Parshat Ki Tavo: And Let Us Say, Amen

Piazza San Marco, 1954 by    Irving Amen    (1918 - 2011)

Piazza San Marco, 1954 by Irving Amen (1918 - 2011)

In Parshat Ki Tavo in the Book of Deuteronomy, we are given some insight into the grand declaration of blessings and curses that the Israelites are to acknowledge and heed:

“As soon as the Jews entered the Land, they were to assemble at two mountains [Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal], for a new acceptance of the Torah, There, twelve commandments would be enumerated, and the people would acknowledge publicly that blessing await those who observe and curses will befall those who spurn then. Six tribes would stand on one mountain and six tribes on the other, with the Ark, the Kohanim, and the Levites in the valley between them. The Levites in the valley would loudly pronounce the blessings and curses, and the tribes on the mountops could call out, “Amen!” Thus, the very entry into the Land would include a pledge of allegiance, as it were, to the Torah that constitutes the essence of Jewish nationhood.” [1]

As we read in the text itself: “The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel:

  • Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by God, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen!

  • Cursed be he who insults his father or mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen!

  • Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark.—And all the people shall say, Amen!

  • Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.—And all the people shall say, Amen!…” [2]

And so on it goes. Now the question becomes, why all these “Amens!” This is really the first time we’ve encountered this word in Torah that has seemingly become part of our prayer vernacular. While I personally have never heard a rabbi ask their congregation during a sermon, “Can I get an Amen!,” this word certainly holds spiritual and religious weight in the context of prayer. In a way it elicits a verbal response from the congregation – it evokes enthusiasm, but also consent – agreement –  that you believe what I believe. East London Rabbinical student Claude Vecht- Wolf explains, “‘Amen’ is related to the word "emunah," meaning truthfulness, credence or belief...In addition, amen (אמן) (aleph, mem, nun) is an acronym for the Hebrew words אלוקים מלך נאמן, meaning "God, the trustworthy King."

And so, according to the Rabbi’s this word means much more than simply agreeing, “Yes, I’ve heard you.” Concerning this idea, the Gemara asks:

Is that to say that one who recites a blessing is preferable to one who answers ‘Amen?’ Wasn’t it taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yosei says: The reward of the one who answers ‘amen’ is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing? Rabbi Nehorai said to him: By Heavens, an oath in the name of God, it is so. Know that this is true, as the military assistants descend to the battlefield and initiate the war and the mighty descend and prevail. The ‘amen’ that follows a blessing is compared to the mighty who join the war after the assistants, illustrating that answering ‘amen’ is more significant than reciting the initial blessing.” [3]

But in some ways, given the significance of “Amen,” it’s only rightly so that if one is perceived as having joined in the battle, than there is immense dignity and significance attached to this word. And thus, if there is to be equality of triumph and reward regarding the individual who completes the marathon of blessings and the one who simply says “Ditto,” than equal consequences should also be met. From the Rabbis we learn:

”With regard to the term ‘amen’: There is an element of oath within it, there is an element of acceptance of the statement and agreement within it, and there is an element of confirmation of the statement, i.e., that he believes and prays that the statement will be fulfilled, within it. The Gemara elaborates: There is an element of oath within it, as it is written:“And the priest shall administer an oath to the woman…and the woman shall say: Amen, amen” (Numbers 5:21–22)...There is an element of acceptance of the statement within it, as it is written: “Cursed is he who shall not confirm the matters of this Torah to perform them; and all the people shall say: Amen” (Deuteronomy 27:26), expressing their agreement to fulfill all the matters of the Torah. [4]

Meaning, this word Amen is not reserved exclusively for men, nor is it to be said lightly. There is in fact a binding oath that is administered in this phrase - An acceptance of both the blessings and the curses. However, according to another law code, “If a Jew hears someone say part of a bracha, even if he didn't hear the entire bracha from the beginning to the end and he is not bound by that bracha, [but] he still has to say ‘Amen.’” Even further, the Polish talmudist Moshe Ben Yisrael Isserles says that ‘You can even say Amen after a Gentile makes a blessing!’” [5]

So where does all of this information leave us as we lean into the High Holidays. Why did we go through the trouble tonight of parsing out this word - a word that we have learned insinuates a binding contractual oath, belief in God and acceptance of the Words of Moses. And yet, as someone who has struggled with Hebrew, with finding meaning in prayer and finding a voice in the kahal, I believe this word has the strength to help us through our Days of Awe - All the more so with prayers that we may not all understand or recognize. Because “Amen” provides a way to be engaged in what often seems like a litany of guttural throat noises and the occasional curtsey to God.  

Dr. Samuel Lebens, chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism at University of London, wrote an article called, The Power of 'Amen' on Yom Kippur. He writes:

“The vast majority of Jews will be marking Yom Kippur in one way or another. And for many of us, the experience of staring blankly upon a prayer book written in an ancient and unfamiliar language is daunting. But if you can say nothing else, you can still say "Amen” and you can know, that in doing so, you have really said it all – (1) you have committed yourself, with that one word, to becoming a better Jew, (2) you have accepted upon yourself the consequences of your identity, and (3) you have expressed the prayer that you will live up to your potential and receive abundant blessings in return.

Don’t look over at those Jews who know what they’re doing with the prayer book, as they fervently follow each word of the service, beating away at their chests as they read the confession; don’t let your head hang in shame that you can’t muster the appropriate feelings, nor concentrate through a cumbersome liturgy. Know that, in the words of the Midrash, "Before the Holy One, blessed be He, there is nothing greater than a Jew who says ‘amen’ ...." That single word, uttered with sincerity, can make the whole day worthwhile.”

[1] Stone Edition Chumash
[2] Deuteronomy 27:14-18
[3] Shavuot 36a, The William Davidson Talmud
[4] ibid
[5] Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 215:2

Aaron Sataloff