Ask the Rabbi

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.

A VIRTUAL REALITY MINYAN

Q. If a shule has problems with a minyan, how about a “virtual reality” minyan?

A. A minyan, a quorum of ten males of the age of Bar-Mitzvah or over, is needed for Kaddish, K’dushah, Bar’chu and the Torah reading. The ten, who may include the officiant, must be in the same room. If some are in another room they cannot be counted, but if there is already a minyan and other people elsewhere can hear the service they may join in with Amen and other responses.

In all circumstances the minyan must comprise real people, though there is an idea found in Talmudic literature (Ber. 47b) that in an emergency, “tishah va’aron mitz’tar’fin” – “nine and the Ark combine to make ten”; some say that “aron” (Ark) is the initials of “echad ro’eh v’eino nireh” – “the One who sees but is not seen”.

In the early 18th century there was an actual question raised, reported by Chacham Zvi Ashkenazi (father of the controversialist, Jacob Emden) in his responsa (published in Amsterdam in 1712), concerning counting to a minyan a golem, a man-made creature that looks and acts like a human being but has no soul; Zvi Ashkenazi’s grandfather, Elijah of Chelm, had apparently made such a golem. The halachic conclusion is that a golem cannot be a member of a minyan; all the more so a computer-generated image cannot be counted in the minyan.

The lesson is that there are some duties which only human beings can perform, and human beings should not let the community down by failing to assure the congregation of a minyan when one is needed.

FOOLS, CHILDREN & PROPHECY

Q. Does the Talmud really say that these days only fools and children think they are prophets?

A. Rabbi Yochanan says this in Bava Batra 12b. In contrast, Rabbi Avdimi says (BB 12a), “Since the destruction of the Temple, prophecy has been given to sages”.

R. Avdimi emphasises study and analysis: prophecy is a mental exercise. R. Yochanan emphasises the heart, soul and instinct.

Rabbi Joseph Carlebach credits R. Yochanan with a great discovery. “How often,” he says, “have children and fools hit upon the truth! The prophet takes a leap into the infinite… Maimonides gives this wonderful simile: ‘Prophetic inspiration is like the lightning on a dark night which suddenly illumines the entire landscape’ … To the prophet, to his own surprise, secrets reveal themselves… He is lifted up by the hand of the Almighty.

“Does prophetism then expose us to spiritual hazard?

“The answer is provided by the other saying: prophecy, since it ceased to exist in immediacy, belongs to the sage. The sage also can prophesy. By discovering the laws of nature and of history (he) can foretell the future course of events.”

LIMIT TO TORAH STUDY

Q. You wrote recently about yeshivah students spending years immersing themselves in Jewish texts. Is there a quantitative limit to Torah study?

A. No. The Mishnah says, “These are the things which are without measure: … Talmud Torah (the study of Torah)” (Peah 1:1; cf. Kiddushin 40a).

The other items in the list are much easier to measure quantitatively. Leaving the corners of the field unharvested so that the poor can come and take what they need is a good example. How do you measure a corner? How much are the poor entitled to? These are mathematical questions, as is the question of how much has to be brought to Jerusalem as the first fruits bikkurim). But what does “without measure” mean when applied to study?

Does it mean quality, i.e. how hard a student must concentrate or how deep an understanding he must get, or quantity, in terms of the numbers of books, chapters and subjects he is to master? Is every student judged by the same criteria? What about the student who has a quick mind but little sitzfleisch (the ability to sit) or the student with sitzfleisch but no great intellectual capacity?

There are more questions than answers.

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple. Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia's highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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Q. If a shule has problems with a minyan, how about a virtual reality minyan?