CCAR RESPONSA COMMITTEE
A Minyan via the Internet?
A recent ice storm in our city greatly impeded travel and, consequently, fewer than ten congregants were able to make it up the hill to our synagogue for Shabbat services. Fortunately, we live-stream our Shabbat services and knew from the online tally that over 70 unique computer sites were logged on to services. While understood not to be the ideal, in this new communication age where live-streaming, video-conferencing and related technologies enable congregants to connect beyond the walls of the synagogue, can we effectively count those whom we know to be “technologically present” as part of a minyan? (Rabbi Ron Segal, Atlanta, GA)
1. On the Minyan in Reform Jewish Practice. We have discussed the requirement of minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews for public prayer (t’filah b’tzibur), in several responsa over the years. Most of these have tended toward a lenient position, largely out of sympathy for those who attend worship services: why should they be denied the opportunity to hear the Torah read and to say Kaddish simply because others were unable (or did not feel motivated) to come to the synagogue? This sympathy, enjoys a long precedent in Jewish law. Various authorities have sought ways to relax the ten-person rule; while most of these leniencies were ultimately rejected, others became part of accepted practice. Our most recent statement on the subject (1992) assumes a more positive attitude toward the minyan requirement. In that t’shuvah, we stress the abiding value of public, communal prayer, arguing that the idea of minyan “deserves renewed attention” in Reform practice.
Your query is one that we have not previously discussed: may individuals be counted as part of a minyan even though they are not physically present at the place where the service is held? Does one’s virtual presence, through an Internet or other electronic connection, qualify as “presence” for purposes of including him or her in the quorum for public prayer? We are fortunate, however, that others have already considered it. These include, notably, a responsum authored by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly and an article by Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, a corresponding member of this Committee. Our presentation of the halakhah will follow closely upon their work, which we would encourage you to consult for a more detailed legal analysis. Like those writings, ours too will have to consider a most fundamental question of interpretation: how are we to read the relevant texts of our tradition in the age of the Internet? Do the technologies of electronic and digital communication that currently exist (to say nothing of these that are sure to be developed) demand a radically new understanding of those sources that speak of such concepts as “presence” and “community”?
2. Physical Presence and the Counting of a Minyan. The traditional discussion begins with M. Pesachim 7:12, which defines the space in which the Passover sacrifice is to be eaten: “From the middle of the doorway toward the inside is considered as ‘inside’; from the middle of the doorway toward the outside is considered ‘outside.’” That is to say, those who stand or sit “outside” are not included in the company (chaburah) that eats the sacrifice within the house. Importantly for our purposes, the amora Rav (in B. Pesachim 85b) applies this spatial mapping to the act of public prayer. He holds that one who stands from the middle of the doorway toward the inside of the house or room is counted in the minyan along with those assembled within the house, while one who stands from the middle of the doorway toward the outside is not included in the minyan. The leading codifiers rule accordingly: “all of (the members of the minyan) must be assembled in one place (b’makom echad), and the prayer leader (sh’liach tzibur) must be with them in that place,” i.e., one contiguous, undivided physical space.
On the other hand, the Talmud (ad loc.) also cites the statement of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: “Not even a partition of iron can separate the people of Israel from their Heavenly Father.” This would suggest that worshipers can be included in a minyan even if they are separated from each other by walls or spatial distinctions (“inside” and “outside”). Some passages in the Talmud do seem to support R. Yehoshua’s position. For example, one who stands outside of a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and hears the sound of the shofar fulfills his obligation under that mitzvah, even though the synagogue wall separates him from the congregation and from the toke`a (the one who sounds the shofar). The tension between these two viewpoints ultimately led the Tosafot to offer a compromise between them. For purposes of counting a minyan, the law follows Rav: we include only those worshipers who assemble in “one place,” with no partitions among them. Meanwhile, for purposes of fulfilling an obligation that does not require a minyan, such as hearing the shofar, the law follows R. Yehoshua ben Levi. In such a case, the crucial factor is intention (kavanah): if one intends to fulfill the obligation, one can do so even though one is not physically present.
One more factor should be mentioned. The Mishnah, codified by the later authorities, holds that persons who eat their meals in separate rooms may be counted together for purposes of zimun (the quorum required for reciting the introduction to birkat hamazon, the Grace after Meals) so long as some of those in each room can see some of those in the other. We also read that “if some are eating their meal inside the house while others eat their meal outside,” both groups are counted together for the zimun if the leader of the Grace is seated at the threshold of the house and can see the members of both groups. Moreover, if the two groups are eating in two separate rooms and cannot see each other, they can join together for zimun if the same server (shamash) waits upon both groups. Some authorities (though not all) apply the rules for zimun to the counting of a minyan for prayer: “one who stands outside the synagogue… but looks through a window at the congregation is counted in the minyan along with them.”
