Need for a Minyan
A New Zealand congregation inquires about the Reform perspective on the need for a minyan,
and about what should or should not be done during a service when fewer than ten are present. The rabbi writes
that he “would appreciate it if you guide our ritual committee towards setting a policy.”
Leaders of the C.C.A.R. have on three occasions addressed aspects of the questions asked.
R. Jacob Mann, in 1936, issued a brief responsum on the need for a minyan at Friday night
services and, basing himself on an old Palestinian custom, allowed the practice of holding services without a
minyan. “While every attempt shuld be made to have a full minyan, the importance of regular
services in the Temple is such as to conduct them even when there are fewer than ten people present.1
R. Solomon B. Freehof, in 1963, ruled on whether a person who could not attend synagogue services
could say Kaddish at home, with no one else to join in the prayers. The responsum was quite detailed, permitting
the practice under certain circumstances and making alternative suggestions.2
R. Walter Jacob, in 1989, responded to the question: “May we conduct a service at home with less than a
minyan? ” This responsum, like R. Mann’s, was also quite brief and allowed a minyan-less
service, urging congregations meanwhile to expend extra efforts to have people come together in the
All three were thus permisssive, though R. Freehof hedged his ruling with particular cautions.
We have agreed to review the entire matter, not only in order to summarize previous and highly respected
opinions, but also because we feel that the developments of Jewish life, and especially in our own movement, call
for additional considerations.
The need for a minyan on certain ritual occasions is not biblical in origin, though the Rabbis
tried valiantly to ground the practice in Torah precedent.4 The fact that rule of minyan is de-
rabbanan, has occasioned repeated attempts at slackening of the reins of the “rule of ten.”5
R. Jacob6 cites discussions on whether a child carrying a chumash could be considered as
completing the quorum, or what other means of making up the deficiency could be devised. However, as an over-
riding rule the requirement of a minyan for liturgical portions cited in Footnote 4 was, and in traditional
circles is, carefully observed, testifying to the strong sense that public prayer has a place of special importance.
Where ten men could not be easily assembled a community would engage available persons as “minyan
men,” who would insure that the ritual requirements of public prayer could be fulfilled.
In sum, traditional Judaism has on the whole steadfastly resisted attempts to be lenient in this matter,
except in extraordinary circumstances.
It cannot be denied that the rule of ten is frequently disregarded in Reform congregations, especially in
small communities, but not there alone. With lessening worship attendance in general, even in places where
adequate numbers of worshippers can be found, attention to the time-honored practice of requiring a quorum is
rarely an issue.7
Yet there are good reasons why this practice deserves our continued attention and respect, with the
proviso, of course, that any Reform minyan would count women as equal partners.8
As a general rule we are and have been lenient in most ritual matters, and the opinions of Rabbis Mann,
Freehof and Jacob reflect this trend. They are in tune with the sentiment of Pirkei Avot: “When two sit
together and discuss words of Torah the Shekhinah is present with them”9 —- which may be taken to mean that
it does not matter how few Jews gather together for services, their sacred intent entitles them to full liturgical
expression. Why should they be denied the hearing of Torah and Kedusha10 because others may
not feel prompted to come to the synagogue? Why should Jews be dependent on others when they need to say
Kaddish, whether at home, at a shiv’ah, or when observing yahrzeit?
Having stated these questions we must, however, also ask: If the needs of the individual can be
satisfied without others, what then is the difference between public and private worship?
Whether six, seven or ten constitute the required forum is not the heart of the issue; rather it is the
question whether there is an abiding value in the obligation of Jews to join others in worship. The synagogue
functions as the mikdash me’at (literally, the small sanctuary) which invokes the image of the Sanctuary of
old. Moses and Ezra expounded Torah in the presence of the people, and the reading of Torah on Shabbat and
other occasions is a recurring enactment of those hallowed moments. The rabbi, as teacher of the community,
expounds sacred texts and traditions, and does so before the tzibbur, the representatives of the Jewish
people who have come to participate in common rites of prayer and learning. The tzibbur is indeed the
proper context of certain liturgical rubrics, and by tradition these include, in addition those mentioned, the reading
of Torah from a scroll, and the mourner’s Kaddish.
