Q. Where does the notion of a minyan come from?
A. The word means a count or quorum. Ten males of thirteen and over constitute this quorum. With it, the Torah can be read publicly and Bar’chu, Kaddish and the repetition of the Amidah can be recited.
The reason for the number ten derives from the story of Sodom where God agrees with Abraham to save the city if there are ten righteous men there. Twelve spies are sent to investigate Canaan – and ten, called a congregation, influence the people’s thinking. Ten is the basic unit of society.
Many other Jewish practices or teachings come in tens – Ten Commandments, a minimum of ten verses for K’ri’at HaTorah, ten Psalms beginning Halleluy-ah, ten Divine utterances at the creation of the world, etc. (Talmud M’gillah 21b).
The sages say that when ten are assembled for prayer or study, the Divine presence is with them. Maimonides declares that prayer is more effective with a minyan, and a person who does not pray with the congregation is considered a bad neighbour.
Certain other numbers were used for sub-groups in a community, such as shivah tuvei ha’ir, the “seven good men of the city” akin to the town council; or the m’zumman, the group of three who combine for a communal grace after meals. Talmudic sources (Sofrim 10:7) record a view that a minyan could be seven (or even six), but this is not the normative law.