What Makes a Person?
It happened again last week, as it has happened countless times every year , in every synagogue, in every country of the world, in every era. We gathered for mincha/havdalah services last Shabbat hoping to have a minyan so we can call up a person to the Torah for the very first time. We gather every Shabbat for mincha/havdalah, and we rarely get the ten Jewish adults required for a minyan. This time, however, we thought we would do it. A count had been made, people had been invited, we were prepared to meet our goal. Yet, when the service began, there were only nine of us present. We were missing the one person we needed to recite all of our prayers.
Then, the next predictable thing happened. Someone says, “I understand we can use a Torah to make a minyan.” When I reply that no, we cannot use the Torah to make up for the tenth person, someone always adds that they have a cousin in New York whose rabbi allows this practice when the synagogue is short one person to make a a minyan! It never fails! This evening I want to address two questions.The first is – how did Judaism decide that a minyan consists of ten Jewish people? Why not nine people? Why not twelve? The second question is – where does the idea come from that one can use a Torah instead of a tenth person to complete the minyan? The answer to our first question is found in this week’s Torah reading. Let me set the stage for you. The Israelites have been camped around Mt. Sinai for about a year. During that time they have received the commandments, developed their leadership corp, built the Tabernacle and all of its furnishings, organized themselves into different groups with different responsibilities, and developed all of the logistical supports necessary to move their vast population through the desert. It is only a few days journey, and they are poised to enter the Promised Land. Moses sends twelve spies, one representing each tribe, to reconnoiter the land. They go on their mission for forty days. When they return, they have good news, and bad news. The good news is that this is a fertile land, a land flowing with milk and honey. On whether there is bad news, the spies differ. Ten of them report that the land is well defended and that the Israelites will not be able to conquer it. Two of the twelve disagree. With G-d’s help, they say, we can conquer it. The ten pessimistic spies sew panic among the Israelites. The people become fearful. They want to return to the safety of Egypt. They begin to plot a rebellion against Moses. They want to appoint a new leader who will bring them back to Egypt. G-d in turn, has had it with the whole lot of them. He wants to destroy the people and be done with it. Moses intercedes, and G-d relents. G0d will not destroy the Jewish people, but this rebellious generation will not live to enter the land. Then G-d turns His attention to the spies. Uh-oh….. “How long,” G-d asks Moses and Aaron, “Must I put up with the evil assembly that provokes complaints against me?” By “evil assembly” G-d is referring to the ten spies. From this, according to the rabbis, we learn that an “assembly”, whether evil or righteous or somewhere in between, is a collection of ten people. Thus, we derive the required number of Jewish people for a prayer assembly. If you think this is rather far-fetched, you are not alone. But it does teach us something about the Torah as a sacred text. Nowhere in the Torah does it say we have to have a certain number of people gathered together to have a minyan. The Torah appears to be completely silent on this issue. So, how do we have the hutzpah to find it there! Here is how. Our tradition considers the Torah to be a sacred text, dictated by G-d and written down by Moses word for word. Although it is “from Heaven” the Torah is not “in Heaven.” It was given to be interpreted by learned people. The Torah says what the sages say it says! If the sages tell us that from this verse they derive that a minyan consists of ten people, and if the Jewish people accept this interpretation, as we have for at least two thousand years, then it becomes Jewish law. The idea of counting the Torah as a person is actually first broached by Rav Huna, a fourth century rabbi who lived in Tiberius. In a discussion in the Talmud about a minyan, Rav Huna offers the opinion that nine men and an ark containing Torah scrolls can constitute a minyan! He is immediately challenged by one Rav Nachman. “What,” you say! “Is an ark a person?” Rav Huna backs down. “I meant to say that if nine are gathered in a room with an ark, but it looks like there are ten – this can be considered a minyan.” What does that mean? Scholars have been debating it ever since it was uttered. Indeed some rabbis held that, in an emergency, a Torah scroll could be used in place of a person for the tenth member of the minyan. This may be related to a mystical teaching that the Torah scroll “contains the divine presence within it, and therefore can create the necessary environment to sanctify God's name in prayer.” The overwhelming majority of rabbinic authorities, however, do not agree that a Torah scroll can be used in place of a person to complete the minyan. One sage even suggests that if this is about to be done one leave the service, leaving those assembled with only eight people and making a minyan impossible by including the Torah scroll. Nobody rules that one can use two Torah scrolls to complete the minyan. This teaches us something else about our tradition. Sacred text and practice are not only open to interpretation; there may be multiple interpretations of the same text or practice! Although the community must make a choice when there are conflicting legal opinions, all legitimate opinions are considered the living word of G-d. There may be a time and a place for an opinion that has been rejected. For example, one respected 20th century orthodox rabbi forbids the practice of counting a Torah scroll as a person in a minyan, unless failure to do so will lead to the disintegration of a synagogue. Our religion, often portrayed as rigid and inflexible, has endured for 3500 years because of the creativity, originality and flexibility of its expounders and interpreters in meeting the challenges posed by everyday living. May it continue to be this way!
 Rav Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe ibid.