It seems to us that the idea of a minyan deserves renewed attention. Reform Judaism has broken
much new ground by giving individuals a measure of religious scope they did not previously have. Withal, we may
not overlook the needs of the community which, when properly met, benefit all its members. Public worship
belongs to these categories of Jewish life, and withholding certain individual prerogatives for the benefit of all has
always been the context of Jewish prayer.
Thus, the obligation of Kaddish is traditionally fulfilled in community, and therefore the congregation at
prayer is the proper locus for it. However, should there be no quorum or should the individual be unable to go to
the synagogue, the need for community does not simply fall away.
We can look to tradition and see how such situations have been dealt with in a constructive fashion. The
comprehensive prayer anthology of Yitzhak Baer contains a series of prayers for individuals who have missed the
opportunity of reciting portions of the liturgy which need a quorum. These substitutes resemble the original but
differ sufficiently to remind the person that the community of worshippers possesses the aura of
Since the substitutes proposed by Baer (for which he cites no authority) are not applicable to our
congregations, we as Reform Jews ought therefore to create further innovative, supplementary prayers for those
who cannot worship in community, or for whom a minyan cannot be assembled. For instance, where there
are fewer than ten present, Torah might be read from the printed book rather than from the scroll, and for both
Torah and Haftarah the blessings would be omitted. Instead of reciting the Kaddish in its original version, the
mourner might read it in English or substitute the el male rachamim (“God, full of compassion…”).
Or, noting that in many if not most Reform congregations all those present say the Kaddish together, the
custom might when fewer than a minyan to have the mourner rise
and say the Kaddish alone. In other words, the presence or absence of a minyan should not be
We would therefore urge the Reform Practices Committee of the C.C.A.R., together with the Liturgy
Committee, to take up the need for devising alternate expressions for those who cannot worship in community, be
it because of personal circumstances or because a minyan has not or cannot be brought together.
The maintenance of the requirement of a minyan has also a strong educational force: it reminds
all those who are or might be affected by the rule of the importance of public worship. R. Freehof reminds us of the
injunction of the Shulchan Arukh12 that it is the duty of the members of the community to exert pressure
upon each other so that there should always be a minyan in the synagogue. “The feeling of piety at the
time of yahrzeit is one of the justifiable motives which urges people to come to public worship.”13 And R. Jacob
adds that we should make “a more vigorous effort and assemble a necessary minyan, if it is at all possible,
for a service whether public or private.”14
We heartily endorse these sentiments which reflect the abiding value of a minyan in our liturgical
structure, and we urge the inquiring congregation to devise ways and means to maintain and enhance this
ancient Jewish institution.
Dissent: Three members differed somewhat from these conclusions. They felt that Kaddish
deserves an exemption from the rule, and that perhaps in special circumstances the rule of three ought to
be invoked (as at the birkat ha-mazon. One believes that the few should also not be deprived of
reading (or hearing) the words of Torah from the scroll, and would have the leader of the service
emphasize that the fewer-than-ten who are assembled do not constitute a proper congregation but rather a
chug, a small group who have come together for study and edification.
- American Reform Responsa, ed. Walter Jacob (1983), #3, p.5
- Freehof, Recent Reform Responsa (1963), # 1, pp. 14-18.
- Jacob, Questions and Reform Jewish Answers (1992), # 4, pp. 5-6. The teshuvah was publishedwhile our answer was being prepared.
- The reasons given are varied and the derivations frequently forced, but that did not matter muchbecause when they were enunciated the requirement of a minyan, it was already an established.
