The Power of Ten

Howard - Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Entered on August 8, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe in the power of ten—more specifically, in the power of the tenth person. In Jewish tradition, certain prayers—including the prayer for mourning—cannot be recited unless ten adults—over the age of 13– are present. For certain orthodox communities the number may be restricted to ten males; for others, men and women are counted as part of what is called a minyan. The saying goes that anywhere in the world a Jew who has lost a partner, a parent, a sibling or a child, ought to be able to enter any synagogue or temple and receive the opportunity to say Kaddish.

What is the significance of the number ten? Can the universe, as some assert, be defined in powers of ten? Is there some deep, numerological meaning to the number? That I can’t say. What I can do is tell a story that confirms my belief in the power of that number and in the benefits that accrue when that critical mass is achieved. I was eleven years old in November of 1964 when my father died of pancreatic cancer. Our family officially began a year of mourning. That year began with the ritual of sitting shiva—seven days of intense mourning, during which a minyan met in our home and kaddish was recited there. When the week was up, and for eleven months, my brothers and I became part of a daily minyan at our local synagogue.

Only eleven, I did not count as part of the ten but I felt the special power of being part of a wonderfully supportive and nurturing community. It was not easy waking up in the darkness of those wintery mornings but the dark seemed dispelled by the light of the sanctuary and by the beaming smiles of the regular minyan makers. A bit of schnapps at the end of each morning service no doubt helped to warm us all on those chilling mornings.

Each member of the ten had a kind of signature personality and a nickname or shorthanded way of being named. There was the tall and handsome gentleman whom we all called “the missile man,” who, we were told, worked in the aero space field. There was “the egg man,” a jovial elderly man who sold eggs on a truck every day. And there was a mysterious old gentleman, a “professional mourner,” Mr. Norman, who really hadn’t lost anyone at all but was being paid to say the Kaddish for others. I recall, though, how passionately he read a particular prayer, the Shema, striking his chest, for emphasis, so passionately.

When the eleven months of mourning lifted, I recall feeling a mixture of relief (I was, after all, a child who would rather have been at the playground most afternoons) and sadness that I would no longer be part of this group of ten. Perhaps I felt some jealousy as well—near the end of our year, a new boy came, a boy as young as I had been, who had just lost his father. It was his turn now, to enjoy the power of ten.