The Power of "Amen"
Parashat Ki Tavo
In Parahsat Ki Tavo, the word “amen” appears 12 times in 12 consecutive verses (Deuteronomy 27:15-26).1 It is also a word that features prominently in our prayer experience, usually in response to the prayer leader’s prompt. But what does this word mean? What is happening ritually when we say “amen”?
The word “amen” can indicate essentially three things: 1) accepting the consequences of a statement; 2) expressing agreement about something that has happened or is currently the case; 3) expressing belief in something that will happen, but has not yet come to fruition.2 But in all of these meanings, it is important to remember that the saying of “amen” can constitute a ritual in and of itself—more than just expressing acceptance, agreement, or belief, it is also a ritual public performance.
The use of “amen” in our parashah lays the groundwork for meaning #1: accepting the consequences of a statement. In Parashat Ki Tavo, Israel is accepting upon themselves the consequence of not following various laws (being cursed). R. Yosi bar R. Hanina, therefore, derives from this scene in the Torah that one general function of reciting Amen is kabbalat devarim, accepting the consequences of a statement.3
The word amen has two other meanings in prayer, beyond acceptance of a consequence. Meaning #2 is to express agreement about something that has happened or is currently the case. In this way, amen is similar to emet, meaning: I affirm what was said is true.4 Meaning #3 is to express belief in something that will happen, but has not yet come to fruition. This is also a form of request: I hope that this will happen.5 Here, the tradition that amen (אמן) is an acronym for the statement: “א-ל מלך נאמן - God the king is trustworthy,” and will act in the future, is particularly resonant.6
In fact, a midrash praises Israel for answering “amen” even to blessings in which God has not yet performed the act in the blessing. This is perhaps most clear with the act of bringing the dead to life:
"אמונים נוצר ה'" (תהילים לא:כד)...
[אלו העונין אמן באמונה. אומר שליח ציבור] ברוך מחיה המתים, ובאמונה עונין אמן, שמאמינים בכל כחם בהקב"ה שמחיה המתים, ועדיין לא בא תחיית המתים.
“The faithful ones (emunim), YHVH guards them” (Psalm 31:24)...
This refers to those who say “amen” with faith. The prayer leader says “blessed… Who revives the dead,” and with faith they answer “amen,” who believe with all their might in the Holy Blessed One that He will revive the dead, even though reviving the dead has not yet happened.
The midrash plays on the word emunim, understanding it as: “those who say ‘amen.’” The act of faith included in the response “amen” is borne out in the blessing of granting life to the dead. Israel responds “amen” with fervor to this blessing, even though this has not come to pass. Amen is a prayer for the future, not just an affirmation of the past.
As R”I bar Yakar explains: each time we recite “amen” following a prayer or blessing, it is important to understand which aspect of “amen” we intend.8 As such, when we recite the word “amen,” we must have a very clear sense of the meaning of the word we indicate at that moment.
In the middle blessings of the Amidah, we are actually drawing on both meanings of amen after hearing various blessings of request. This is because the middle blessings both describe aspects of God that we affirm as true, but also ask for future intervention from God that we want to happen.9 An affirmation in the present and a hope for the future are wrapped up in the simple word: “amen.”
But the word “amen” is not limited to its meanings: it also has a role and function in ritual performance. The Mishnah describes the performative element of the amens in Parashat Ki Tavo:
הפכו פניהם כלפי הר גריזים ופתחו בברכה ברוך האיש אשר לא יעשה פסל ומסכה ואלו ואלו עונין אמן הפכו פניהם כלפי הר עיבל ופתחו בקללה (דברים כ"ז) ארור האיש אשר יעשה פסל ומסכה ואלו ואלו עונין אמן עד שגומרין ברכות וקללות
Mishnah Sotah 7:510
They turned their faces to Mount Gerizim, and [the Levites] opened with a blessing… and both groups of Israelites [standing on both mountains] answered “amen.”
Then they turned their faces to Mount Eval, and [the Levites] opened with a curse… and both groups of Israelites answered “amen,” until they had finished [reciting and responding to] the blessings and curses.
