At a synagogue I used to attend in the States, I would sometimes go to a weekly Wednesday afternoon service they held, which largely met so that mourners could gather to say Kaddish for their recently deceased loved ones. We often got only three or four people. I remember feeling sorry for these newly stricken mourners, that we couldn’t even muster a minyan of ten to support them. In Jewish law, of course, you need a minyan of ten or, in fancier parlance, a quorum of adult Jews (specifically male Jews in some parts) to do certain things, like read the Kaddish in this instance, or recite the Amidah aloud, the Barkhu, or read Torah. Without this number, doing these sacred acts (devarim she’be’kedusha) is traditionally prohibited. But why do we have this of minyan? What is so important about it?
Both Talmuds (bMegillah 23b and yMegillah 4:4) pull some of their support for the notion of minyan from the story of the twelve spies who were sent to scout out the Land of Israel—specifically the ten who brought back bad reports. The Jewish Tradition believes that the obligation on us, as Jews, to gather together and share meaningful Jewish things in community is fundamental to the whole Jewish enterprise. Minyan as a concept is integral. The heart of Judaism is about getting together often, in community. This is the huge mitzvah our own Norwich community fulfils. There is, in fact, something so important about community that we aren’t even supposed to remember our loved ones who have passed away by saying Kaddish or read from the Torah scroll unless we have the wherewithal to get enough of us together to do so!
I’ve come to feel that we could learn a lot from the idea of minyan. This goes beyond the nurse who came to that Reform shul in the States every afternoon after work to say Kaddish for her dead father and often was greeted with an empty room — it’s about Jewish community life in general. We could all learn a bit from the Talmuds’ determination to find a Torah underpinning for the idea of community — because getting together to support each other is important enough that Judaism calls it an obligation.