3. “Virtual Presence” and Public Prayer. Our sources thus provide a complex definition of the space in which a prayer community is to assemble. While a minyan ordinarily must be present in makom echad, one undivided physical space, some mitzvot can be fulfilled by individuals who stand outside that space, physically separate from the congregation but joined to it through their own determination (kavanah). We have also seen that physically separate individuals can be linked together by means of some factor – eyesight; the prayer leader; a server – that forms them into what we might call a single network.
We could cite this complexity in support of a “yes” answer to our sh’elah. If the Rabbis were prepared to stretch the concept of minyan to include the “networks” described above, would they not have applied the same logic to the virtual communities of our own time? If one can be counted in a minyan even though one stands outside the synagogue wall and gazes through the window, can we not count those who are linked to the synagogue service by way of digital and electronic technologies that foster a closer and more immediate sense of connection and presence and that truly “enable congregants to connect beyond the walls of the synagogue”? A good argument could certainly be made that we can and should do so.
That argument, however, does not persuade us. The Internet and contemporary electronic communication have radically transformed the world in which we live; they have done much to “bring near those who are far away.” But they have not erased the distinction between reality and virtual reality, and that distinction is key to understanding the message of our tradition. The Rabbis may have expanded the definition of makom echad, but the boundaries of that place remain physical; for them, a prayer community is constituted by a group that assembles in real time and in one contiguous space. It is this physical coming-together that they have in mind when they speak of communal prayer (t’filat tzibur or t’filatan shel rabim), which, because it is always recited “at a favorable time,” they hold to be preferable to the act of praying alone. Out of this concern they emphasize the centrality of the synagogue in Jewish life, going so far as to suggest that any community of at least ten Jews is obligated to secure for themselves a physical space in which to meet for communal prayer. Indeed, the physical act of walking (or even running) to the synagogue for community prayer carries its own special reward. None of this means, of course, that our tradition does not value private prayer, prayer recited apart from a minyan, but simply that it regards the ideal prayer as the one offered together with the community. And by “community” it means a minyan, a quorum of worshipers assembled b’makom echad, in one place, physically present to each other.
The same distinction lies at the heart of our own conception of “community.” There is a difference in essence, and not merely in degree, between a community that assembles in physical proximity and one that is constituted by digital transmission and pixels on a screen. The former enjoys a human presence and sense of immediacy that is lacking from the latter. A real community, unlike a “virtual” one, is a community that facilitates close communication with our fellow human being. It is a venue in which we can make palpable and physical contact with the other, shake their hand, share an encouraging touch or embrace. A real community is an act of coming together that symbolizes in the most powerful way our determination to bridge the gaps of space that separate us into our individual lives and worlds. By no means do we deny the value of electronic communication to the work of our synagogues. Thanks to digital technology we enjoy marvelous opportunities to expand the reach of our religious life, to study Torah, and to bring our people closer to one another, opportunities of which even our most recent ancestors could only dream. We are thankful for the blessings of the Internet, even as we are mindful of the challenges it poses to us. But so long as we are capable of distinguishing between reality and virtual reality, so long as we conceive of the ideal prayer community as one that is physically constituted, whose members occupy a shared physical space, we cannot expand the definition of minyan to include those whose presence with us is virtual rather than real.
Conclusion. Whether through dial-in, live-streaming, or video connection, it is a good thing to encourage those who cannot attend the synagogue to be “technologically present.” Such persons, however, are not part of the minyan, because the minyan is the community of those are truly present with us, that is, in the real (as opposed to virtual) sense of that term.
1. To be precise: a minyan is required for the recitation of dvarim sheb’k’dushah, liturgical rubrics that pertain to “sanctification.” These include Bar’chu, K’dushah, the Kaddish, and the reading of the Sefer Torah (Torah scroll). See M. Megilah 4:3; B. Megilah 23b; Yad, T’filah 8:6; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 55:1 Turey Zahav ad loc., no. 1 and Mishnah B’rurah ad loc., no. 5. For discussion, see Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5752.17, pp. 23-28, especially at note 4.
2. See American Reform Responsa, no. 3, p. 5 (1936); R. Solomon B. Freehof, Recent Reform Responsa, no. 1, pp. 14-18 (1963); and R. Walter Jacob, New American Reform Responsa, no. 4, pp. 5-6 (1993).
3. For example, an old Palestinian tradition fixed the minyan requirement at seven or six individuals (Sof’rim 10:6). The Babylonian amora Rav Huna suggested that nine worshipers plus the Ark containing the Torah scroll could constitute a minyan (B. B’akhot 47b). A ruling attributed to Rav Hai Gaon permits nine adult males plus a minor to constitute a minyan (Or Zaru`a I, Hilkhot S`udah, ch. 196; Hil. HaRosh, B’rakhot 7:20), while other customs required that the minor hold a Torah scroll or a chumash (i.e., a scroll containing a single book of the Torah) in order to count in the minyan. Some permitted a slave or a woman to constitute the tenth person and to complete the minyan (Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 55, in the name of R. Simchah of Vitry).
