A man living in Jerusalem was saying the mourner’s kaddish for his mother. That’s the prayer that Jews say for eleven months after the death of a parent. In order to say it, however, one needs to be praying with a minyan, a quorum of ten Jewish adults over the age of Bar Mitzvah.
Every day, consistently, the man would go to a synagogue so that he could pray with a minyan, and thus be able to say the prayer. One night, the man returns home really late, at 3 am. He collapses into bed, exhausted. As soon as he turns out the light, he bolts upright. “Oh no! I did not pray Arvit!” the evening prayer. “I missed saying kaddish for my mother!”
With tremendous effort, he drags himself out of bed and starts to dress.
Where is he going to find a minyan at this hour?
No problem. As anyone who lives in Jerusalem can tell you, day or night, you can always find a minyan at the Shteibelach— a building filled with a bunch of small synagogues in the Zichron Moshe neighborhood. People gather in one of the rooms, and as soon as a minyan shows up, they start praying. You can show up at pretty much any time of day and find a service about to begin.
But not at 3 am. When the man gets to the shteibelach, it is empty.
He takes out his cell phone and dials the number for a taxi company.
“Hello! Can you please send six taxis to the Shteibelach in Zichron Moshe?”
“Adoni (my dear sir)! It’s three o’clock in the morning! You think I have six taxis? What do you think I am, a magician? …I only have five.”
“Okay. So send five!”
He dials another number. “Hello, please send five taxis to Zichron Moshe…”
“Atah meshugah! You’re crazy! I only have four!
“Fine. I’ll take them.”
Within twenty minutes, there is a line of nine taxicabs parked neatly outside the Shteiblach.
“Adoni,” says one of the drivers, “Why do you need nine taxis? There’s no wedding here, no Bar Mitzvah, nothing.”
“I want you all to turn your meters on and come inside with me. We are going to pray together the evening prayer — arvit. I will pay each of you just as if you’re giving me a lift.”
These taxi drivers are not observant Jews. Some of them have not been inside a synagogue since their Bar Mitzvah. Although they are fluent in Hebrew, they have no idea how to pray: what and when to answer; when to speak aloud and when to stay quiet.
It takes them quite a while. But the kaddish man, shows them exactly what do do. At 3:30 am in Jerusalem that night, he is able to say kaddish for his mother.
Afterwards, they all go outside to the taxis; the meters in the cars are pushing upwards of 90 shekels per car. The man pulls out his wallet and starts to count out the approximately 800 shekels it is going to cost him. That is more than two hundred dollars
“How much do I owe you?” he asks the first taxi driver in the line.
“Adoni, what do you take me for? Do you honestly believe I would take money from you. who just gave me such an opportunity to help my fellow Jew say kaddish?”
He moves down the line to the second driver, who gives him the same answer. “Do you know how long it is since I prayed?”
And the third and the fourth, all the way down the line to the ninth…
Not one takes a shekel.
And so they embrace and drive off to a new morning in the holy city of Jerusalem!
The name of the prayer the man said, the Kaddish, comes from the word Kadosh, meaning holy. It is an ancient prayer in which we publicly proclaim the sanctity, or holiness, of God’s name. A leader recites the words, and the congregation responds in certain places with various interjections: Amen, B’rikh Hu, or Y’hei Sh’mei Rabba m’vorach l’alam ul’almei almayah – May God’s great name be blessed throughout Eternity. The Rabbis of the Talmud think it is so important that they declare that a person who responds to the Kaddish with enthusiasm is assured of a place in the world to come.
There are other important prayers that are also connected to this word. The Kedushah is the special set of verses that we recite during the reader’s repetition of the Amidah. In it, we act as if we are Divine Beings, blessing God like the angels.
In order to be able to recite both the Kaddish and the Kedushah, we are required to have a minyan. A person praying alone, or in a group of less than ten Jewish adults, must skip over those sections of the service.
Why is that?
Our Rabbis of the Talmud teach that “Any words of holiness may not be recited with less than ten.” (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 23b) In order to sanctify God’s name, that is to say, declare God’s holiness in a particularly special way, we must have a minyan.
In addition to reciting the Kaddish and the Kedushah, the Talmud identifies other religious actions which also require ten. Chanting the Torah in public, invoking God during the introduction to the Grace After Meals, and forming a line away from a funeral to comfort the mourners are several more examples.
In ancient times, only Jewish males over the age of Bar Mitzvah were included to make up a minyan. In recent years in the Conservative movement, we have expanded our interpretation of Jewish law to include Jewish females over the age of Bat Mitzvah as well.
Our tradition has always placed great value on communal prayer. In Judaism, our prayers are said to reach higher into the heavenly chambers when we are together in a minyan as compared to when we pray alone. The Talmud teaches, “Whenever ten pray together, the Shechinah (God’s Presence) is with them.” (BT, Berachot 6a) It seems to be taken almost as a given that minyan equals ten.
