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Ask the Rabbi: The power of Torah

The alleged ability of a Torah scroll to transform a minor into the 10th person for a minyan has tantalized and perplexed scholars and laypeople alike.

Q: I have heard that a child carrying a Torah can complete a minyan when we are one short of the necessary 10 people. Is that true? How does that work? - C.M., Jerusalem A The alleged ability of a Torah scroll to transform a minor into the 10th person for a minyan has tantalized and perplexed scholars and laypeople alike. The murkiness, however, includes not only the power of the scroll, but also the role of children in creating ritual quorums. Conventional wisdom contends that Halacha requires a quorum of 10 adult men to recite sanctification prayers (devarim shebekedusha), such as Kaddish and Kedusha (Megilla 23b), and three adult men to recite the zimmun before Grace after Meals. The Talmud, however, cites one scholar who includes "even an infant in the cradle" to complete the quorum. While the Talmud seemingly rejects including such a young child, it does approvingly cite an alternative option of including in a zimmun a "child who understands that he is blessing God." The medieval commentaries disagreed regarding the scope of this ruling. Regarding zimmun, Rabbenu Alfasi (11th century, Algeria) included a child above the age of nine, and other scholars permitted prodigious boys older than six to join (Beit Yosef OC 199). Rabbi Yosef Karo subsequently ruled that a child can complete the quorum. Sephardim continue to follow this ruling, with most authorities permitting only a single child above nine years old to finalize the quorum. Ashkenazim, however, follow the ruling of Rabbenu Asher (1250-1327, Germany/Spain) who required all members of the zimmun to be above 13 (Rama OC 199:10). Matters become more complex, however, with regard to a prayer quorum. The illustrious Rabbenu Tam (12th century, France) contended that the cryptic conclusion of the Talmud forbade including a child into a quorum of three, but allows the child to join a minyan of 10. Kaddish and Kedusha require a "congregation of Bnei Yisrael" to sanctify God's name and can help complete this group. Another scholar, R. Zerahia Halevi, even allowed two children to complete this minyan (Bet Yosef OC 55). The majority of commentators, including Rabbenu Asher, followed by R. Yosef Karo, rejected this opinion and required all participants to be over 13. The further contended that Rabbenu Tam himself only issued his lenient ruling in theory, but in practice never used a minor to complete a minyan. Some Ashkenazic decisors, however, allowed a person to use a child in urgent situations (she'et dechak), a position which was adopted by R. Moshe Isserles (OC 55:4). A third position allowed including a child if he held a Sefer Torah. This opinion stems from the Talmudic opinion that nine men and an aron kodesh combine to create a minyan, with other sages similarly contending that two people on Shabbat, or two scholars learning Torah together, create a zimmun. These sages suggest that the objects of holiness - the container of the Sefer Torah, the holy Sabbath and books of divine wisdom - can themselves complete the atmosphere that allows humans to sanctify God's name. Yet in each case, the Gemara exclaims, "Is the aron kodesh a person? Is the Shabbat a person?" The Babylonian Talmud rejects these puzzling proposals, insisting that only humans can create the appropriate quorum. Nonetheless, a number of Ashkenazic scholars permitted this ritual (Mahzor Vitri 81). They based this practice on a parallel source in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Brachot 7:2) and other texts which affirm using either a Sefer Torah or a child to complete a minyan. As Prof. Israel Ta-Shma has documented, this ritual serves as one of the many examples of the influence of Eretz Yisrael customs on early Ashkenazic practice. Ta-Shma further contends that this practice stems from a belief of ancient Jewish mysticism that a Torah scroll contains the divine presence within it, and therefore can create the necessary environment to sanctify God's name in prayer. Be that as it may, many prominent Ashkenazic figures, including Rashi, dismissed this notion, with Rabbenu Tam declaring it as "nonsense" (shtut). Some later authorities, including R. Abraham Gombiner, allowed a child to hold the Torah when creating a minyan was a pressing need. Yet the majority of decisors completely forbade the practice, arguing that a child can never create the minyan (MB 55:24). In the 20th century, both Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 2:18) and Rabbi Yaakov Breisch (Helkat Yaakov OC 28) permitted this practice if failure to make a minyan might lead to the breakdown of the synagogue. Rabbi S. Z. Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo Tefilla 5:9) and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer OC 4:9), however, entirely forbade this practice, with the latter even stating that a person should walk out of the synagogue to prevent the minyan from occurring. The writer, on-line editor of TraditionOnline.org, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. JpostRabbi@yahoo.com