The Meaning of Minyan

What’s the source of our synagogue’s greatest strength? I would argue that it is having two daily minyanim. The minyanim enable people to fulfill their daily prayer obligations as well as for mourners to say the Kaddish, elevating their loved one’s soul ever higher. We know that the name of G-d is elevated when ten Jews gather for worship, and this is why G-d’s name is added to the Birkat HaMazon (prayer for after meals) every time there are ten Jews who eat together. However, why is a minyan required and why specifically ten individuals?

Ironically, one of the sources for the Minyan requiring ten comes from this week’s reading. The Jerusalem Talmud uses the technique of a Gezerah Shavah, or the same word appearing in two biblical verses, to derive this. It first references Parshat Kedoshim, which states דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת עליהם קדושים תהיו, “Speak to the entire congregation of Israel and say to them ‘You shall be holy.’”[1] The entire Israelite community is supposed to imitate G-d in being holy. However, our portion is then cited to indicate this was not the case, as 10 of the spies returned with negative reports and tried to get the Israelite community to return to Egypt. Because of this, G-d told Moses עד מתי לעדה הרעה הזאת אשר המה מלינים אותי, “How much longer will this evil congregation mutter against me?”[2]  As these 10 individuals representing 10 of the tribes of Israel did not have faith in G-d, they represent an “evil congregation.” In contrast, we are commanded to be “holy” through gathering 10 individuals to sing G-d’s praises at each and every service.[3]

Why pray to G-d three times a day with 10 people? If we have 9 or 8 is G-d no longer there? I don’t think that’s what the Talmud is saying but it is indicating that something is lost if a minyan is not present. Through being part of a minyan we are more than just a collection of individuals-we are individuals coming together as a community to invoke our belief in G-d and our faith in G-d’s sovereignty. In a minyan, the שליח צבור, or prayer leader, concludes each blessing, and the others respond אמן. אמן does not just mean “I agree” but rather comes from the word אמונה, meaning “faith.” Through participating in a minyan, we are demonstrating that we publicly affirm our Creator and thus counteract the negative message of the spies. The ten spies were wrong not necessarily in their report but because they didn’t have faith that G-d would help them conquer the Promised Land. As Caleb and Joshua replied, “If G-d is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against G-d.”[4]

The Ishbitzer Rebbe in his book מי השילוח uses the example of the spies to indicate the power of prayer.[5] He references the Zohar, stating that there are three worlds to G-d: a world in which He is hidden and about which is not known, a world in which He always makes himself known and a world in which He makes himself both known and unknown. One who does not find any benefit in prayer corresponds to the world in which G-d is not known, because G-d removes His glory from such an individual. The world in which He is always known corresponds to the person who always helps and aides others and doesn’t need to rely on prayer to G-d. The world in which G-d makes Himself both known and unknown corresponds to the person who needs prayer in order to reach G-d. For the Ishbitzer, the 10 evil spies correspond to those who don’t find any benefit in prayer. What their eyes see is all that matters, and they do not rely at all on G-d. Caleb corresponds to the one to whom G-d both reveals Himself and does not. When Caleb first addresses the ten spies, he says “Let us by all means go up and we shall take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”[6] He does not mention G-d, just his belief in the people. The 10 spies counter him stating “we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”[7] It’s Caleb’s word against theirs, and they win over the masses. It is not until Joshua, one to whom G-d always reveals himself, intervenes that the people are able to be shushed. Joshua has Divine inspiration and he knows what to do to quiet the people. He leads Caleb in the rending of their clothes and rebuking the others for their lack of faith in G-d, for how quickly they spurned G-d for a different path.

I imagine that most of us are like Caleb. We wouldn’t be here today if we saw no benefit to prayer-instead we’d be at the beach or doing a BBQ. At the same time, we don’t necessarily find G-d in every aspect of our lives without prayer. It would be great to always be imbued with Divine inspiration but at times we are left bereft and needing to search for it. That is why Caleb is the prime example for us of someone to whom G-d revealed Himself to at times yet was hidden from at others, and he needed prayer in order to connect with G-d. That is the primary purpose of minyan: to come together to pray to G-d, to sing G-d’s praises, to thank G-d, to ask G-d questions, even to cry out to G-d in anger sometimes. That is why it is so significant that regardless the size of our congregation, we have maintained a twice daily minyan 365 days of the year. In so doing we are showing our faith in Hashem and in the power of prayer. Let us continue to find G-d in our prayer and increase the frequency that we come together to affirm our faith in G-d through our participation in minyan.

[1] Leviticus 19:2

[2] Numbers 14:27

[3] Based off Yerushalmi Megillah 4:4

[4] Numbers 14:8-9

[5] Mei HaShiloach, comment on שלח לך אנשים

[6] Numbers 13:30

[7] Numbers 13:31

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