This is a moment of deep symbolism, in which one mountain (Gerizim) represents the potential blessings, while the other mountain (Eval) represents the potential curses. When the Levites face each mountain in turn, they are directing their focus to the blessing or curse embodied. The people on the mountains provide the ritual response of the blessing or curse with their response of “amen.” The “amen” recited by the people, over and over again, is not only an indication of their acceptance; it is also a public ritual that elevates the moment. Imagine the power of hearing amen again and again, recited by the entire people, after each stipulation of the covenant. It is a powerful image of a group of people focused on words and responding with agreement and acceptance.11
In the context of prayer, “amen” also offers an opportunity for the worshiper to listen and respond.12 The recitation of “amen” is the way in which public prayers become participatory, and not limited to the prayer leader alone. In fact, one Rabbinic approach claims that reciting amen is even more critical than the prayer that triggers the amen to be said!
רבי יוסי אומר: גדול העונה אמן יותר מן המברך! אמר ליה רבי נהוראי: השמים! כן הוא; תדע, שהרי גוליירין יורדין ומתגרין [במלחמה] וגבורים יורדין ומנצחין.
R. Yose said: Greater is the person who answers “amen” than the person who recites the blessing.
R. Nehorai said to him: By heaven this is so! Know that this is true, as the military assistants descend to the battlefield and initiate the war, but then the military heroes descend and prevail.
After R. Yose claims that the one who recites “amen” is greater than the one who triggered the recitation with a blessing, R. Nehorai attempts to explain this with a parable: the one who recites the blessing is simply preparing the way for victory. It is not until the appearance of those who recite amen (who are much more numerous than the single person who offers the blessing) that victory is assured. As the Rashba comments on this parable: “the one who blesses is the one who instigates, but the one who answers amen finishes the entire act.”13 That is, the blessing is not complete until someone else recites “amen.”14
The image of reinforcements is a resonant one for me. Sometimes when I am leading the prayers or even reciting a blessing, I feel that I need to know others in the room are with me—listening to the prayers I am reciting on our collective behalf, and praying along with me. As the leader, no one can help me in the act of the recitation. But the community’s response to the recitation can be very significant. When I as a prayer leader hear a thunderous “amen,” I feel uplifted by the congregation, and not abandoned on the battlefield, as it were.15 Indeed, sometimes the leader recites the prayer by rote and their concentration drifts, but those who recite amen have the opportunity to lend their own kavanah (intention) to the prayer.16 When I am leading the prayers, I find this injection of other voices helps me re-focus as the prayer leader; when I am part of the congregation, I find saying “amen” an opportunity to draw closer to the leader and support them.
While there are many opportunities to recite amen in prayer, perhaps the most critical is in response to the repetition of the Amidah. It is here that I see an incredible opportunity in prayer: both to focus on the words of the prayers, and to support the leader who is praying on our behalf.
R. Yosef Karo gives us a vision for how we in the congregation are meant to experience the repetition of the Amidah:
כשש"צ חוזר התפלה, הקהל יש להם לשתוק ולכוין לברכות שמברך החזן ולענות אמן
When the prayer leader repeats the Amidah, the congregation is meant to be quiet and focus on the blessings that the leader is saying, and to respond: Amen.
The repetition of the Amidah is an exercise in listening and responding. Some might object: if I just said these very words of the Amidah, why must I listen to them again? Indeed, this objection has led to many attempts to change this part of the prayer service, from the cutting or abridging of the repetition of the Amidah17 to permitting the act of studying while it is being recited.18
But I always wonder: did I say these words with enough intention? Did I really take the time to focus on each blessing?19 The repetition gives me another chance, as it were, to pay attention to the Amidah in full.20 The Mishnah Berurah offers an approach for how to engage in this practice of listening: place the Siddur in front of you and look at the words, so you don’t get distracted.21 Not only that, but the repetition gives me the opportunity to show my support for the leader, and through the ritual response of “amen,” express my affirmation of their leadership.
When the congregation and the leader are in sync—like the Levites and the Israelites on the mountains of Gerizim and Eval—then the prayer experience can be much deeper. The people are united in what is happening in the room, and the prayer leader isn’t abandoned, but supported. Indeed, one midrash notes how God takes pleasure in this ritual: “There is nothing greater to the Holy Blessed One than the “amen” that Israel recites.”22 To me, the repetition of the Amidah is not a time for study, distraction, or talking. It is a moment to lean into this ritual of listening and responding, uniting in purpose around prayer, and connecting to the One who cherishes hearing “Amen.”
