The counting of the Jewish People mentioned at the outset of Parashas Ki Tisa recalls the concept of a minyan—a word that refers to a group of ten Jewish men, but which literally means ‘a count.’

The danger of a plague ensuing from counting people, which tragically materialized in the times of King David (who counted the nation directly), derives from the basic act of counting. As Rabbeinu Bachya explains, counting, singles out each member of the nation as an individual, separating him from the Divine Providence that protects the entire nation. The counted individual is thus in danger, set apart from the rest of the nation.

The solution that the Torah offers is to count by means of a half-shekel, in order to imply that even after a person is counted, he remains a half. Even in his private domain, where a person maximizes his or her personal and individual expression, he remains a detail within the greater body of the nation of Israel.

Every minyan, every gathering of ten Jews, is a proxy for the entire Jewish people. A minyan of ten is therefore a “count”—we can count each individual as part of the group of ten. The custom, indeed, is to count the minyan by means of a ten-word Pasuk: each person corresponds to one word out of ten.

In the present article we will discuss the laws of a minyan, and specifically the concept of davening with a minyan. To what degree is there an obligation to pray with a minyan? How much effort must one make to join a minyan? Can one vacation in a place without a minyan? And should one stop his chavrusa-learning for davening with a minyan?

These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Why a Minyan?

Many believe that a minyan is required in order to enable a person to say Kaddish, Kedusha, and other parts of davening that require a group of ten. While this is true, the main purpose of the minyan is not for these parts of davening, but in order that a person can pray the main part of davening—the Shemoneh Esrei—with a minyan.

This is pointed out by the Mishnah Berurah (90:28, citing the Chayei Adam 19:1): “The main purpose of praying with the congregation is Shemoneh Esrei, meaning that ten adult men should daven together. This unlike what many think, namely that the purpose of davening with a minyan is to hear Kaddish, Kedusha and Barchu, so that they are only careful that there should be ten men in Shul. This is a mistake. Rather, a person must hurry to shul in order to daven Shemoneh Esrei with the congregation.”

A prayer that somebody recites with a tzibbur, a congregation, is qualitatively different from one recited individually. We learn in the Gemara (Ta’anis 8a) that an individual’s prayers are only accepted when they are said with proper intent (kavana), while Hashem accepts communal prayers even when the kavana is deficient. Based on the Gemara in Berachos (8a), the Tur (Orach Chaim 90) writes that a person’s prayers are only effective when recited with a minyan in a synagogue.

Clearly, then, davening with a minyan is an important virtue. But is it an obligation?

Obligation to Daven with a Minyan

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 90:9) writes that a person should make an effort—yishtadel—to daven in shul with a minyan.

The Magen Avraham (90:15) explains that even if a person can daven at home with a minyan—nonetheless berov am hadras melech: davening is something that should be done together with the maximum number of people, in communal service of Hashem. The Mishnah Berurah (90:28) emphasizes that a person’s prayers are heard more when davening with the tzibbur and adds that this is true even when there are wicked people who are part of the congregation (as the Rambam writes in Chap. 8 of his Laws of Prayer).

The wording of the Shulchan Aruch, and the reasons given by these (and other) commentaries, seem to imply that davening with a minyan is not a full obligation, but rather just an important virtue that a person should try to secure. This is also implied by the Rosh (Kelal 4, Siman 11), who writes that “it is good” to daven with the congregation, by the Chavas Yair (no. 115, citing Maharil), who writes that this is not “such an obligation,” and by other authorities.

Yet, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:68) writes that davening with a minyan is a full obligation, and not merely a virtue or proper practice. He explains that it is forbidden to daven in a place where one knows that the prayer won’t be answered. As Chazal teach us, and as we learn from Pesukim too, davening with a minyan is certain to increase the potency of a person’s davening, and therefore davening with a minyan is an enhancement of one’s davening and increases its chances of being answered.

Although the enhancement of a person’s davening with the congregation can be derived from the Torah itself, Rav Moshe emphasizes that the obligation to achieve this enhancement and daven with the tzibbur is rabbinic in nature. Similar wording, implying that davening with a minyan is a rabbinic obligation, is found in the Shulchan Aruch Harav (Orach Chaim 90:17), in the Aruch Hashulchan (90:21) and others. The Minchas Yitzchok likewise brings the Toras Chaim that when the Shulchan Aruch uses the words “one should try” he refers to davening in a shul with a minyan and not davening at home with a minyan. But in any case one must daven with a minyan.

According to this approach, the wording of the Shulchan Aruch (yishtadel) does not mean to imply that there is no obligation, but only that under extenuating circumstances—as below—the obligation does not apply.

Additional Sources

Additional sources indicate that there is an obligation to daven with a minyan.

The Gemara (Berachos 47b) records that that Rabbi Eliezer once freed a non-Jewish slave, despite the fact that freeing a slave transgresses a Torah prohibition. The Gemara explains that he did so because freeing a slave gives him the status of a full-fledged Jew, and this was required so that the released slave could be the tenth man in a minyan. This is a “great mitzvah,” for which it is permitted to free a slave.