But there must be a reason. Why ten?
Whenever I pose the question, I tend to receive several responses.
The first, and perhaps most obvious: ten fingers.
The second is from the Book of Genesis, when Abraham argues with God over the fate of wicked inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He convinces God to save the cities if ten righteous individuals can be found. Alas, ten cannot be found, and the cities are demolished.
But the reason that is offered by our ancient sources is different.
The Talmud identifies this morning’s Torah portion as the origin of the minyan. It uses a particular kind of interpretational tool called a gezera shava. A verbal analogy. The way a gezera shava works is as follows. We identify two completely separate biblical passages that have nothing to do with one another. They do, however, share a word in common. That word in common allows us to make an analogy between the two verses. If something is true in one verse, it must also be true in the other verse.
The Tamud asks why is it the case that God’s name cannot be sanctified with less than a minyan of ten Jewish adults. Now please bear with me for a minute. This is kind of complicated.
Rabbenai, the brother of Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, a Babylonian Sage from the third century, brings the answer, using a two step gezera shave. (BT Berachot 21b)
Here is step one. In this morning’s Torah portion, after the spies have given their report about the land of Israel and its inhabitants, sowing seeds of panic amongst the people, God becomes enraged. Ad matai la-edah ha-ra’ah hazot asher hemah malinim alai – “How much longer shall that wicked community keep muttering against Me?” (Numbers 14:27) In next week’s portion, Moses and Aaron are facing a challenge from their cousin Korach and his followers. Again, God becomes angry, and instruct Moses and Aaron to back off from the rebels so that God can cause the ground to swallow them alive. Hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation!” (Numbers 16:21)
Notice that the word edah, meaning “congregation,” appears in both passages. In the first one, the story of the spies, we know exactly how many people are present. There are twelve spies in total. Joshua and Caleb bring a positive report. That leaves ten remaining spies. Therefore, we conclude, the word edah refers to a group of at least ten individuals.
Now for step two. Back in Leviticus, God declares v’nikdashti b’tokh b’nei Yisrael – “And I will be sanctified among the children of Israel.” (Leviticus 22:32) Again we refer to the verse from next week’s Torah portion: hibad’lu mitokh ha-edah ha-zot – “Separate yourselves from among this congregation.”
Now we focus on the common word tokh – “among” – which appears in both passages. If God is to be sanctified b’tokh – “among” – the children of Israel, exactly how many does that imply? Well, since tokh and edah – “congregation” – appear together in the other verse, it must mean at least an edah‘s worth. How many is an edah? From the story of the spies, we know it is at least ten.
Therefore, to sanctify God’s name requires at least ten Jewish adults to come together.
Admittedly, this explanation seems convoluted, and perhaps a bit of a stretch. It is quite possibly an after-the-fact justification of a long-accepted and widely-embraced tradition. But there is a deeper message that goes beyond the linguistic gymnastics.
The whole concept of a minyan is quite positive. It encourages community. Jewish worship takes place not in a synagogue, but in any place where ten Jewish adults come together. It is about the people, not the building.
For thousands of years, the idea of the minyan reinforced Jews’ motivation to live in close proximity to one another. Jews needed to be able to pray together, support one another in times of loss, and celebrate holidays with community. Even God is sanctified when Jews form a minyan. It is impossible to lead a complete Jewish existence by oneself.
But the origin of the number ten, we now learn, comes from what is perhaps the greatest sin committed by the Israelites in the entire Torah. Believing the spies that they have no hope of defeating the Canaanites and conquering the Land of Israel is the sin that earns the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness. After all they have seen, the miracles in Egypt, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites lack the imagination and the faith to believe that God can deliver the land into their hands, as promised.
Rooting the minyan in this story of faithlessness is ironic.
Perhaps joining together in the same symbolic number gives us the opportunity to repent of our ancestors lack of faith. Once upon a time, it was ten people who failed to sanctify God. Now we come together as ten to sanctify God.
Perhaps another lesson is that things can go either way. When we come together in community, things can go the way of the ten spies, in which one person’s fears spread to the entire group. Or, we can inspire one another. One person’s kavannah, spiritual focus, can help the other worshippers express what is in their hearts too.
In the story of the nine taxi drivers, one mourner’s kavannah to honor his mother by saying kaddish for a year inspired the rest of the minyan to connect to a ritual that they had not encountered for many years. Surely, God’s Presence was among that edah, that holy congregation, at 3:30 am that morning in Jerusalem.
When we come together as a community, whether to worship here in the sanctuary on Shabbat, or to support someone during shiva, the week of mourning, our kavannah can be contagious. We give each other strength: strength to connect with what is in our hearts, strength to express ourselves with honesty, strength to connect with each other, with our tradition, and with God.
In that way, God is truly sanctified amongst the People of Israel.