Sunday, March 1, 2009

The rabbi who cried Wolf?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

[Make sure to read this article to the end – a Forward shout-out for our shul’s annual chulent contest! ]

This hasn't happened to me in a while, but when it does, it's a problem:

The time for minchah arrives, and we have 9 men. (Yes, we only count men for the minyan. No, that's not the topic of this post.) So I pull out my cell phone and start calling people, and soon enough we have a pledge from the tenth to be there as soon as he can.

Then, before the promised tenth can arrive, someone else walks in the door. Now what?

Do I call our promised tenth and let him know he isn't needed? That would be a way to protect myself from being accused of crying Wolf... but then he would miss minyan!

So should I let him rush to get dressed appropriately (also a topic for another post, but in this case I've already written it here, on shul dress codes and Dress-Up Judaism) and come to shul? But then he may resent it when he comes and the tenth is already there, and the next time I call him he'll write it off as the rabbi crying Wolf again!

From a purely halachic perspective, this is not really a question; the legal principle of ערבות (responsibility for others) does not extend this far. I should protect myself and my future prospects by letting him know that the tenth has arrived, and then the choice to stay home or come to shul is his own.

But from a philosophical perspective, what should I do?

To globalize the problem: Is an immediate mitzvah more important than many potential future mitzvot?

Of course, the problem really is not so neatly stated, because (1) I don't know that he will resent it, (2) I don't know that such resentment would lead him not to come to minyan, and (3) I don't know that we will need him for any future minyan. But I like that formulation, so let's go with it: One immediate mitzvah, or Many potential future mitzvot?

I suspect the answer is מצוה הבא לידך אל תחמיצנה, loosely translated as, "Don't pass up an opportunity for a mitzvah, when it comes to hand." Let him come to minyan today, even if that puts future attendance in jeopardy. But I'm not certain that applies here.

I leave it open-ended, for now.


  1. Rav, i'd like to respectfully disagree -- I would lean more towards not risking the immediate turn-off of a "crying wolf" situation, in order to protect both the individual's feelings towards minyan attendance, as well as the future chances of bringing them in to complete the minyan in other circumstances.

    Calling the guy to tell him that he's not needed anymore (but his presence would still be appreciated, etc.) demonstrates serious and honorable honesty, and may make a positive impression on his view of you, rabbis in general, shul, Judaism, God, etc. And if he already scrambled to get dressed, he may well decide to come anyway.

    I think מצוה הבאה לידך can be countered by invoking חלל שבת אחד כדי לשמור שבתות הרבה — while the question of davening betzibur isn't nearly as serious as shemirat Shabbat, i think the weighing of many future mitzvot over one immediate one is a transferable ideal.

  2. Steg-
    Thanks for your input.
    Re: Honesty - If he asks to be told if someone shows up, I certainly would tell him. But if he does not indicate any wish to know, I don't see the need, in terms of honesty.
    The חלל שבת אחת application is interesting, but I'm not sure it applies here. In that case, if he doesn't violate Shabbat now, then he certainly will not have a chance to observe it in the future.

  3. "Yes, we only count men for the minyan."

    this reminds me of when i wrote a book for the jts library. i used the word minyan and defined it something like "the quorum of ten men required for communal prayer." a big fight ensued over whether or not to include "men"

  4. Lion-
    I've been wondering where you've been. I hope you saw the post I put up on casket accessories, in response to your request.