When the Torah instructs us to "follow the majority,"1 it seems to simply reiterate a most basic fact of life. Physically (as in a snowflake falling into a tub of boiling water), socially (as in the small ethnic minority assimilating within the general population), legally (as in a legislature voting on a law), and in virtually every other sphere, the greater quantity overwhelms, dilutes and even completely obliterates the lesser.

Yet every so often we are confronted with a defiant exception to this rule. How does a single split atom radically transform an innumerable quantity of its sisters? How does a lone individual retain his integrity in a corrupt society? How do a people, constituting one-fifth of one percent of the human race, dispersed throughout the world, not only preserve their identity through 4,000 years of history, but also profoundly influence the lives of billions?

Our sages tell us that the Torah is the "blueprint" which G‑d consulted in creating the world. Thus, the laws of the Torah not only teach us how to implement the divine will in our daily lives, but also give us insight into the laws and dynamics of creation. So to understand the power of majority and its limitations we must examine the particular halachot (Torah laws) that govern the relationship between greater and lesser quantities.

A Law with Four Exceptions

The biblical precept, "follow the majority," applies on many levels. If a bet din (court of Torah law) is debating the guilt or innocence of an accused criminal, or a group of sages are divided on the interpretation of a law, we are to follow the majority opinion. We also follow "statistical" majorities in establishing certain facts of legal relevance, even in matters of life and death.2 But perhaps the most poignant example of the power of quantity is the law of "nullification by majority" (bittul b'rov), which states that when something is assimilated within a greater quantity, it is "nullified" by it and is divested of its halachic identity. For example, if a piece of non-kosher meat gets mixed in with two or more pieces of kosher meat (in such a way that they are indistinguishable from each other), it is nullified by the majority—each of these three pieces is permissible for consumption.3

There are, however, several exceptions to the rule of "nullification by majority." Chief among them is the law that states that a "prominent thing" (davar chashuv) is not nullified within the greater quantity.

Torah law cites four categories of such "prominence." One category is that of "creature": if the complete body of a non-kosher animal (e.g. a bug or worm) becomes mixed into kosher food, it is not nullified, even if the kosher food is of a much greater quantity. The entire mixture is forbidden unless the non-kosher creature is removed.4

A second type of prominence is that of "the piece worthy to be served up." If the non-kosher element is of a size and quality that makes it fit to be served up "before guests" (as the Talmud puts it) as a full portion, it is not nullified "even by a thousandfold."5

A third category is a "counted object"—a thing that is sold in the marketplace not by weight or volume but on a "per item" basis. This, too, classifies an object as a "prominent thing" and prevents its nullification.6

A fourth category is a thing that is kavua, a thing "set in its place." The Talmud offers the following example of kavua: "If there are nine shops [in the city] that sell kosher meat and one shop that sells non-kosher meat, and a person buys [meat] from one of the shops but he does not know from which shop he bought, the doubted [meat] is forbidden."7 The non-kosher butcher shop is not nullified by the majority because it is "set in its place": when a thing has a defined space of its own, the fact that outside of this space greater or more numerous realities prevail does not diminish, much less nullify, its reality.8

Primary Prominence

Halachah distinguishes between laws that are biblically ordained and laws decreed by the sages. While both are equally binding upon the Jew (indeed, it is a biblical imperative to "observe all that they shall instruct you"9), there are certain stringencies that apply solely to biblical laws, in order to distinguish them from rabbinical decrees. A more basic difference is that, according to many halachic authorities, biblical laws define the nature of the object, while rabbinical degrees are prohibitions upon the person (for example, if biblical law forbids a certain food, this indicates that the very substance of the food is intrinsically negative and profane; on the other hand, rabbinical proscription of a certain food is merely a prohibition upon the person not to eat it).10

The first three instances of non-nullification by the majority—the "creature," the "piece worthy to be served up" and the "counted object"—are rabbinical institutions.11 In essence, the biblical rule of nullification by the majority would apply to such things as well; it is a stringency of rabbinical law that, because of their prominence, they should not be considered nullified. The only "true" instance of non-nullification is that of "the thing set in its place." This is a biblical rule (derived from Deuteronomy 19:1112), indicating that such an object is intrinsically non-nullifiable.

There are several factors that enable a person to resist the obliterating effect of mass and quantity and preserve his uniqueness in a homogenizing world. A person might fall back on his natural self to emphasize his individuality, as the "creature" that resists nullification with its biological integrity. A person might possess exceptional characteristics or talents that, like the "piece worthy to be served up," preserve his distinction by virtue of their superior quality. A person might even make use of a quantitative superiority (a lot of money, for example) to establish himself as a "counted object" that must be reckoned with even by those numerically greater than he.

But these are "un-nullifiables" of a superficial sort. In practice, they stand out from the masses, but in essence, they, too, are swallowed up and de-individualized by them. The only truly un-nullifiable individual is the kavua—the one in whom the "spark of G‑dliness" that is the essence of his soul is fixed in his being so that his life becomes its "set place" and habitat. When the inviolable essence of man finds a place of permanence and definition in his life, no external force, no matter how formidable, can blur the boundaries of his being.

Based on an entry in the Rebbe's journal dated Tammuz 11, 5704 (June 25, 1944)13