Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa says:
If ten people sit together and engage in Torah study, the Divine Presence is present among them, as it is said: “God stands in the assembly of God” (Psalms 82:1).
How do we know this is true even of five people? For it is said: “He has established his bundle upon earth” (Amos 9:6).
How do we know this is true even of three people? For it is said: “In the midst of judges He shall judge” (Psalms 82:1).
How do we know this is true even of two people? For it is said: “Then those who fear the LORD spoke to one another, and the LORD listened and heard” (Malachi 3:16).
How do we know this is true even of one person? For it is said: “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:21).
This is a long one!
10 signifies a certain completeness. The assembly is representative of the whole community – so 10 are needed today for a synagogue service. The derivation of this is interesting – from the Wilderness Israel sent out 12 men to spy on the folks living in the Promised Land. All 12 returned – 2 (Joshua and Caleb) spoke well of the land and with confidence that the LORD would help them conquer it while 10 disparaged the land and were not confident that, even with the LORD’s help, that they could take it. The LORD grew angry at the assembly – which the rabbis interpret to mean the 10 who had only discouraging words. Hence – an assembly must be 10 people.
What about 5 people? In the tradition a bundle is a collection of something that can be held in one hand. Eventually the 5 fingers of the hand came to be thought of as a bundle. There are a minimum of 5 needed for a court (3 judges and the 2 persons in conflict). Which connects us to the next point.
3 judges are needed for a court, with the LORD being present to ensure justice is done.
And 2 people? It takes 2 to have a conversation – one who speaks and the other to listen.
And 1 person? In the quote from Exodus “you” is in the singular.
We don’t “proof text” this way today – and the rabbis of old were not really doing that either. They were using their vast knowledge of the biblical texts in a creative way to call people to the study of wisdom, to the study of the Scriptures. They were sure that when folks did so that the LORD was with them and guiding them. This was their way of making it clear that in whatever combination of people we might have – Torah study is a good thing, we should do it, we should be aware that our God is with us when we do.
Christians should (rightly) hear an echo of a famous saying of Jesus – “Wherever 2 or more are gathered in my name, there I will be.” As part of the rabbinic tradition (albeit in pre-Talmudic times) this saying likely preserves a piece of a larger and perhaps similar statement to Pirke Avot 3:7.
So why bother with this in this day and time?????
I think we bother with this idea because matters of faith are inherently relational – us and God, you and me. Somehow, in faith and as a faith community, we are linked together. To speak of love, life, birth and death, trouble and peace – of anything of substance – we need one another, the community, and even our ancestors to weigh in and help us see and understand.
And so? Let’s study together, learn together, and experience the presence of God with us while we do.