World of the Sages: Holy congregations

The sanctity of a quorum is not defined by the individuals who make up that group.

If you are one of those people who occasionally arrive late to services, you would be familiar with the dilemma of how best to catch up to the congregation. Should I omit passages? Should I race through the prayers? Our sages were aware of human nature and discussed the rules of prayer for latecomers (B. Berachot 21b). There are two opinions as to what stragglers who arrive after the congregation has begun the central Amida prayer should do. According to both approaches the latecomers must quickly assess their ability to catch up. One opinion suggests that if they can reach the congregation before the leader begins the responsive Modim prayer towards the end of the Amida repetition, they should hurriedly pray. If not, they should tarry so that they can recite Modim with those present and only then pray. A second opinion places the catch-up point far earlier: Laggards may begin their prayers only if they will reach the congregation in time to join in for the Kedusha toward the beginning of the Amida repetition. Otherwise they are instructed to wait, join the congregation for the Kedusha and only then offer their own prayer. The Talmud clarifies the root of this argument: The question at hand is whether an individual may recite the Kedusha alone or whether it can only be said in a congregational setting. The short Kedusha passage relates to the transcendent sanctity of the Almighty and hence its name meaning "holiness." The first opinion suggests that an individual may say Kedusha alone, hence the catch-up point is Modim. The second opinion holds that Kedusha is a responsive communal prayer, and therefore dawdlers must reach the congregation by this prayer. Normative opinion adopts the latter approach: Kedusha, and for that matter all prayers that have an element of sanctity, must be recited in a quorum. The quorum requirement for holy matters goes beyond the prayer ritual. When faced with threats to our religious practice, we are enjoined - under the most serious circumstances - to sacrifice our lives rather than transgress the Almighty's commandments (B. Sanhedrin 74a-b). One such scenario is the public eye: Our sages tell us that if we are told to disobey Divine law in public or forfeit our lives, even if the violation is a minor infraction, we must sacrifice our lives to sanctify the name of God. The Talmud asks: What is the definition of the public domain for this rule? Our sages explain that "public" is no fewer than 10 Jews. What is the source for the quorum requirement for matters of holiness? In both cases our sages quote the biblical verse: And I will be sanctified among the Children of Israel (Leviticus 22:32). Sanctity is mentioned in this verse, but where do we see the number 10? Our rabbinic sources deal with this question in a number of instances. When relating to the Kedusha, our sages offer a gezeira shava (syllogism) based on the word toch (among) which appears in the verse dealing with sanctity and in the context of the rebellious Korah episode: Separate yourselves from among this congregation (Numbers 16:21). The passage concludes: Just as the case of Korah there were 10, here too the requirement is 10. A fundamental question arises from this derivation: Nowhere do we have evidence of Korah's party being made up of 10 people; on the contrary, the biblical account seems to describe a large rabble. Different suggestions - all based on the syllogism mechanism - are offered in our rabbinic texts (Genesis Rabba 91:2; Y. Berachot 11c; Y. Megilla 75b). The most interesting approach retains the original gezeira shava but adds an extra link. Our sages detail the rituals that require a quorum of 10: The opening blessing before reading the Shema, public prayer, the priestly benediction, reading of the Torah, supplementary reading from the Prophets, certain funeral and mourning practices, the seven blessings recited for a bride and groom and using God's name in the collective Grace after Meals (M. Megilla 4:3). The Talmud seeks the source for the magical quorum, and proceeds with a double syllogism: The reappearing word toch connects sanctity to an eda (congregation) in the Korah episode, and the word eda is also used elsewhere to describe the reconnaissance team that surveyed the Land of Israel. Although this team had a dozen original members, two of the party did not present a negative report and were excluded from Divine rebuke (see Numbers 14:27). Thus matters of sanctity require a quorum of 10 (B. Megilla 23b). Yet at least one commentator did not appreciate this explanation: How can we derive the rule that matters of sanctity require a quorum of 10 from the slanderous spies who spoke badly of the Land of Israel. It is far more appropriate to prefer a different syllogism that concludes requirements regarding holy matters from the conduct of righteous people. The commentator felt that it was so distasteful to arrive at the quorum requirement in this manner that he suggested that the original talmudic text had been corrupted (Rabbi Ya'acov of Orleans, 12th century. Cited by Rabbenu Bahya, 13th century, Spain). Despite this objection, we might suggest that our sages deliberately chose to derive the number 10 for a holy quorum from the far-from-holy spies. The sanctity of a quorum is not defined by the individuals who make up that group. A prayer group is permitted to recite hallowed prayers because it has come together to commune with God, not because the members of that group are necessarily uniquely pious or godly. Similarly, sanctifying the Divine name in public is not dependent on the identity of those present. Thus the shameful spies provide the perfect paradigm for a holy quorum. We come to pray as individuals, each of us with our own merits and unfortunately with our own embarrassing baggage. Yet when we stand together, we are viewed differently, permitted to recite special prayers and suddenly considered a holy congregation. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.