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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Why aren't women counted in a minyan?


Rosh Hashanah 25

Why don’t we include women in a minyan?  There are many reasons that are derived from Scripture, such as the fact that the ten spies are the first individuals that are referred to as an assembly.  Some suggest that praying with a minyan is an obligation incumbent upon males as atonement for the error of the spies and, women, not having sinned, don’t require a minyan.

There is one medieval opinion brought in the name of Rabbeinu Simcha that suggests that perhaps one may include women in a minyan.   As we can see from halachic practice around the world, his ruling was not accepted.  Nevertheless, there are those who hold up the banner of Rabbeinu Simcha as a ‘traditional source’ for including women in the minyan, since after all it is quoted in our traditional texts.

Others contend that we should never open the door to halachic innovation, due to the ‘slippery slope’ argument.  Once we allow one innovation, there’s no limit to what might happen.  Is that a sound argument?

In Temple times, the new month was determined by the sighting of the new moon.  Each month, the High Court waited for witnesses to arrive to pronounce the new month.  One time, they came to the court and testified before Rabban Gamliel that they had seen the moon on the correct day but not in the subsequent evening.   Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony.

Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinus dissented, “They are false witnesses!” he cried, “How can one testify that a woman gave birth and the next day we see her still pregnant?”  Rabbi Joshua agreed.

Rabban Gamliel sent a message to Rabbi Joshua: “I hereby decree that you shall appear before me with your staff and wallet on the day Yom Kippur occurs according to your calculation” (which was the day after the date declared by Rabban Gamliel).

Rabbi Akiva went and found Rabbi Joshua upset.  He said to him, “I can show you how everything that Rabban Gamliel did is legal, for it says, “These are the festivals of G-d, holy convocations, as you shall declare them.”  Whether you declare them in their right time or not, the only festivals are these.”  In other words, whenever the court determined was the beginning of the month and thus the dates of the festival,  that becomes the legal date, whether astronomically correct or not.

Rabbi Joshua then went to discuss the matter with Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinus, who said to him “If we were to question the ruling of the Beth Din (court) of Rabban Gamliel, we would end up questioning each and every Beth Din from the time of Moses until now, as it says, “Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and the seventy elders went up.”  Why were the names of the elders not specified?  It teaches us that every Beth Din that maintains the law over Israel is like the Beth Din of Moses!”

Rabbi Joshua picked up his staff and wallet and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day of his Yom Kippur calculation.  Rabban Gamliel stood up, kissed him upon the forehead and said, “Come in peace, my teacher and student.  My teacher in wisdom and my student for you have accepted my words.”

While Rabbi Dosa didn’t agree with Rabban Gamliel’s ruling, he recognized the danger of public dissent.  Rabban Gamliel was the chief rabbi and if we were not to accept his ruling, why should we accept any prior Beth Din’s rulings?  The Halacha (Jewish law) works within a system of tradition and halachic precedent.  Sure, there are minority opinions that have decided differently along the way, but once the mainstream view was accepted, we can’t simply choose which prior opinions to accept, centuries after the fact.

The rationale behind the ‘slippery slope’ argument is that once we start uprooting standard practice – as deemed halachic by Beth Dins over hundreds of years – in favour of minor opinions from the past, where do you stop?  There have always been dissenting opinions but once the Halacha was determined, there’s no going back. 

Movements that initially strove to be halachic, today flaunt clear unambiguous Torah transgressions.  Once one starts tampering with the traditional halachic process, one starts rolling down the road of the slippery slope and eventually nothing is off-limits.  Rabbi Dosa’s point is, if we can question the Beth Din today, what’s to stop us questioning the Beth Din from a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago or even Moses himself?  And thus the entire system falls apart and becomes utterly devoid of meaning. 

You might not agree with everything in Halacha.  You might even think that the Rabbis have messed up on which day is Yom Kippur!  It doesn’t matter.  The way the system works is that G-d entrusted our Sages with the important task of maintaining our heritage and the halachic process. 


As Rashi says, “Even if they tell you that right is left and left is right, you should listen.”  And as long as you commit to doing what the Beth Din determines is the correct practice, the Almighty will bless you!