Flying home from Israel a couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Modern Orthodox man from the Wesley Hills area of Rockland County. He shared with me that his learning community struggles to get a morning minyan (quorum of 10 for public prayer) on a daily basis, and that the community elected to pay five people to come on a daily basis to assure the presence of a minyan!
Our history is replete with stories of people looking for someone to serve as “the tenth” for a minyan. To this day there are many neighborhoods where it is not uncommon for someone to stop you in the street and ask “are you Jewish?” and “can you help make a minyan?”
There is no mitzvah in the Torah that obligates a person to pray with a minyan!
Having said that, let me explain.
Public worship and the requirement of a minyan were rabbinic enactments some two thousand years ago. Their purpose was to encourage communal prayer; more specifically, the rabbis taught that our prayer, the Amidah, was accepted more favorably by God than individual prayer. The rabbis have long debated whether there is an actual obligation to pray with a minyan or whether it is simply more meritorious to do so! The Shulchan Aruch (OC 90:9) writes that a person should “make an effort” (yishtadel) to daven with a minyan, but does not state that “one must.” Even those who call it an obligation recognize many exemptions to the obligation: where someone is occupied with another mitzvah (obligation); where someone needs to travel further than 18 minutes by foot (and the rabbis disagree regarding whether this is exemption is based on distance or time!); or where someone is busy earning a living. Personally, I would add to the exemption list: when someone is occupied caring for the needs of another.
There are many added benefits to praying with a minyan. First and foremost, a minyan helps create community. A minyan also enables us to answer “amen” to Kaddish and Kedushah, both of which are the public sanctifications of God; a minyan enables us to read publicly from the Torah. Coming off a week with 3 shiva houses, we know that by having a daily minyan, our community fosters a culture of care, compassion and support for its families. All these benefits are wonderful by-products of coming together to offer our prayer. Some rabbis labelled as “bad neighbors” those who failed to support public worship when they were not exempted.
It is a mitzvah as well, however, to pray at home. And it is a mitzvah as well to come to the synagogue to pray with others, even if a minyan quorum of ten is not achieved. Our Tuesday morning 8:45 service rarely gets a minyan, but the people who are there pray, sing, teach, learn, meditate, give love and feel embraced. Our Thursday morning 6:45 service often has a minyan, but even when it doesn’t, the morning’s “regulars” count on seeing and connecting with each other and are glad to complete their prayers together. Our Sunday morning 8:45 service often comes up just short, but those of us there count on that time to breathe together. With or without a minyan, we benefit by coming together in prayer.
Some mourners feel a sense of disappointment when they come to say kaddish and we don’t get a minyan. I try to teach, however, that the mourners’ sacrifice, effort and intentions are what fulfills their obligation to their loved ones, regardless of whether they actually utter the words of the kaddish on a particular morning. Furthermore, a minyan that exists for the primary purpose of a mourner’s kaddish fails to meet the primary objective of public worship and will never shape the consciousness of the community.
Our community would love to achieve a quorum every day. And our success rate this summer has been pretty good in the evenings, thanks to the efforts of some pretty dedicated people. But I would rather fail even half the time than succeed by paying people to pray, or by counting the Torah as the 10th person as some communities have resorted to doing over the centuries (a practice dismissed as shtut, or foolishness, by most of our authorities, and resorted to by the minority only in cases where a community is on the verge of collapse!).
Twenty years ago most of our community lived within a three mile radius of the synagogue. Today, many of our congregants drive twenty minutes to be here. Forty minutes of driving for a fifteen minute service is hard to justify for some, just as the sages of old drew the line at an eighteen minute walk! I question nobody’s commitment to the synagogue or to the community on the basis of whether they attend our public prayer services.
That being said, I invite you once again to experience the benefits of public prayer. Find a place of prayer near you where you can draw near to others. Come create community with us, even one night per month. All who are willing receive a number correlating to one of the nights of the month, and each month we hope you will commit to attend our evening service on that date of the month. (If your number is 23, for example, you would attend the 23rd of each month, and we would see you tomorrow!) You even get an exemption on Shabbat and holidays. If you didn’t receive a number or don’t remember receiving one, reach out to me and I will make sure you get one. (Just don’t all jump for 31 at the same time!)
May we find ourselves in the company of good neighbors, and may we strive to be the same.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
What a lachrymose people we can be. In three weeks we will sit on the floor as mourners, crying about the destruction of a Temple two millennia ago. “How lonely sits the city that once was filled with people. She has become a widow. She cries alone at night, and tears scar her cheeks. None of her beloved are left to comfort her.” [Eicha, the Book of Lamentations] Isn’t it sad enough to fast and mourn through Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of Av?
But, no. Instead we position ourselves for ongoing sorrow. We establish a mood of mourning with no weddings or community celebrations for three complete weeks leading up to a crescendo of grief on Tisha B’Av. This period of time began yesterday with the fast of Shiva Asar b’Tamuz, the 17th of Tamuz, commemorating the day that the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the beginning of the end of Jewish sovereignty for the next 2000 years.
Why do we do this? Why do we, as a religious people, enforce sadness?
One answer to this question can be found in the Talmud where we read, “All who mourn over Jerusalem merit to see her in her joy.” [B.T. Ta’anit 30b]. Commentators on this statement note that we do not read that we will see Jerusalem’s joy in the future; we read that we merit today seeing her in her joy. At a wedding, at the height of joy, we smash a glass to recall the destruction of Jerusalem. We are meant to truly appreciate the enormity of loss, the fragility of life, the precariousness of our plans and yet still embrace life. When we recognize how difficult life is and still insist on making meaning and contributions to the world, we thereby experience life in its fullness and joy.
In the Jewish Artist’s Way class this morning, one student asked about a heartbreaking realization. She explained, “Thanks to this class, I write my morning journal pages and plan an enjoyable artist’s date. I feel peaceful and creative. Then I listen to the news and hear about a world gone crazy. What meaning can my contentment hold in a world filled with violence and hatred? How can I harmonize these two opposing forces?
The wise answers that came from fellow classmates all derived from one central idea: we cannot fix things out of our control. But we can make the world a better place by staying present and appreciative. We choose to do what we can in our own corners of the world. We decide to be kind and compassionate and loving. To live in this world is to live in vulnerability and yet still be tender and courageous, thoughtful and creative.
The act of grieving teaches us how to be joyful. The act of remembering tells us that we can choose to reaffirm our faith despite the reality of life around us. Perhaps Judaism teaches us to mourn so that we can learn how to truly live.
May we all find profound meaning and also joy in the weeks ahead,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill