Friday, February 26, 2021

Part I

Not long ago, I was an assistant at a shul where everyone was lovely. There was just one slight problem: We always had a hard time getting a minyan together. There were plenty of minyan-eligible men in the area, but not enough who were ready to commit to keep the minyan going daily. What does one do to change this?  Well, for starters, this is hardly a novel situation. Shuls have been dealing with this dilemma for hundreds of years. In the 17th century, Jews from the Slovenian city of Capodistria or Koper wrote a letter to Rabbi Leon Da Modena, the chief rabbi of Venice (the city was then part of the Kingdom of Venice). The community was having trouble with membership attendance (more specifically with completing the “ten men quorum” for synagogue prayers) and thus turned to the esteemed Da Modena for help. In his response, penned in flowery Hebrew, Da Modena is decidedly stern; he decrees that all male members of the community must attend synagogue services twice daily under penalty of נחש, an acronym which stands for נידוי חרם שמתא, loosely meaning complete and utter excommunication. Modena added “and all the curses mentioned in the Torah” for good measure. I was struck by some of these phrases and their similarity to a similar missive penned by the Karaite activist Abraham Firkovich in the 19th century for his own community and for the Samaritan community in Nablus/Schem, which experienced similar problems. I was particularly intrigued by Da Modena’s directive to appoint overseers to make sure that an attendee does not leave the synagogue if there are less than ten in the room, his ordinance that nobody engage in business before morning prayers, and  that nobody misses synagogue unless one has a valid excuse (illness, etc.). 

The chief rabbi of Venice certainly relied on precedent; R. Joel Sirkis (1561-1640), the author of Bayit Chadash (Bach), a commentary on Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s Turim, ruled that Jews can be compelled to attend synagogue on pain of fines, in order to assure minyan. This was also the ruling of the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles). see Bach on Orah Hayyim 150. Cf. Moses Isserles on SA, OH 15:22.

How did Karaites and Samaritans deal with minyan shirkers?

I have mentioned the Karaite Jews before. Well, as different as they were from conventional Jews, they faced similar challenges—not least of which was getting people to leave their warm beds on cold mornings to join their coreligionists for morning prayers.

Karaite Jews did not believe in the concept of minyan—which is derived from Chazal—but some eventually did adopt it, apparently under rabbinic influence (on how we derive minyan, see BT Berachot 21B and BT Megillah 23B).

I should point out though, that the requirement of a quorum of ten was adopted in the Karaite community for the purposes of conducting a wedding ceremony. This was learned from a verse in Ruth 4: ויקח עשרה אנשים מזקני העיר “And he (Boaz) took ten men from the elders of the city” (see “Mayan Hayyim” by former Karaite chief rabbi Hayyim ben Yitzchak Halevy, p. 146). 

It is also interesting to point out that most rabbinic Halachists forbid the inclusion of a Karaite Jew in a minyan. Maimonides, in his published responsa (See שו”ת הרמב”ם סימן רסה) categorically rejects their inclusion on the basis of the fact that they do not accept the validity of the sayings of the Rabbis—from whom we know the concept of minyan.

Karaite prayer, like its rabbanite counterpart, is based on the verse in the book of Micah ונשלמה פרים שפתנו “our lips are substitutes for the sacrifices.” And since the Temple sacrifices were done once at dawn and then again at dusk, so, too, were Karaite prayers established only twice a day (rather than our thrice-daily prayers).

The 19th century Turkish Karaite Chacham, Shlomo ben Afeda Hakohen, in his Halachic compendium  “Yeriot Shelomo” is quite adamant that prayers should be done with a group (although a number is never specified). He writes:

ועל תפילת יחידי יכול להיות כוונת דוד המלך עליו השלום באמרו: “כִּי לֹא- בָזָה וְלֹא שִׁקַּץ, עֱנוּת

עָ ני וְלֹא-הִסְתִּיר פָּנָיו מִמֶּנּוּ; וּבְשַׁוְּעוֹ אֵלָיו שָׁמֵ ע” (תהלים כ”ב, כ”ה). כי איך יעלה בדעת מפני עניותו

יעלים השם עיניו ממנו ויהיה מוכרח להבטיח שלא יעלים.

אבל בהיות התפילה הרצוי אליו יתברך הנאמרת ברבים יכול להיות שתפילת היחיד בזויה, לכן

אמר: “כִּי לֹא-בָזָה” וכו’. וכן נאמר: “פָּנָה, אֶל-תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר; וְלֹא-בָזָה, אֶת-תְּפִלָּתָם” (תהלים

ק”ב, י”ח) ובאמרו תפלתם בכינוי הרבים רוצה לומר תפילת כל אחד ואחד מהם.

חיוב התפילה הוא בציבור בבית הכנסת כמו שכתוב: “בְּמַקְהֵלוֹת, בָּרְכוּ אֱלֹהִים” (תהלים ס”ח

כ”ז). ולהיות שהאדם מדיני בטבע, ולפעמים אפשר להתעכב מלהתפלל עם הציבור לסיבה מן

הסיבות, הורו החכמים עליהם השלום בתפילת יחיד, כדי שלא להיפטר ממנה, כי היא חובה

גדולה. אמנם צריך להשתדל תמיד להתפלל עם הציבור, כי התפילה הנאמרת עם הציבור היא

הרצויה, ועוד כי תפילת יחיד ספק נשמעת ספק אינה נשמעת, לפי שאם יהיה האדם ראוי מצד

מעשיו תיעתר תפילתו, ואם אינו ראוי ועוונותיו מבדילים בינו ובין השם יתברך, לא תיעתר. אבל

בהיות עם הציבור ודאי תיעתר אף על-פי שאינו ראוי, כי השגחת הכלל עדיפה מהשגחת הפרט,

וכן הזהירו החכמים: “אל תפרוש מן הציבור”.

Note his quote from the Mishna to buttress his position (this is not unusual for Karaite sages; many were in the habit of quoting Mishna and Talmud and even characterizing Chazal as “the Sages” or even “our Sages”).

The author is an author and an independent researcher of Jewish history and can be reached at
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