The Minyan Market (Ideas #130)


Not long ago, I decided to pay a visit to the Kotel for early morning services, which many people know is not as easy as it might seem.


There are usually no scheduled services in the various areas of the Kotel plaza. Rather, it is very much like a shuk, an open-air market. “Vendors” are calling out, trying to sell their minyanim, while “buyers” are trying to get the best deal. For most of those on the buying side, the two most important things to look for are time and nussach. That is to say, one wants to find a minyan that is just about to begin, so as to avoid either waiting around for the minyan to form or having to catch up with something in full progress. As far as nussach, most Sefaradim and Ashkenazim prefer to pray according to their own rite, with their sub-community’s own version of that rite an added incentive. Other than that, one can never be sure of the feel of any particular minyan.  Whether it will be slow or fast, loud or soft, mainstream or offbeat, are things that one only finds out during the prayers. Sometimes the surprise adds to the experience, but other times one just feels that he should have held out for a better deal.


On the morning in question, the minyan I chose started a bit late to catch what is usually called “vatikin,” a term referring to the pious men of old, who would enhance the morning service by starting the central amidah prayer at sunrise. No mere ritual, there is something quite profound about saying one’s prayers at the very beginning of the day, marked by the sun’s appearance over the horizon. Late or not however, it was clear to the prayer leaders that getting to vatikin was just what we would do. Had this taken place a few years back, I would have agreed with them. In the interim, however, I have seen that slowing down in order to have a better chance at thinking about what I am saying is more important to me than the enhancement of vatikin. Since it seemed clear to me on that morning that my approach would not be popular, it was quickly evident that if I wanted to continue praying with the minyan, I would need to sacrifice my prayer needs to those of the group.  And so I did. But not before I started thinking about why I didn’t just leave to pray “better“on my own. (The thought of finding another minyan in the middle of my prayers seemed even less enticing, since going through the market experience before prayers is already a lot to tolerate – to do so in the middle of prayers is generally beyond my capacities.)


The experience I had at the Kotel that day was of the type that has brought some very thoughtful friends and acquaintances to pray by themselves. That way, they don’t have their own spiritual requirements constrained by the needs of others. In one sense, this seems so obvious that one has to wonder why the rabbis so emphatically encourage Jews to pray together in a quorum in the first place. Though there may well be sociological reasons for the rabbis’ description of someone who chooses to avoid the minyan as a bad neighbor – i.e. to encourage Jews to stay together in communities and to require communal interaction – I believe there is something more.


If most people are better able to focus on their prayers when they are alone, then group prayer must be more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it is the very acquiescence to a communal version of spirituality that edifies us and brings us closer to G-d. Whatever the reason, instead of comparing ourselves to independent entities, it would be more correct to see ourselves as part of a larger entity – no matter how well-functioning and outstanding the individual parts, they simply don’t have any true effectiveness independent of the whole. From this perspective, seeing ourselves mainly as individuals is, to a large extent, a false consciousness.


The rabbis in Shir haShirim Rabbah make the following observation about the words of Shmuel, “G-d made Moshe and Aharon, who took the Jews out of Egypt”: Happy are Moshe and Aharon who were not created except for the honor of Israel. According to this, these two spiritually elevated figures should rejoice in the fact that – from the beginning – their very purpose was to advance the community.


At the Kotel that morning, I also realized something else: the market paradigm mentioned earlier likely extends far beyond the Kotel. Since today’s Jews are more heavily concentrated in cities than ever before, the vast majority are able to choose from many nearby synagogues. In fact, some “super-shuls” are specifically known for the vast assortment of services all found under one roof. But whether it is within the synagogue, or within a small radius, we are almost all buyers looking for just the right minyan, knowing that if the one in which we find ourselves is not completely to our liking, there may be a more suitable one just down the road. Although good for a free-market economy, such an attitude is not necessarily the right mechanism by which to make our spiritual decisions.


(Even more dangerous is that this market mentality is slowly creeping into our relationships as well. In the search for a spouse, the knowledge that such a large pool of singles exists cannot help but engender a similar attitude about wanting to best fulfill ourselves based on the market possibilities.)


I expect neither myself nor anyone else to totally expunge such a powerfully internalized attitude. But if we can at least be aware of the pernicious effects of a market mentality on communal prayer, it will put us in a better position to attenuate some of its less desirable effects. In any case, we should well think twice about what we are doing at the minyan. We should even consider the possibility that by requiring group prayer, the rabbis are teaching us that to abandon the group is actually to abandon our deepest selves.