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Kee Tavo 5776-2016

“The Power of the Word אָמֵן–‘Amen’

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses prepares the Jewish people for the experiences that that they will soon encounter, upon entering the Promised Land.

As a sign that they commit themselves fully to G-d and His Torah, the People of Israel are to inscribe the entire Torah on twelve huge stones, gather at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, where they are to “pledge allegiance,” to G-d and His Torah.

Six tribes were to stand on Mount Gerizim and the other six on Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:12-13). The Ark, the priests and the elders of the Levites were positioned in the valley between the mountains. The elders of the Levites in the valley would call out twelve blessings and curses, each blessing followed by a curse. The 12 tribes on the mountaintops would respond to each set of blessings and curses with the word, אָמֵן–“Amen!”

The twelve curses pronounced by the Levites include: 1. Cursed is the man who will make a graven or molten image…and emplace it in secret. 2. Cursed is the one who degrades his father and mother. 3. Cursed is the one who moves the boundary of his fellow. 4. Cursed is one who causes a blind person to go astray on the road. 5. Cursed is one who perverts a judgment of a proselyte, orphan or widow. 6. Cursed is one who lies with the wife of his father. 7. Cursed is one who lies with any animal. 8. Cursed is one who lies with his sister. 9. Cursed is one who lies with his mother-in-law. 10. Cursed is one who strikes his fellow stealthily. 11. Cursed is one who takes a bribe to kill a person of innocent blood. 12. Cursed is one who will not uphold the words of this Torah, to perform them. (See Kee Tavo 5770-2010)

Each statement begins with the word אָרוּר “arur,” cursed, and after each statement, the Torah notes: וְאָמַר כָּל הָעָם, אָמֵן, the entire people shall say, אָמֵן.

The word, אָמֵן is generally considered to serve as an affirmation of what had previously been said. The first instance where the word אָמֵן appears in the Torah is in Numbers 5:22, at the Sotah ritual, where a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband has to say ”אָמֵן, אָמֵןafter pronouncing the oath of the Sotah.

The word אָמֵן serves many purposes. The Rambam in the Laws of Oaths, 2, states that one who responds with the word אָמֵן after an oath is considered to have uttered the oath from his own mouth. A second purpose of the word אָמֵן is to serve as a prayer or a request that a wish be fulfilled.

The Midrash in Devarim Rabba 7, states that אָמֵן has three meanings: an oath, an acceptance and an affirmation of belief. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 111a suggests that the three letters of the word אָמֵן represents the words, אֵ־ל מֶלךְ נֶאֱמָן, that G-d is a faithful G-d. The Code of Jewish Law Orach Chaim 124:6, states that a person who says אָמֵן should have in mind that the blessing that he has pronounced is true and that he believes in it.

The Talmud in Sukkah 51b, reports that the synagogue in ancient Alexandria was so large, that officials stood at the front of the synagogue with signs in their hands, to let the people in the back know when they had to respond with the word אָמֵן.    

One should not respond אָמֵן to one’s own blessing, since it is considered undignified. The exception to this rule is after the third blessing of the Grace after Meals, where the word אָמֵן is included as part of the blessing of rebuilding Jerusalem. אָמֵן is added, to distinguish between the first three blessings that are of Torah origin and the fourth blessing that is rabbinic.

The Talmud in Shabbat 119b, cites the sage Resh Lakish, who quotes the verse from Isaiah 26:2, פִּתְחוּ שְׁעָרִים, וְיָבֹא גוֹי צַדִּיק, שֹׁמֵר אֱמֻנִים. The prophet declares, “Open the gates so that the righteous nation can enter, the one who keeps its faith.”  Playing on the Hebrew word אֱמֻנִים, Resh Lakish states: Do not interpret this as the one who keeps its faith, but rather one who recites אָמֵן. He boldly declares that anyone who recites אָמֵן with a whole heart will find the gates of the World to Come open to him.

Reciting אָמֵן after a blessing made by someone else, has the power to affirm that blessing. So it is with the recitation of Kiddush on Shabbat or Havdala after Shabbat, reciting אָמֵן after the blessing is regarded as if the listener had personally recited the blessing.

The origin of responding אָמֵן probably dates back to Talmudic times when most of the people did not know the prayers by heart and had no prayer books. The cantor or the communal leader would therefore recite the blessings aloud, and by responding אָמֵן, the community would fulfill their obligation (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 34b).

It is from the ceremony that took place on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, that is fully described in the book of Joshua 8:30-35, where the ritual use of the word אָמֵן originally occurred.

אָמֵן is indeed a powerful word, with powerful implications, justifying the statement of Resh Lakish, that one who recites the word אָמֵן with a full heart will gain entry into the World to Come.

May you be blessed.