Which is the great mitzvah here? Tosafos explain that the mitzvah referred to is tefillah betzibbur, davening with a congregation. Yet, it is noteworthy that according to Rashi and the Rosh, the mitzvah is to enable saying Kaddish, Kedusha, and other matters of Kedusha that require a minyan, rather than the obligation of davening with a minyan. We can perhaps explain that while the main personal obligation is to daven Shemoneh Esrei with a minyan, the main communal concern is that all parts of davening will be recited.

In the wake of the Gemara, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 267:79) rules that it is prohibited to free a non-Jewish slave, but it is permitted to do so for a mitzvah, even a rabbinic one such as minyan. The Shulchan Aruch does not specify which aspect of davening with a minyan he is referring to.

Another source worthy of mention is the statement of the Gemara (Berachos 8a) whereby somebody who lives in a town with a Shul but does not attend is called a shachen ra—a bad neighbor. This statement is mentioned by the Rosh (Berachos 1:7), the Tur (Orach Chaim 90) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 90:11). The Rambam (Laws of Prayer 8:1) emphasizes that the person must daven in Shul “with the tzibbur.”

The Mishnah Berurah (90:38) writes that if a person has a minyan in a house, the term shachen ra will not apply to those davening at home, even if they do not go to Shul.

The Distance to Shul

Perhaps the clearest source that davening with a minyan is an  obligation is the instruction of the Gemara in Pesachim (46a), that somebody who is traveling must walk further along his way a distance of four mil (a mil is approximately one kilometer, or 0.61 miles) in order to daven, and one mil in the reverse direction. According to Rashi (and several Rishonim), this implies that one must make an effort (of walking the distance of four mil) to daven in Shul with a minyan.

The Shulchan Aruch (90:16) thus rules that somebody who is traveling, and reaches a town where he wishes to stay overnight, must continue to travel a distance of 4 mil in order to reach a Shul and daven with a minyan, and one mil in the reverse direction.

The Mishnah Berurah (90:52, citing the Chayei Adam) writes that for somebody who is not traveling, going to Shul is considered like traveling in the reverse direction. This means that he needs to make an effort of walking the distance of a mil in order to get to Shul. In terms of time, this translates into 18 minutes of travel, so that according to many authorities (e.g. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s comment in Ishei Yisroel (Chapter 8 note 70)) somebody who normally travels by car must drive for as much as 18 minutes in order to daven with a minyan.

The Mishnah Berurah writes that this obligation applies to traveling by day, rather than by night. He adds that from here we see an “explicit rebuke” of those who are lazy and refrain from going to Shul to daven with a minyan. This distinction would seem irrelevant today where people travel at night unless they live in a neighborhood where it is dangerous to go out at night.

Based on this source, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orach Chaim 2:27) rules that it is forbidden for a Torah scholar to learn until late into the night, if as a result he will miss davening with a minyan. Rav Moshe writes that davening with a minyan is an obligation and not merely a virtue, and a person must not refrain from doing so even for the purpose of his Torah study (see also Shulchan Aruch and Rema, Orach Chaim 90:18, concerning somebody for whom Torah study is his occupation). Elsewhere, Rav Moshe writes that a person must daven in Shul with a minyan even if he would have greater kavana when davening at home (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 3:7).

Extenuating Circumstances

In extenuating circumstances, such as where there is no nearby Shul (within a distance of 18-minutes travel), it is permitted to daven at home.

Poskim extend this to other circumstances. For example, if a person has already started a meal (and it was permitted for him to do so), he does not need to stop his meal for the purpose of davening with a minyan (Biur Halacha 232). Several more examples are mentioned below.

The following are frequent questions that come up concerning davening with a minyan:

  • Sickness: Somebody who is sick, or even somebody who is weak, is not obligated to go to Shul to daven with a minyan (Mishnah Berurah 90:29).
  • Spending Money: There is no requirement to suffer a loss of money in order to daven with a minyan (Shut Yad Eliyahu 7; Mishnah Berurah 90:29). Likewise, in a place where there is no minyan, one is not obligated to spend money in order to hire people for a minyan (Halichos Shlomo, Chap. 5, note 6, based on Mishnah Berurah 55:66). However, one is not allowed to daven privately in order to earn more money.
  • Davening Late: It is better to daven Minchah privately rather than to do so with a minyan after sunset (Mishnah Berurah 236:14).
  • Hanetz Hachama: For somebody who regularly davens vatikin (at sunrise), doing so takes precedence over davening with a minyan (see Biur Halachah 58, s.v. umitzvah; Halichos Shlomo 5:17). Some authorities say that even one who does not regularly daven at sunrise may do so without a minyan.
  • Disturbing Others: Sometimes disturbing others may be a consideration. For this reason, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was not in favor of making a minyan on an airplane, if doing so blocked the aisles (Halichos Shlomo 8:4, note 12).
  • Vacations: It is improper to vacation in a place where there is no minyan (Halichos Shlomo 5:4; see also addition from Rav Zalman Nechemya Goldberg at the end of the book). However, one may do so for health reasons.
  • Interruption from Learning: If a person missed his regular davening and is learning with a chavrusa, he need not interrupt to daven with a minyan (Halichos Shlomo 5:16). This is derived from a case in which a person is in the middle of a meal, for which he is not obligated to stop to daven with a minyan (Biur Halacha 232).

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