (Korah’s assembly numbers over 250!).  The Talmud goes on to link this verse to a passage in last week’s portion, where the 10 wicked spies, who despise the land of Israel are called an evil assembly. Not an auspicious orign for a holy practice, but a reminder that even sinners have the capability to create holiness.

In the days of the Talmud, being present in person was the only conceivable way to form holy community.  Indeed, the sages debate what happens if a group is divided between multiple physical spaces.  They did not have the opportunity to consider the possible impact of virtual interactions. 

Our “Zoom minyan,” enacted as an emergency measure,  has been a tremendous source of comfort and community, but is it the same as “being there?”   Our traditional assumes that if there is a minyan in one physical space, that those who are remote can "plug in" to that sense of community,  and we will certainly continue to offer that option.  I wonder what our sages would have thought if zoom had been available.  I also whether in fact having some on zoom and some in the room creates a  disconnect between the two groups.   I’m currently involved in intensive conversations about what role virtual participation will have in synagogues across the country in a “new normal,” and one of my projects for my sabbatical is to bring the conversation to its conclusion.  I look forward to sharing the results of these conversations with our community.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784