Dear Rabbi Fried,
I understand that during this pandemic the synagogues needed to be shuttered to reduce the threat of spreading the virus. My question is, today it is relatively easy to have the congregation together via webcam and other means, so why shouldn’t that count as a virtual minyan? Today, electronic meetings are the norm and as virtual reality develops, it feels more and more like distant people are actually together in the same room and are able to interact as if they’re there in person. If it works for nearly every other type of interaction in the real world, why should it not work for forming a virtual minyan as well?
This is a great question, one that many have been asking during this unique time when shuls across the world have been shut down and we do have the technology to stay connected.
Although technically, a virtual minyan is not considered a minyan, many synagogues have, during this time, held virtual prayer services (not a minyan, but a service), with ten or more men praying at the same time, hearing each other or the reader by Zoom or other platforms. Those virtually hearing the beracha, or blessing of the reader can even answer amen, although they’re not actually hearing a beracha, rather an electronic impulse which is reconstructed to sound like the person’s voice. This has a precedent in the Talmud, which discusses the practice in the giant synagogue in Alexandria of Egypt which held thousands of people. It was so large that the congregants couldn’t hear the reader, so whenever he finished reciting a blessing a flag was waved, signifying the congregants should say amen. (Talmud, Succah 51b).
Many authorities have ruled that an electronic notification of the recitation of a blessing is no different than the flags of that synagogue. In fact, a leading sage of the past generation, Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg ob’’m, when he became to weak to attend synagogue, he would virtually join a special sunrise minyan and answer kaddish, kedusha and the like. That was because he was virtually joining a minyan which was already taking place with 10 men in the same room. Although he was not considered to be part of the minyan, he could at least answer their blessings.
Jewish law is clear, however, that answering kaddish and the like is only possible when an actual minyan is taking place with ten Jews in the same room. If one connects to it virtually, although they are not considered to be in a minyan, he or she can answer to the minyan, which is praiseworthy in a situation where one is old or sick , like in the case of Rabbi Scheinberg.
A virtual connection however, no matter how real, cannot create a minyan. This is because it is not sufficient that the ten Jews are connected or interacting, even at a very highly interactive level. They need to, actually, be physically present in the same room. We learn this from the Talmudic ruling that if nine Jews are in a room, even if the tenth one is in the doorway (just outside where the door would strike if closed), or looking through an open window, they are not considered in the same room and it is not a minyan. (Talmud, Pesachim 85b and “Code of Jewish Law”, Shulchan Aruch O”C 55:13).
The reason for this is that only when 10 Jews gather together in a room to pray is the Shechinah, or Divine Presence, said to dwell in that room. Only then are we able and allowed to recite kaddish and other prayers which are termed “davar she’bekedusha”, or holy utterances which require a minyan. (Aruch Hashulchan loc. Cit par. 17, based on Talmud, Megilla 23b).
No matter how advanced our interactions in a virtual chatroom, the actual people are not in the same room, just as we have learned that the high level of potential interaction of being next to an open window next to the 9 in the room doesn’t create a minyan. For the Divine Presence to reside, we need 10 real people in the room!
This is an important lesson in its own right, that virtual reality is still not reality.
I feel that, besides that halachic issues, for us to have created a minyan virtually, to imagine that we are not really missing anything by being separated, would be missing the point we’re being shown from Above. As we discussed in past columns, one of the main lessons of this period of quarantine and shut-down of shuls is that we, by our actions, speech and thoughts, have distanced ourselves from other Jews and are lacking in our respect and love of every Jew. We needed a period of time, like the leper of old, to be “outside the camp”, in seclusion, to contemplate that which we are lacking. When we will all learn that lesson and rekindle an unconditional love for every Jew, we can rest assured that the Al-mighty will return us to our shuls and, hopefully, to the quintessential shul, the Temple in Jerusalem, speedily in our days!