That the Hebrew word “minyan” derives from the infinitive “lim’not,” to count or number, is not at all surprising. A minyan is a quorum of 10, the smallest number necessary to create a formal “congregation.” It is customary to have a minyan for certain life cycle events (such as a brit milah - circumcision). However, most people are familiar with the term minyan in reference to prayer, since, ideally, Jewish prayer takes place with a minyan, allowing the full service to be recited.
According to the Talmud (Megillah 23b), certain prayers of sanctity (such as Kaddish) can only be recited in the presence of a minyan. This is understood from the verse, “And I [God] shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel” (Leviticus 22:32). What determines being “in the midst”? Two people? Five people?
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 4:4)*, two verses are cited, in which a group of 10 is called the Children of Israel or “congregation.” In Genesis 42:5, the 10 sons of Jacob go to Egypt to buy food. The Torah there says: “And the Children of Israel came to buy among those that come.” In Numbers 14:27, 10 of the 12 scouts sent into the Land of Israel return bearing negative reports, to which an angered God responds: “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation which murmurs against me?”
We see, especially from the verse concerning the scouts, whose lack of faith leads to the punishment of the entire nation, how powerful a group of 10 can be, impacting on the very destiny of Israel. On the other hand, when Abraham prays to God to spare the city of Sodom (Genesis 18:32), he stops negotiating when he reaches 10 righteous people, indicating that a group of 10 virtuous people (but not less) can bring salvation to an entire city.
This Treat was last posted on June 4, 2010.
*The Babylonian Talmud Brachot 21b is also a source for the equation of ten as the minimum for a congregation.
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