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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on the Minyan

It is generally known that in order to hold public worship and to recite all the traditional prayers, our sages require a minyan, a group of ten Jews. Where does this law come from? What is the significance of the minyan? And who is qualified to be included in the ten required for this quorum? These are all issues that we as a congregation have been looking at this past week and, indeed, for some years before that.

The rabbis understand the Torah to require us to pray to God regularly, an obligation equally upon men and women. The Torah, however, does not mention nor do we find elsewhere in the Bible the requirement to gather a minyan for public prayer. In the story of Abraham's bargaining with God to save the wicked city of Sodom, God agrees to spare the city should He find ten righteous people there. In the book of Ruth, Boaz gathers a group of ten elders to formally witness his redemption of the property of Naomi's late husband as well as that of Ruth's late husband, and to take Ruth as his wife. This, however, is in a legal proceeding and not a prayer gathering.

It is in rabbinic literature that we find reference to a group of ten being required for public prayer. The Mishnah in Tractate Megillah (4:3) requires ten for a number of different activities including the recitation of certain prayers in the service, such as the repetition of the Amidah and the reading of the Torah. The Mishnah does not provide any supporting text nor does it specify who may be included in the ten.

Later texts connect this requirement to a verse in Leviticus (22:32) “V'nikdashti b'tokh b'nai Yisrael. I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.” This is seen as calling for a group of “the children of Israel” in order to perform acts of sanctity. The Talmud specifies which acts are included, but then needs to define the expression, “B'tokh b'nai Yisrael”. What does this entail? How do we know that we require ten for acts of sanctity like reciting Kaddish, repeating the Amidah, and reading the Torah? Each of the Talmuds find a path to ten utilizing verses from the Torah. In the Talmud of the Land of Israel (the Yerushalmi), Rabbi Shimon derives it by taking the word “tokh” in the verse in Leviticus and finding the same word in the passage in Genesis describing the arrival of Joseph's brothers , literally the children of Israel, of Jacob, in Egypt to purchase grain. In this instance, the Yerushalmi notes, “b'nei Yisrael” are only ten, the ten brothers, since Benjamin was left at home. This process of linking verses with the same words in them is one of Rabbi Ishmael's 13 principles for interpreting the law, a gezerah shavah.

The Babylonian Talmud also focuses on the word “tokh” and uses two steps to get to the number ten. In the Korach story in Numbers 16, Moses tells the people “separate yourself out of the midst (mi-tokh) of this congregation.” And how many constitute a congregation? A couple of chapters earlier, in the story of the spies sent into Canaan, we read, “How long must I suffer this evil congregation.” How many spies were there in that group? Twelve. Take away Caleb and Joshua who did not participate in this evil report and we have ten making a congregation, albeit an evil one.

The big question modern Jews ask is does a minyan have to be made up of ten men? Is there such a requirement in the Talmud? The answer is “no.” The Talmud does not raise the issue of gender at all If they had an opinion on this, it is not stated specifically. There is a very clear and well-reasoned book on this topic by two young rabbis, Ethan Tucker and Michael Rosenberg, entitled “Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law.” Tucker and Rosenberg devote about 50 pages in their book to following this question through the ages up to our time, and considering the various statements by rabbinic authorities after the time of the Talmud up to modern times. I will try to summarize the main points of their discussion, but in this shorter essay, I cannot cover every detail and argument that they lay out. However I find this survey most informative and in its conclusion very moving statements of our current reality.

If the rabbis in the Talmud fail to indicate any gender requirements for a minyan, the Rishonim, the early authorities, that is the rabbis from around the 10th century to the time of the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century are not shy in giving their opinions on who may constitute a minyan. Tucker and Rosenberg (I'll refer to them simply as “the authors”) cite six of the Rishonim, each of whom limits a minyan to men. These are prominent authorities, well respected scholars. Rav Sa'adiah Gaon defines a community as “ten males who have reached puberty.” Maimonides says “We don't read from the Torah in public with fewer than ten adult free males.” Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri says, “Devarim shebikedushah (matters of holiness) are not the domain of women... she may not count [even as a tenth] for the necessary quorum for the Torah reading.” The authors cite several other rabbis as well. However they point out that none of these Rishonim bring any actual proof for these statements. It seems like they are merely stating their own observations in their male-dominated communities of that era. It is not surprising at all. Even those who attempt to justify this limitation do not bring any real proof, they cite what the Talmud calls an asmakhta, a supporting verse. In the Talmud on many occasions, we find that the rabbis admit that they have no proof of a particular practice or law from the Torah, but they can cite a verse which seems to support their opinion. So we find those who refer to the derivation in the Yerushalmi of ten from the ten children of Israel/Jacob and they note that these were all males. Others link the ten to the ten spies, again ten male Israelites. These provide no real proof, just the opinions and observations of the authors, not unlike contemporary congregants who argue in favor of a practice simply because “we've always done it this way.” For many Jews, this may be sufficient. They can cite these great sages and conclude that that is the end of the story.