4. For example, if the minyan begins reciting a particular rubric of the service, the remaining worshipers may complete that rubric even if some of them leave and a minyan is no longer present. This is true provided that a majority of the minyan remains (Y. Megilah 3:4; Tosafot, Megilah 23b, s.v. v’ein; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 55:2-3). Moreover, a minyan may be completed by individuals who have already fulfilled their obligation to pray, so long as they do not constitute the majority of the minyan (Yad, T’filah 8:4 and Kesef Mishneh ad loc.).
5. Teshuvot for the Nineties, no. 5752.17, pp. 23-28 (http://ccarnet.org/responsa/ccarj-spring-1993-73-78-tfn-no-5752-17-23-28). Three members of the Committee dissented somewhat from the majority position. In their view, the recitation of Kaddish should be exempted from the minyan requirement.
6. Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, “Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet,” OH 55:15.2001, http://rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/halakhah/teshuvot/19912000/reisner_internetminyan.pdf (accessed January 26, 2012).
7. Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, “Worship in the Cloud: Halachic Concerns around Broadcasting Worship Services over the Internet,” to appear in a forthcoming volume of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah.
8. Cf. Exodus 12:46.
9. See Rashi, B. Pesachim 85b, s.v. v’khen l’’tfilah.
10. Yad, T’filah 8:7; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 55:13. The traditional commentaries link this decision to the discussion in B. Pesachim 85b; see, especially, R. Yosef Karo, Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 55.
11. M. Rosh Hashanah 3:7; B. Rosh Hashanah 27b.
12. Tosafot, Pesachim 85b, s.v. v’khen l’t’filah; Rosh Hashanah 27b, s.v. v’sh’ma kol shofar; Sotah 38b, s.v. m’chitzah ma’i.
13. See B. Rosh Hashanah 29a, Yad, Shofar 2:5 and Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 589:9.
14. M. B’rakhot 7:5; B. B’rakhot 50a.
15. Yad, B’rakhot 5:12; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 195:1.
16. Hilkhot HaRosh, B’rakhot 7:30; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 195:2 and Magen Avraham ad loc., n. 3.
17. B. B’rakhot 50b, and see the sources in note 15, above.
18. See Mishnah B’rurah 55, no. 52.
19. Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 55:14. In his Beit Yosef ad loc., R. Yosef Karo attributes this ruling to Rav Hai Gaon (11th century).
20. R. Yechiel Mikal Epstein (19th-20th century Lithuania) offers an interesting explanation for why one is counted in the minyan simply by looking through the window toward the other worshipers. The Hebrew phrase translated here as “looking: reads mareh lahem panim, literally, “he turns his face toward them.” Given that “the Sh’khinah dwells with every community of ten Jews,” one’s face is the critical factor, “since the Sh’khinah is principally manifest upon the human face, as it is written (Exodus 34:30), ‘the face of Moses shone with light’”; Arukh Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 55, par. 20.
21. M’karev r’chokim; B’reshit Rabah, parashah 39.
22. “Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai: What is the meaning of the verse (Psalms 69:13) ‘But as for me, may my prayer come before You, Adonai, at a favorable time (et ratzon) ’? When is the time of God’s favor? Whenever the community prays together” (B. B’rakhot 7b-8a).
23. See Yad, T’filah 8:1: “One must strive to join the community (in its prayer), and one ought not to pray alone so long as one is able to pray with the community.”
24. See Yad, T’filah 11:1: Every community in which ten Jews live must designate a physical space (bayit) where they may assemble for prayer at all the appointed times. This place is called a synagogue.”
25. “It is a mitzvah to run to the synagogue… but it is forbidden to run from the synagogue”; Shulchan Arukh Orach Chayim 90:12. And see Magen Avraham to Orach Chayim 90, no. 22: “If there are two synagogues in a town, it is a mitzvah to attend the one that is farther away, since one receives a reward for the extra steps it takes to get there.”
26. The Rabbis do suggest a form of alternative to public prayer: those unable to go to the synagogue should recite their private prayer at the very moment that the community holds its own service (B. B’rakhot 8a; Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 90:9). Yet this “virtual” substitute is not considered the equivalent of public prayer, and the one who prays separately from the community, even if simultaneously with them, is not counted in the minyan.
27. Among these opportunities are those of the traditional ritual variety. Rabbi Reisner (note 6, above) concludes that while an individual who “attends” a service through electronic means is not counted in the minyan, he or she is nonetheless able to fulfill such obligations as the recitation of Kaddish, provided that a minyan is present in the place where the service is being held.