The following sources may serve as a survey of the talmudic and post-talmudic statements on the
M Megillah 4:3 and BT. Meg. 23b list the required occasions for a minyan: the sheva
berakhot at a wedding; the chazarat ha-shatz of the Amidah; the reading of Torah from the scroll
and of Haftarah; the kedusha (derived from Lev. 22:32, ve-nikdashti betokh benei yisra’el,
matching the word tokh with Num. 16:21, mitokh ha-edah, where the context makes it clear that
sanctification requires a public. The number 10 is derived from Num. 14:27, where the ten spies
opposing the invasion were called an edah ra’ah. There were also other derivations, one of them
being the “ten righteous people” that were lacking in Sodom.
Soferim 10:7 adds Kaddish and barekhu to the rubrics requiring a minyan, though here, the
plain text would suggest that the minyan could be seven (or even six) worshippers, after the
number of words in Judges 5:2. But later interpretation favored the reading of this prescription as
signifying that the numbers six or seven refer to persons who, within a regular minyan of ten men,
have not heard the Kaddish or barekhu. If we read the Soferim passage plainly it appears that the
author(s), writing in Palestine, meant to deal with situations when it was difficult to gather a
minyan. The Talmud (YT Meg. 4:4 and Ber. 7:3 ) provides that if a minyan was present to start
with, but some people had left afterwards, the service could conclude as if they were still present,
provided that the majority remain (so Rambam, Yad, Tefillah 8:8, Sh. A. O. H, 55:4; and the
Hafetz Chayim, Mishnah Berurah, # 24).
R. Freehof’s reading of Magen Avraham, O.H. 69, #4, and Greenwald’s She’eloth u-
teshuvot zikhron yehudah, vol 1, # 4, guides him as a precedent for his lenient answer. While it
seems to us that the context of these sources suggests that ten men were present for services but
that not all had participated in the study, there were some, like the Taz (Magen David, O.H. 55, #
3) who would agree with R. Freehof’s more lenient reading.
- According to R. Ovadiah Yosef, She’elot u-teshuvot yabiah omer, vol. 4, # 9:1, the entire prayerservice is a rabbinic ordinance. As M Berakhot 7:3 makes clear, the Rabbis considered various
levels of participation: 3, 10, 100, 1000, 10,000, though in the end only three (for the birkat ha-
mazon) and ten for minyan remained significant. See BT. Ber. 49b-50a).
- L.c., p.6.
- One member of our Responsa Committee, suggests that the minyan “was basically a device tocounteract heresy, in the assumption that when a critical mass of Jews assembles for some religious
enterprise, there will always be found among them at least several who dare to refute heterodox
opinions and to guide the errant faithful back to the correct path.” This was true especially before
there was an established liturgy, but today, he writes, that reason can no longer be compelling. He
does, however, hold that there are other reasons for requiring a minyan in our congregations, but
would exempt the Kaddish and allow it at all times (see below).
- As to children, we could take our lead from BT. Berakhot 48a, which allows minors whounderstand to Whom our prayers are addressed, to be counted in the required quorum of three
when saying the birkat ha-mazon, and count them in like manner for the quorum of ten.
- M Avot 3:2.
- The prayer which features the words of Isaiah, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, holy, holy, holy…(Isaiah6:3)
- Seder Avodat Yisra’el, p. 120. While Baer cites no authorities there are other texts which listsurrogate prayers. See, e.g., the siddur of Y. Ganzfried (Vienna, 1859). Wolf Heidenheim’s Safah
Berurah (Roedelheim, 1821), and Jacob Emden’s Siddur Amudei Shamayim (Altona, 1744-1747).
The latter attributes this minhag to the Sefer HaRoke’ach (13th century, from the school of
the Hasidei Ashkenaz. HaRoke’ach, ch. 362, specifically discusses the practice of reciting
surrogate texts when the worshipper has misssed essential prayers (devarim she-bikedushah.) A
fairly recent edition of Siddur HaGra (Jerusalem 1977) also lists surbstitute prayers, though on the
whole it may be said that regnant Ashkenazic tradition has not favored this practice. See also
Freehof, Recent Reform Responsa, p. 16.
- Sh. A. O. H. 55:22.
- Freehof, loc, cit, p. 17.
- Loc cit, p. 6.If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.