Our authors conclude this section by noting, “That women do not count is intuitive to these Rishonim, just as the exclusion of slaves and minors was intuitive [in the Talmud] to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. Their citation of verses is not meant to prove these religious intuitions, but rather to provide some allusive Scriptural context for them.” The question remains, according to our authors, “Why? What is behind the exclusion of women that emerges clearly in the medieval period?” To seek out an answer, they turn next to the definition of a minyan and its implications for gender.

They find that there are two models for the minyan among the various authorities. The first is that of Rabbenu Tam, Rashi's grandson, one of the main authorities behind the Tosafot, the commentary that appears opposite Rashi's commentary on every page of the Talmud.

In the Talmud, we find a number of attempts to define what constitutes a minyan when there are not quite ten and one opinion, that of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, is that even an infant in a cradle could be counted in a minyan. Rabbenu Tam comments and explains why this might be possible, “for God's presence dwells among all groups of ten, for when the rabbis learn that matters of sanctity are done in a quorum of ten...no distinction is made between minors and adults. But there must be nine adults, because more than one minor may not be counted. As is taught with respect to a slave, there is insufficient honor for heaven [in counting more]. A slave also comes under the principle “I will be sanctified” for God's presence dwells among all who are obligated in commandments and members of the covenant.”

Our authors explain, “For Rabbenu Tam, a minyan is nothing less and nothing more than a convocation of ten individuals anchored to the Jewish people through ancestry or obligation and any such group is theoretically an appropriate manifestation of b'nei Yisrael – the group in which God's name is sanctified. Beyond that, a minyan must not violate the standard of yekara d'shamaya, the honor of heaven. It must be objectively dignified and worthy of God's serious attention.

While Rabbenu Tam himself does not discuss the question of women being included in the minyan, Rabbenu Simchah of Speyer (13th century) building on the teaching of Rabbenu Tam states, that “a woman can join toward the ten required for prayer.” According to one text, Rabbenu Simchah actually counted a woman to a minyan and others see this purely as theoretical, but not to be acted upon. So if we accept this model of a minyan, there is a possibility, even according to rabbinic authorities, of counting women.

The second model of the minyan comes from a later source, Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe in the 16th century, who is better known by his major work, as the Levush. According to the Levush, “neither a slave nor a woman nor a minor may count towards the minyan, because they are not obligated to mitzvot and some permit joining nine adults with one minor, since the minor will eventually become obligated.”

Our authors point out that while both Rabbenu Tam and the Levush talk about obligation to fulfill mitzvot as a criterion for the minyan, they mean very different things. Rabbenu Tam thought this criterion included slaves (and, by extension, women), since they are obligated in many mitzvot. The Levush, by contrast, uses this criterion to exclude slaves and women. For him, obligation in mitzvot clearly means maximal obligation and excludes those, like women and like slaves, who while obligated by certain mitzvot, are exempt from others. RabbenuTam is able to conceive of a community that comprises free adult males as well as more marginal types, such as slaves, minors, and, most likely, women, but he feels that most such convocations are not so respectful in the honor of Heaven. So while meeting the definition of an assembly or congregation of the children of Israel, we will have to deal with the issue of yekara d'shamaya, the honor of Heaven, if we wish to include these other groups. The Levush, by contrast, will not even consider these people as a representation of the larger community. By his logic, how can someone exempt from a whole category of mitzvot possibly help constitute a microcosm of the Jewish people? In order to include women in a minyan that would satisfy the Levush, we would need to claim that contemporary women are obligated by all the mitzvot, unlike slaves, minors, and women of the past.

Our authors continue citing various medieval authorities who accept certain aspects of the models that we have discussed. I don't have space to consider these here in any detail. After discussing the view of Rabbenu Tam and Rabbenu Simchah's extension of it in his longer work, the Bet Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Karo in the authoritative code of the Shulchan Arukh simply states with regard to the recital of Kaddish, “Kaddish is said, and it is said only in the presence of ten free, adult males who have reached puberty, and the same is true of Kedushah and Barekhu, which are not said with fewer than ten.” Nonetheless, our authors cite other rabbis who agree with the reasoning of Rabbenu Tam and theoretically hold that women might count in the minyan were it not for the consideration of yekara d'shemaya, the honor of Heaven.

