What is a Minyan?

Image: A woman in a minyan, praying. (Yochi Rappaport/Wikimedia

A minyan (MEN-yahn or meen-YAHN) is a quorum for prayer, consisting of ten adult Jews. Liberal Jews count all genders for a minyan; Orthodoxy counts only males for a minyan.

A minyan is required for certain important Jewish prayers and activities:

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 4:4, the sources in Torah for the tradition of the minyan are:

“Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: You shall be holy.” – Leviticus 19:2

and

“How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who murmur against me?” – Numbers 14:27

Both verses refer to the congregation (adah.) In the first, the congregation is the Hebrew people whom God commands. The second verse refers to the ten spies who brought back a timid report after exploring the Land of Israel. From the combination of the two verses, the rabbis drew the conclusion that a minimum of ten adults was required to represent the People of Israel.

Because a group of ten is required to say the full prayer service, it has become common to refer to any group that meets regularly for Jewish prayer as a minyan:

  • “I’d be glad to have coffee with you after minyan.”
  • “Our minyan meets at 6:45 am on weekdays.”

 

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Ancient Advice for Social Media

Image: The words of Elohai N’tzur on page 180 of Mishkan Tefilah, the Reform Siddur, CCAR Press, 2007. Photo by Ruth Adar.

This past Shabbat, I noticed an ancient prayer that has a very current application: it’s a great prayer for improving my social media use. The original prayer has been used for centuries, and is based on Psalm 34:14:

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.

The prayer is best known as Elohai n’tzor [“My God, guard”] and here is the text, with my comments for contemporary social media use. The translation is from Mishkan Tefilah, p 180, with line breaks altered to facilitate my comments in italics:

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.

I take responsibility for my own words and behavior. I will speak the truth and conduct myself mindfully.

Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue;

I will avoid taking the bait offered by trolls and bots. 

I will practice humility.

I will remember that my word is not the last word on any subject, and my sources of information are frequently imperfect. When I have erred in facts or behavior, I will admit it.

Open my heart to your Torah, that I may pursue Your mitzvot.

I will follow the commandments of Torah in my speech, valuing truth over falsehood, and kindness over cleverness. I will keep in mind “lo bushah” [do not embarrass] and I will  avoid rechilut [gossip,]  lashon harah [unnecessary derogatory speech about another,] as well as nivul peh [coarse language.]

As for all who think evil of me, cancel their designs and frustrate their schemes.

I will not engage in flame wars with people whose minds I will never change. My rage rewards a troll; blocking trolls prevents them from getting satisfaction from my reaction.

Act for Your own sake, for the sake of Your Power,

I will own my words and take responsibility for them, because words have power.

for the sake of Your Holiness, for the sake of Your Torah;

I will remember that I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God, and will behave with dignity.

So your loved ones may be rescued, save with Your power. 

I will maintain my focus and use the power of social media to do good in the world.

And answer me.

I will acknowledge others as I wish to be acknowledged myself.

May the words of my mouth

May the words that I type or say

and the meditations of my heart

And the intent behind those words

be acceptable to You, Eternal, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Meet the standards of derech eretz, decent behavior, as befits a person of Torah.

May the One who makes peace in the high heavens make peace for us, for all Israel, and all who inhabit the earth. Amen.

May we find true communication, a meeting of minds and hearts, that will serve all the people of the earth. Amen.

 

When Torah Entered the World

Image: A person performs hagbah, raising the Torah for all to see at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal (Canada). (2010 Photo by Geneviève Afriat, some rights reserved.)

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.
The whole Torah exists only to establish peace.

Its highest teaching is love and kindness.
What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

Honoring one another, doing acts of kindness,
and making peace: these are our highest duties.
But the study of Torah is equal to them all,
because it leads to them all.

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

– “Reading the Torah on Shabbat” in Mishkan Tefilah, p 375

These lines were written by John Rayner z”l and Chaim Stern z”l, two leading scholars of 20th century liberal Judaism.

I love reading these words during the Torah service. Each line gives me something to ponder. Sometimes I think one could make a whole course of study out of it, taking one line at a time, considering its sources, and reflecting on its meaning.

Some lines in here are very familiar, like Hillel’s famous admonition:

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.
That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a

Others are not familiar, but thought-provoking:

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.

What does that mean? Was there a time before Torah? When did Torah enter the world? What does “freedom” mean in this context? (See what I mean? Lots to ponder here.)

There is also a line that makes me laugh, then feel very serious:

Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

I want to laugh, thinking about all the various Torah study groups I have attended: ordinary folks around a table, striving to understand Torah, sharing knowledge, trotting out their individual soapboxes sometimes. We’re the true guardians of civilization? Really? Then I think, uh-oh, if we are the true guardians of civilization, then the world is in a pot of trouble!  And I look at the world, and soberly I think, “Yeah, we are” and “Yeah, it is.”

We are not the only true guardians of civilization (thank goodness!) We guard it along with the Koran-study-ers, and the New Testament study-ers, and the many other sincere people who study to learn how to be good human beings, who recognize that goodness isn’t easy and we aren’t born knowing how to be good. And it is still a very big job.

At the end, Rabbis Rayner and Stern do not let us off the hook. Study for its own sake (Torah lishma) is very pleasurable, but it is not enough:

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

So, let us learn, and teach, and do!

See you in the world!

