Over the years I have seen many different traditions in terms of the requirements for a minyan. In the Orthodox community the requirement is 10 men. In the liberal Jewish community (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist), the requirement is 10 Jewish adults, meaning over the age of bar or bat mitzvah. There are some shuls where if they have 9, they will open the ark and count a Torah as the 10th, and other shuls where they’ll take a minor, put a Humash in his hands, and make him the 10th. There is even an old Talmudic tradition that if you have 8 in the prayer service, and 2 jars of herring waiting at the kiddush, you have a minyan! Or maybe that was two bottles of scotch. Or was it two blended, but one single malt?!
Whatever traditions there are out there, and as always with Judaism there are many, the bottom line is that every branch of Judaism, regardless of denomination, every shul you will ever go into anywhere in the world, for a proper prayer service, will require a minyan. If the minyan isn’t there, if there are 6, or 8, or in most cases even 9, but not 10, the Torah won’t be taken out from the ark. The barchu will not be said. And the kaddish will not be recited. It is only in the presence of that minimum number that the full service can be recited, all of the rituals enacted.
The requirement for a minyan is at least as old as the Talmud, which means that it has been in place for some 2000 years or so, give or take a century or two. It is so firmly ensconced in our understanding of worship and synagogue life that it is entirely taken for granted. You would never hear someone say ‘does this shul require a minyan?’ Instead, the only question ever asked is ‘do we have enough for the minyan.’ The requirement of it is assumed.
And in that requirement there is another assumption, which is that in Judaism prayer is understood as being a communal exercise. Not that there is no such thing as individual prayer – there is. But Judaism expresses a clear preference for prayer in the context of community, where men and women can gather together to share in the experience of standing before God. You may have noticed that the language of the prayer book is composed almost entirely in plural language. Even before there was a liturgy, even before the prayers were composed and recited on a daily basis, community was understood as being a necessary component of reaching out to God.
Of course we know in Jewish life that community is not only about prayer. That communal sense, that requirement of a minimal number for prayer, became a value in every area of Jewish life. That is why Jewish communities have been so invested over the years in the idea of setting up communal institutions to help care for our fellow Jews. Jewish Big Brother, Big Sister, the Hebrew Free Loan society, the Jewish Burial Society, today’s Jewish Community Services, and the Federation, are all examples of the traditional Jewish commitment to community. If you are a Jew your community will be there for you, will care for you and support you. We understand it as a responsibility. That sense, that we are all connected to one another, that we are all responsible for one another, is perhaps most powerfully expressed in the Talmudic principle כל ישראל עריבים זה בזה – that all Jews are responsible, one for the other.
The shul I serve is a large one, and one of our ongoing challenges is finding a way to make a big place feel like it has a strong sense of community. We do that in many ways, but one of the most successful is to make small groups within the larger whole. The Sisterhood. The Pre-school. Recently a group of fellows has taken on the task of reconstituting our Men’s Club. It has been defunct for some time now, a few years at least. But that sense of seeking community is strong, and it is pulling on these individuals, bringing them together, helping them find common goals, problems to tackle, and solutions. Still in its fledgling stages, I have great hopes for what the coming months and years will bring.