What then do we mean by this term “yekara d'shamaya”? Some have attempted to connect it with the term used regarding women getting aliyot, “k'vod hatzibbur,” the honor of the community. However, with k'vod hatzibbur, we can obtain an objective assessment of community standards and determine that there is no objective reason to prevent women being called to the Torah. However, here, where the criterion is the honor of Heaven, how do we present ourselves as a community before God? According to our authors, “the honor of Heaven demands that we not serve God in a manner that would be recognized as mediocre, unseemly, and falling short of formally recognized standards. The honor of Heaven can only be appeased when the quorum in question quite obviously and objectively presents no indignity whatsoever.” Our authors suggest further that “the inclusion as equals in the minyan of previously marginal members is consistent with yekara d'shamaya when their exclusion would offend it.” So for example groups made up mainly of minors would not be taken seriously even today. Until recent years, groups made up mostly of women were not taken seriously either. However, note our authors, “But the times have changed so dramatically that there are almost no groups that are taken seriously that do not include women as equals...If one follows Rabbenu Tam's definition of minyan but maintains its all male nature in practice on the basis of yekara d'shamaya, one may in fact be undermining the very value one intends to uphold.” Yekara d'shamaya may not be waived, but society's changing standard can affect how we do and don't experience it. The message that says women compromise the honor of Heaven is today palpably false and distorting, perhaps even threatening to the vitality of the Jewish community. So if one follows the reasoning of Rabbenu Tam and wishes to count women in the minyan, there is a strong halachic basis for it.

Our authors also devote several pages to those who uphold the view of the Levush that one may not count women because they are exempt from positive, time-bound mitzvot. In order to be a full-fledged member of the congregation, they hold, one must be fully obligated by all the mitzvot as are all Jewish men. Some contemporary rabbis have tried to suggest ways in which women may take on the commandments from which they have traditionally been exempted. In truth, many women have long accepted many of these commandments as if they were equally bound by them and the rabbis have acknowledged that even without being required to fulfill these commandments like hearing the shofar, waving the lulav, eating in the sukkah and such, women who choose to perform these acts, have done a mitzvah. However, that is not a real solution to the question of women's obligation today.

Our authors ask then, whether it is possible nowadays to make a claim that women are now maximally obligated by mitzvot and therefore may count fully in a minyan? The answer they come up with is not their own. It is an argument made by a respected Orthodox rabbi and Bible commentator. He utilizes the historical evidence that our rabbis often redefined terms to meet changed circumstances. The term “goy” was originally used for any non-Jew. However, in medieval times, when Jews did a lot of commerce with Christians, the term was redefined as referring to lawless pagans and not civilized Christians. Likewise, we find the term Cheresh which meant a deaf/mute and was considered the equivalent of one who is mentally incompetent, was changed in light of the development of means for communicating and instructing such individuals. They are no longer exempted from certain mitzvot on the basis of mental disability.

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun similarly proposes that the term 'nashim” or “ishah”, women or a woman, be redefined not in terms of biology. While, as we've seen, in earlier times, women were lumped together with slaves and minors in terms of legal status, for they were seen as adjuncts to society. They were dependent on and subservient to their husbands and a larger patriarchal structure for support. Rabbi Bin-Nun suggests that those women in our day and age who understand themselves to be b'not chorin, freed from earlier patriarchal structures, are thus subject to all the traditional ritual obligations of men. As he writes, “Anyone who cites the rulings of the Sages, which are based on the notion that 'a woman is similar to a slave' in all arenas, fails to understand that he is transferring a halakhah from one reality to another without any basis whatsoever. 'Our women' are not only all important – as the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) already said – but they are independent/liberated... it is obvious that we are not speaking about the same category of nashim.” According to our authors, “Rabbi Bin-Nun's model supports allowing women to count as equals in the minyan even according to the Levush's definition of a quorum of ten as being comprised of ten maximally obligated Jews.”

Not everyone will buy the arguments being advanced in this volume, I suspect, but in our community, they seem most appropriate and provide an acceptable halakhic understanding of the issues and a way to apply the legal mechanism of the past to an everchanging reality in the present. Our authors, almost by Divine providence conclude their volume with a citation from the Midrash Sifre on a passage in this week's Torah portion. Here we read of the claims brought forward by the daughters of Tzelofchad, after their father's death in the wilderness, as Moses plans to distribute the land of Canaan to the male members of the Israelite nation. These five women reason that since there is no son to inherit their father's would-be portion in the land, he would be totally obliterated from memory. They argue that in the absence of sons, the daughters should be able to inherit their father's estate. The Sifre reads as follows: “And Tzelofchad's daughters drew near (quoting Numbers 27:1) When Tzelofchad's daughters heard that the land would be divided according to the tribes to males and not to females – they all gathered to take counsel with one another. They said,'The goodness of God is not like the goodness of flesh and blood. Flesh and blood show greater goodness to males than to females, but the One Who spoke the world into being is not so, but is good to all, as it is said, 'The Lord is good to all and shows kindness to all creatures. (Psalms 145:9).”

As we have seen in this summary of the detailed presentation in Tucker and Rosenberg's volume, male-only minyanim are not divinely ordained, they are a construct conceived of by the rabbis in medieval times and defined in different ways over the centuries. They may have made sense in a time when women were excluded from society. Changing times give us different perspectives on what once were self-evident truths and here too, we see that the time has come to consider new ways to view our spiritual community and to welcome all of the children of Israel into that community. When we strip away all the centuries of accumulated interpretations and underlying assumptions and go back to the sources, God says simply, “I will be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.” Today we all equally are part of that heritage, part of the children of Israel, regardless of gender and should all be equally recognized in our sacred convocations.

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