The Map Home: Why I Attend Services

Image: Rufous hummingbird feeding on Crocosmia flowers. (birdiegal/Shutterstock)

My health problems have made me less regular at services than I’d like. Last week I was falling into a dreadful funk: I was cranky, I was fed up with the world, I had made a couple of stupid mistakes that were really bothering me, and generally, I was an unhappy camper. I decided I had to get to services, despite the aches.

 

Some people wonder why anyone goes to services. We make the trip to shul, we sit in the pews, we see friends, we sing songs, and we say the same prayers every time. What is there that heals my soul?

Truth is, I never know what I’m looking for: I just know that I will find it in the service. There might be a line in a prayer that I haven’t noticed in a while that speaks directly to my troubles of the moment. We say a lot of prayers on Friday night, and I’ve said all of them thousands of times, but if I come with an open heart, there will be something that fits my need.

This past week it was a line in the prayer that caught my eye while we were reading something else:

Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.

I realized why I’d been feeling so cranky: my world of late has constricted terribly. I’m busy with tech problems at work, problems that have to be solved but don’t really interest me. I’m frustrated with chronic pain. I’m frustrated by the news: I don’t like much of what I see on the TV or hear on the radio. I realized that I had allowed myself to “walk sightless among miracles.”

I can fix that, I thought.

On Sunday, I did my work, but I took time to go out in the yard and just look around me. I saw the hummingbirds doing their work. I saw my dog examine a bug. I saw a hawk flying high above the hillside. I felt a lot better.

Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. I spent the time I might have spent catching up on news catching up on the hummingbirds. I had to return to the tech problems, and the physical problems, and all the other stuff, but I did it with a lighter heart.

That’s what services do for me. They remind me how to return to myself.

What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?

 

Blessing the Volcano

Image: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eruption of Kilauea Volcano. 11/14/59. Public Domain, USGS photo.

My friends know that I have a special place in my heart for the Big Island of Hawaii. I spend most of my vacation time there. It is hard for me to articulate the reasons I love that place so much. Some of it is the aloha that I feel from nearly every local person I encounter.  Some is the sight of the ohia lehua flowering shrubs that grow in the most barren-looking volcanic stone. Some is the song of the ‘apapane, a scarlet songbird that nests in the ohia. Some of it is the taste of the delicate flesh of fresh ono, a delicious fish.

All those are a part of my fascination. And yet the centerpiece that brings them all together, that draws me back and back to that island, is the terrible vision at the heart of it: the volcanoes.

Hawaiian myth talks about Madame Pele, she who “devours the land.” So do the locals today, even those who will tell you that they “aren’t religious.” The reason they speak of Pele the way they do is that seeing a live volcano is a holy experience. When I look into the crater of the volcano, when I see the glow of lava and smell the stink of volcanic gases, I feel yirat haShem, the fear of God. I feel wonder and awe and terror at the might of Creation and the Creator.

Certainly it is possible to look at the volcano with a scientific eye, to analyze the composition of the lava and the gases in the air. But even the most cold-eyed volcanologist will tell you that a volcanic eruption is powerful beyond imagining and profoundly dangerous. They will also tell you that they cannot control the volcano: once it is erupting, they can observe it, but when the lava flows, the only rational response to it is to get out of the way. Seeing an eruption takes us to the edge of life and death, to the primal forces that shape our world, and for many of us, it is a religious experience.

Volcanologists will tell you that the volcano (in this case, Kilauea) is death and life in one huge messy package. When we see the flow of lava, we are watching the process of creation, new land emerging from the earth, destroying everything it touches, and then cooling to begin the long, slow process that will in millennia become arable land. After the lava cools, tiny ohia seeds will ride the wind over the lava field and fall into the cracks where moisture collects. They are not bothered by the sulfur dioxide air; they put out their tiny roots and begin the work of transforming the lava rock into fertile soil. Ohia is a miracle. The volcano is a miracle: a giant, terrifying miracle.

There is a blessing for the sight of a volcanic eruption:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haOlam, sheh-ko-KHO ug-vu-rah-TOH mah-LAY oh-LAHM.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-is, whose strength and power fill the world.

This blessing is only for the times when we witness in person a powerful display such as a volcanic eruption, a horrific storm, or an earthquake. There are other blessings, softer blessings, for the gentler wonders of nature, but this is the blessing for natural events so powerful they can kill us. This blessing is for those moments when nature forces us to acknowledge our fragility in this world.

I am a Jew. I worship only the one God, the God of Israel, but I recognize God’s creation when I see it. The Hawaiians give this experience of God the name Pele. I whisper the blessing, and tremble in awe at the Holy One.

*At this writing, almost 2,000 people have been displaced and many have lost their homes. Here is an article about ways we can help those suffering during this eruption of Kilauea.

 

Prayer for Baseball Trades

Image: PacBell Park, San Francisco, summertime. (350543/Pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-That-Is! In Your wisdom You commanded the orderly progression of night into day, and set the planets in motion with a word. Grant seychel to the baseball team managers as they set our players in motion from team to team, from franchise to franchise. May they achieve the perfect harmony they seek. Amen.

Give comfort to the players in motion and their families. May their new home be a good home, and may they be greeted with enthusiasm wherever they go. Amen.

Console the fans, O God of Compassion, as they mourn the departure of favorite players. Give them open hearts to receive the new faces, the bats and gloves of new players. Give them patience for a period of adjustment. Amen.

May the bats be mighty and the pitchers wily. May the green diamonds overflow with the joy of the game, and may all players and fans alike end each game with gratitude for what went well, and energetic discussion of what lacked.

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

* A rabbinical note: The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although certain skeptical Wissenschaft types insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.