The Mitzvah of Making Minyan

“When we speak the name of someone who has died, it’s like bringing a part of their soul back to life.”

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A Minyan of Mt. Airy Women
A Minyan of Mt. Airy Women

This article was originally published in the BIJ Bulletin March-April 2010 / Adar-Nisan 5770.

“When we speak the name of someone who has died, it’s like bringing a part of their soul back to life.”

I was surprised to hear this comment from a confirmation student whose theology is otherwise pretty eclectic, because his sentiments affirm those of many traditional Jewish commentators.

Every faith tradition memorializes their beloved deceased with practices that keep memories and spirits alive.  In tribal communities, burial sites and cemeteries are visited in sacred pilgrimage. Long standing memorial practices and rituals connect individuals, families and communities with those who are no longer physically present in the world.

In this regard Jewish tradition is not unique.  Many congregations, BIJ included, announce the names of the recently departed and read a yahrzeit list before reciting Kaddish.  Mourners recite Kaddish for eleven months and annually at yahrzeit. We light memorial candles. We give tzedakah. We pray Yizkor on the festivals and on Yom Kippur.  We host a Kiddush or oneg Shabbat and drink a bittersweet l’chaim.  We gather to study a passage of Torah, Mishna, Talmud or other sacred text and enjoy a celebratory meal on the yahrzeit of great communal leaders and teachers.

While Judaism provides an elaborate structure of memorial practices, ours is not at all a culture of death.  At its core, Jewish tradition is life affirming. The recitation of Kaddish may permit survivors a moment to remember their beloved deceased, but the prayer speaks of radical awe in this miraculous and eternal moment. 

Furthermore, the underlying power of Kaddish is not merely in the instant of remembrance, but in the building and preservation of community. That a minyan is required to recite it is not a mere halakhic legalism. Minyan allows us to sustain and perpetuate community.  It is as essential to the mourner as it is to the thirteen year old who becomes a bat or bar mitzvah. Minyan holds the collective social force of critical mass.  In essence, minyan is synonymous with community. This is why so many Hassidic tales extol the virtue of being the tenth person and honor those who fulfill the mitzvah of ‘making minyan.’

Congregations are often identified by their rabbis but rabbis do not and cannot constitute a community.  As our Cantorial soloist David Morgenstern recently reminded me, “Nine rabbis do not make a minyan, but ten ordinary Jews do!”  Beyond the walls of the shtetl it is just short of impossible to find a Jew in the street to make a minyan.  Since liberal Jews are less compelled to fulfill ritual mitzvot, the community must rely upon the individual Jew’s call to conscience.

In truth, our actions belie our values and beliefs. While Judaism’s focus on mitzvot makes it seem as if a higher value is placed on deed than creed, the two, in fact, work in tandem. Each time we respond to the spiritual imperative – each time we respond to the call by showing up and saying – Hineni, I am here – we affirm our community.

 The Irish philosopher George Berkeley questioned whether something ceases to exist if nobody is around to perceive it.  He was clearly on to something! The only way a name spoken before Kaddish will bring an aspect of that person’s soul to life is if we are present to hear it.

5 thoughts on “The Mitzvah of Making Minyan”

  1. As I understand “reconstructionism”, God is not the supernatural personal being of the Torah, with a mInd, a will, who loves, who judges, and so forth, but is a transcendant power, which evolves.

    As you know, Rabbi, Mordecai Kaplan claimed a continuity between traditional Judaism (where the Torah is a historical document that records the relationship between God and His people). I don’t see such a continuity between the personal God of Moses and the transcendent process of Kaplan.

    What I like about reconstructionism is that – unlike many secular Jews – it does not reject the notion of transcendent being. On the contrary, it is what gives reconstructionism its force.

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  2. Thank you Rabbi for taking time to give such a thorough response. I sincerely appreciate it.

    I mentioned in my description of Kaddish in onedaringjew, http://onedaringjew.wordpress.com/2009/09/14/kaddish/, that Kaddish is above all, a prayer of submission to God’s judgments and will, which are always good and pure.

    That is what Kaddish meant until it was reconstructed. As you know Kaddish begins:

    Mourner: Magnified and sanctified be His great name. (Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmai raba).

    (The greatness and holiness of God is the introduction to prayer. This is the theme of the whole Kaddish).

    Congregation: Amen.

    Mourner: In this world which He has created in accordance with His will, may He establish his kingdom during your lifetime, and during the life of all the House of Israel, Speedily, and let us say, Amen.