3 Bavli Shevuot 36a. See also Sefer ha-Shorashim le-Radak (1836), p. 20. This best describes the function of reciting “amen” to the blessing of erusin (engagement; see Bavli Ketubot 7b), in which other relationships are forbidden.
6 For the source of this connection, see Bavli Shabbat 119b: “What is the meaning of אמן? R. Hanina said: א-ל מלך נאמן.” See further R”I bar Yakar, Torat Hayyim edition, p. 2: “[by saying amen] we admit that God the king is reliable and will bring about His word.”
7 See the version in Buber’s note 28. See also Sefer ha-Manhig #54, ed. Rappel, p. 90; Sefer ha-Eshkol, ed. Albeck, p. 42; Sefer Abudraham, ed. Braun, p. 220; Menorat ha-Ma’or (Al-Nakawa), ed. Enelow, vol. 2, p. 145; Mahzor Vitry, ed. Goldschmidt, vol. 1, p. 40; Siddur Rashi, p. 32. The midrash goes on to cite “redeemer of Israel” and “builder of Jerusalem” as similar blessings in which Israel says amen even though God has not performed these deeds.
8 R”I bar Yakar writes: “Therefore one must be exacting and think about every response of amen what exactly one means when saying it. For sometimes amen… refers to a blessing that is happening or has happened, but sometimes it is referring only to the future, and sometimes it refers to both of them—in a blessing that refers to both what has happened and what will happen.” R”I bar Yakar, Torat Hayyim edition, p. 4.
9 See Ateret Zekeinim OH 124:3. R”I bar Yakar (ed. Torat Hayyim, p. 4), by contrast, considers some of these middle blessings (such as that of healing and good crops) only gratitude for what God has done for us, not a request for the future. He contrasts this to a different blessing in the middle blessings, the blessing of ingathering of the exiles, which he claims refers to both past ingatherings and also a request for the future ingathering. I am not sure why R”I bar Yakar considers the blessing for healing and good crops to not be a request for the future, especially as they often include personal prayers for future healing and income (see Bavli Avodah Zarah 8a).
10 Note that the Mishnah assumes all the Israelites said “amen” to the blessings, not just the curses, even though in the Torah itself amen is only explicitly recited in response to the curses. This is stated explicitly in Sifrei Devarim #55, ed. Finkelstein, p. 123 and Yerushalmi Sotah 7:5; 21c. For an alternate understanding of these verses, see Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: JPS, 1996), p. 252.
15 For the image of prayer as a form of doing battle, see R. Yehudah’s opinion in Bereishit Rabbah 93:6, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1154, discussed in an essay I wrote in a previous year for Parashat VaYigash, “The Meanings of Approach.”
18 Although some offer justifications of this behavior (assuming one pays attention and responds amen by listening to the end of the blessing), the Shlah, among others, attacks this approach. See Magen Avraham to OH 124:8 and Pri Megadim to OH 124:8. For an explanation of the custom to study—if not a defense—see Beit Yosef OH 89:2, quoting Orhot Hayyim of the Rosh 1:14. My thanks to my colleague R. Ethan Tucker for this source. Even R. Menahem Mi-Fano, who justifies the act of study during the repetition, still prefers people simply to pay attention to the prayer and not study. See his responsum #102. The Mahatzit ha-Shekel (OH 124:8) is concerned that others will see people studying during the repetition, and will conclude that it is permitted to engage in any activity during this time, and won’t pay attention at all. I have seen this borne out many times. To me, even the attempt to study while still listening to part of the blessing and reciting amen seems an attempt to multitask that is doomed to failure for both endeavors. Indeed, the Shlah (Vavei ha-Amudim, 10:34) indicates that whatever one is doing during the repetition won’t bear fruit. Of course many people simply talk during the repetition of the Amidah, an issue which bothered Maimonides to such an extent that he canceled the silent Amidah and had his congregation recite the entire prayer out loud together. See Responsa of Maimonides, ed. Blau, #256, pp. 469-476.
20 R. David Abudraham, quoted in Perisha to OH 124:7, notes that reciting amen in the repetition of the Amidah is akin to reciting the Amidah anew. Compare Sefer Abudraham, ed. Braun, p. 17. See also Ateret Zekeinim OH 124:2.