Why should we make the extra effort to daven (pray) with a minyan (quorum of 10) 3 times a day? It's much more convenient to just daven “alone” at home, in the office, or wherever we happen to be.What Jewish values are in play with this?
The Talmud (Berakhot 8a) claims that prayers recited as part of a minyan are never rejected by God. The metaphysical meaning of this statement – what exactly it means, from God’s perspective, for our prayers to be heard, is difficult to comprehend. Yet the symbolic meaning is more obvious. A minyan is a microcosm of Klal Yisrael – the collective identity of the Jewish people. When we pray with a minyan we are not only approaching God as individuals, but as descendants of Abraham and Sarah and of those who stood and accepted the Torah at Sinai. Whatever the status of our own personal relationship with God may be at any given moment, the covenant between God and the Jewish people remains unbroken and prayer with a minyan allows us to approach God from the context of that eternal covenantal relationship.
Understood in this way, the importance of prayer with a minyan emerges from one of Judaism’s most notable distinguishing features. Judaism is not a religion that merely promotes personal spiritual and ethical growth (although such growth hopefully occurs among those who practice Judaism). Rather, giving the Torah to the Jewish people indicated God’s desire that the Jewish people should collectively live a life of Torah and mitzvot and, together, figure out the specific contours of that life in each generation. Prayer with a minyan is the corollary of that collective stance before God.
Of course God is not limited to any particular place or time. There are some who for logistical reasons will find individual private prayer to be preferable. There are also those who can more easily create the awareness of standing in the presence of God when they are otherwise in solitude. The Talmud records that Rabbi Akiva would alternate between prayer with a minyan and prayer in solitude. When he prayed alone he would become so absorbed in his prayers that passersby would find him in a different corner of the room at the conclusion of his prayers.
The Shulhan Arukh (Orach Hayim 90:9) codifies the preference for prayer with a minyan by stating that one should “strive” to pray together with a minyan. But, prayer with a minyan remains a communal obligation (that the community should maintain a regular minyan) and not an individual one.
There are also (at least) three ancillary pragmatic benefits to prayer with a minyan. First, gathering in a synagogue or beit midrash for morning and afternoon prayers frames one’s daily activities and orients one’s thoughts in positive ways. Praying in solitude, in rushed moments carved out of a busy life, might not create the same consciousness that one’s daily activities are sandwiched by prayer. The discipline required to wake up early or go out in the evening to attend public prayers can carry over into other spheres of life were spiritual discipline and moral backbone are needed.
Second, gathering together with at least nine other members of one’s community on a regular and ongoing basis can itself sustain the ties between individuals that create social-capital and feelings of mutual responsibility and concern. The Israeli musician Kobi Oz, in his song “The Secular Prayer,” sings about the different sorts of Jews he encountered when praying with a minyan and how that experience reinforced feelings of Jewish unity that embraced the diversity of Jewish expression in contemporary Israel.
Finally, the wish to have access to a minyan, traditionally defined as ten adult men, encourages Jews to settle in locations with, on average, 20 – 30 Jewish residents (my back-of-napkin demographic calculation is that a community of 30 people will have 10 adult men). Communities of this size can spread out across the globe – as indeed Jews have done – while maintaining enough members for vibrant Jewish life.
There are several reasons why davening with a minyan is preferable to davening on your own:
1) There are some parts of the service -- Barkhu, Kedushah, Kaddish -- that you may say only in the presence of a minyan.
2) Because of this, mourners and those who have yahrzeit need a minyan to say Kaddish, and so attending a minyan makes it possible for them to do this. It also makes it possible for those who do not know the service to fulfill their obligations to pray three times daily by answering "Amen" to the leader's blessings -- and probably eventually to learn the service. For that matter, you yourself may learn the words and proper melodies of the various times of the year when davening in a minyan if you do not already know them. Fulfilling the Rabbinic enactment to hear the Torah read on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings as well as Saturday afternoon also may take place only in a minyan. The failure to take these communal needs into account makes you a "bad neighbor," according to Maimonides.
3) Davening in a minyan will make it less likely for you to make mistakes, especially on days when the litrugy we are supposed to say is different in some way from the ordinary liturgy.
4) We are by nature people who need people, and davening together helps to bond us to the davening community both religiously and socially.
There are undoubtedly other reasons to daven in a minyan beyond those noted above. These factors make it desirably that one's regular regimen includes davening with a minyan. That said, if on occasion one cannot do so, it is clearly better to daven on one's own , skipping the parts that you may not say without a minyan, rather than not daven at all.
We live in an age of convenience. We do our shopping online, expect our groceries to be delivered, to do our banking online, to communicate with others through Skype, email and texts. Increasingly, we find our opportunities to connect with Judaism online as well, through livestreamed services and podcasted divrei Torah. Many siddurim(including the Reform Movement's Mishkan T'fillah) and chumashim can be downloaded as apps. Rabbis Tweet the Exodus and the Omer.
All of this points to the more reason to find a live, in person prayer community. The purpose of a minyan are manyfold: to provide mourners a built-in support group when they need to say kaddish, to give us the chance to touch others, to hear others' voices, to be loved and supported by others. By going to minyan, we value others and the community itself. We create connections we may never have before. By experiencing other tunes, other voices, other ideas, we encounter the sacred.
Too often, our synagogues, minyanim and prayer groups don't do that. So we opt for convenience instead. Why go out of our way when the experience disappoints us, right? Wrong. Rabbi Elie Kaufner, in his book Empowered Judaism, writes that the goal of minyan is "to build a prayer community that speaks to each of its members' spiritual longings, gives participants a sense of community and belonging, and empowers them to find in Judaism a deep sense of meaning and purpose that infuses every corner of their lives." I would argue that can't happen alone, without the feedback and participation of others. We must try to create that sense of shared experience, even when it's not perfect, even when it's hard.
Is this possible all the time? Of course not. Sometimes you're just going to have to "daven alone", or rely on social media and technology. But that should never be our first option. It is hard, it is inconvenient, it can be disappointing, and it is essential to our spiritual health. God says in Exdodus: 'asu li mikdash v'shachanti b'tocham": build for me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among you. God is willing to come out--shouldn't we?
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