    In “Jewish beliefs” it is stated, http://jewish-beliefs.suite101.com/article.cfm/judaism-and-the-act-of-performing-kiddush,

    “The mitzvah therefore, of the congregant who gets up early one morning to attend services to ensure that there is a minyan present for those who are saying Kaddish is not only doing a good deed for those in mourning, but is honoring God’s name by making sure that the Kaddish is said. The congregant is also preventing what is called Chillul Hashem – the desecration of God’s name by ensuring that a minyan isn’t prevented by a lack of congregants. Sanctification of God’s name through prayer and exemplary behavior that extols the precepts of Judaism is considered the benchmark for all Jews, whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or Renewal in their beliefs. While many Humanistic Jews do not believe in God, ethical behavior and leading an exemplary life are precepts of Humanistic Judaism as well (my italics and bold).”

    A reconstructionist Jew – as far as I understand – doesn’t believe in the God of Torah. According to Rabbi Hirsch: “… Reconstructionist Judaism affirms a conception of God as a force, power or process — but not as a supernatural Being who can be addressed and can respond…” Reconstructionism Today Autumn 2003. Volume 11, Number 1,
    http://jrf.org/showrt&rid=516.

    As you say in your response to my comment, Kaddish for you (and reconstructionist Jews) is about memories of the deceased and communal support for the surviving relative/s. It seems that what is central for you is the “humanist” Jewish emphasis on “ethical behavior and leading an exemplary life.” If this is so, I don’t see any significant distinction between 1. “humanist” Judaism, where the (only) focus, by definition, is the human being, and 2, “reconstructionist” Judaism, where God as a personal being does not feature at all.

    I’d like to know what you think and value your opinion very much

    By the way, is the form of a Reconstructionist Kaddish the same or similar to the one cited above?

    Regards

    Raphael Gamaroff

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  3. Hi Rabbi Rosalind

    You said:

    “The Irish philosopher George Berkeley questioned whether something ceases to exist if nobody is around to perceive it. He was clearly on to something! The only way a name spoken before Kaddish will bring an aspect of that person’s soul to life is if we are present to hear it.”

    If I follow you correctly, are you saying that once the human being dies, his/her soul ceases to exist – except maybe in the poetic sense of an “aspect” when the deceased’s name is mentioned.

    Bishop Berkeley says “to exist, therefore, is to be perceived or to perceive (esse est percipi vel percipere).” So, does Berkeley mean you cease to exist if there is no one to perceive you, and – there is more – you would never have existed in the first place if there was no one around to perceive you? (Phew, that was a long sentence). Berkeley would say that things and people do indeed exist even though we may not perceive them, but this does not nullify his “esse est percipi”, because, they are still being perceived – by God.

    You also said: “The recitation of Kaddish may permit survivors a moment to remember their beloved deceased, but the prayer speaks of radical awe in this miraculous and eternal moment.”

    What do you mean by “eternal”?

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    1. Thank you for your note.

      I can see that our interests differ here. I am far more concerned with the pragmatics of minyan than the theological – philosophical discussions of Berkeley. I am merely pointing out the importance of gathering a minyan for Kaddish. Without getting too deeply into the details of Berkeley’s statements, let me say that as a rabbi I want my congregants to embrace the fact that gathering to say kaddish in a minyan (quorum) is a mitzvah they should fulfill. Only with a minyan present can a person who is mourning or observing a yahrzeit or Yizkor say Kaddish. The purpose of this gathering is to allow the person to remember their beloved deceased within the community who, by their presence, can acknowledge that this individual was loved by their deceased relative and affirm that they were special, and by doing so support them in choosing life despite their loss. Others who are present for the ‘mourner’ share in the memories and the goodness of the deceased person by hearing stories and connecting with the surviving relative who has come to say kaddish. When there is no minyan, there is no community. Period. The dead and the living continue on together because of the community. Community helps us remember. Soul or no soul is not my concern. The community, alive today, is my concern. Memories are for the living.

      As for my comment about the “eternal moment,” having studied mindfulness I have come to appreciate that each moment, when lived fully in the present, has a quality of eternity. In this moment there is no past, no future, just this moment lived fully and all of its richness. It is not always possible to live this way, but it is possible and advantageous to increase these “eternal moments.”

      As for theology, one classic Reconstructionist understanding of God is that God is expressed through human relationships. For example, the rabbinic sages (pre-Reconstructionist but, nevertheless on to something) say that God is present when 10 study Torah (even as few as two). Although my understanding of God continues to evolve, in many ways, I embrace Reconstructionist theology. I will certainly write more on this in future posts on this blog. Again, thanks for your comment!

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