Ki Tavo is this week’s parsha, and around the promises of blessings in the Holy Land, and the instructions for bikkurim—the first fruits—is a set of curses—yes, curses—from our friendly neighborhood Levites. Deuteronomy 27:14 reads:
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 the LORD, 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.
The list goes on and on. There are just so many curses! And after each one is the phrase: “V’amar kol ha’am Amen”—and the people will say, ‘Amen.’ To many of you sitting here, this may not seem like such a big deal. We say “amen” like crazy in our liturgy, so of course it will appear in the Tanakh. But actually, in the entire Tanakh, it only occurs 25 times. For the sake of comparison, consider for a moment that in tonight’s service, we will say it 9 times. And, in the 25 times that it appears, it is never translated. Rather, it’s just there as “Amen.”
- “The prophet Jeremiah said: “Amen! May the LORD do so!”
- “Blessed is the LORD, God of Israel, from eternity to eternity. Amen and Amen.”
- “Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised.”
“Amen” appears just 25 times in the entire Jewish Bible, and now it ends all of our brachot, our blessings. It’s in the Kaddish prayers. It’s everywhere. Our Christian colleagues thought it was a pretty cool word, too, and it appears 77 times in the Gospels alone. It is also now used to conclude most Christian prayers. Even in Islam, the word Amin, the Arabic form of Amen, is used with the same meaning, to conclude prayers, though it does not appear in the Qu’ran. Buddhists and Hindus even use the word from time to time, and even those who are speaking in a non-religious context whatsoever may utter the word “Amen” to show agreement. But what does this word that we seem to throw around quite a bit actually mean?
Well, that’s a tough one. There are rumors out there that “Amen” takes its root from the Egyptian God, Amun, or Amun-ra. Some have claimed that the Israelites “picked up” the Egyptian prayer of “Amen” when slaves in Egypt, and that by saying it, we are essentially committing idolatry, and invoking an Egyptian God. But, historical evidence has pointed us away from that, and Jewish scholars argue the similarities between Amen and Amun are merely coincidence. Especially since if Amun was in fact the root, the word most certainly would not appear in Deuteronomy, uttered by the priests who held most tightly to monotheism.
According to the Christian lexicon, “Amen” means “so be it.” The translation makes sense, especially in the context of the curses we read in the Torah, or when “Amen” is said after our blessings. And in Revelations, Jesus is even referred to as “the Amen,” meaning that he was, according to Christian beliefs, the embodiment of faithfulness and truth. But how did Christianity get there?
Well, the root of “Amen” can be a little complicated. Most Jewish scholars translate “Amen” as verily, or truly. But “Amen” takes its meaning from four different words. The first, Aman, can mean to confirm or support, it can mean lasting, or made firm, and it can mean, reliable, faithful, and trusty, depending on the usage. When used as a verb, it can mean to trust or to believe. The second word, Omen, means faithfulness, and shares a root with “Amen.” The word third word, Emuna, is the word for faith and trust in Hebrew, and the fourth word, Emet, means reliability, sureness, or truth. Aman, Omen, Emuna, and Emet all somehow came together to build the word “Amen,” which, contrary to popular belief, actually means “I believe that,” “I think that that’s true,” or “I have faith in that.” Similar to Christianity’s “so be it,” yes, but hardly the same thing.
Throughout my time here, especially during Learner’s Minyan, you’ve heard me teach on when it’s appropriate for us to say the word “Amen.” Given “Amen’s” meaning—I have faith in that—my previous lessons may make a bit more sense. As we know, sometimes routine and traditions get in the way of true meaning. For example, when I first became Rabbi here at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, I was surprised by a peculiar motzi tradition. During motzi, the congregation would happily sing the children’s motzi: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz, we give thanks to God for bread, our voices rise in song together, as our joyful prayer is said. Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. A—men, Amen.” Now, many of you noticed that shortly after my arrival, I changed the way we did motzi to remove the double “Amens.” Many of you (you know who you are) were less than pleased with me. Why, you asked, would I do away with such a fun and familiar tradition?
Well, with what you now know about Amen, consider these two reasons: First, it’s a children’s song, sung in religious schools, and camps, and is meant to teach children the simplistic meaning of the blessing of Motzi. When we, as adults, sing it, we lose out on the more serious view of our brachot, for example, with the word “Amen.” In the children’s version of Motzi, “Amen” is sung twice. In the Jewish tradition, however, we are not supposed to “amen our own blessings.” Why? Well for one, it does not make sense to speak a sentence and at the end say “I believe that!” In the children’s sing-song version of Motzi, the etymology of “Amen” is lost to a convenient song lyric. As adults, on the other hand, when we say Amen at the end of Motzi, we are affirming our belief in what we just said, according to Jewish law. Secondly, by Jewish tradition, a blessing is a communal act. One person says the blessing, and another “Amens” the blessing. By everyone saying the blessing and the “Amen,” twice, we take out the call and response—the communal reliance on each other—that is often a cornerstone of our brachot.
Consider, for example, how “Amen” works in our Kaddish prayers. Let’s focus on the chanting of Hatzi Kaddish, and the reading of Mourners Kaddish. Classical Reform Judaism, which influenced many synagogues—including this one—for a number of years, taught that everyone should say everything, and stand for everything, and “Amen” everything. There were reasons for this, or course, but these habits directly contradicted traditional Judaism, which the Reform Movement re-embraced in the 1990s. By this point, Rabbis had to teach their congregants the more traditionally accurate way to recite Jewish prayers and congregants had to “unlearn what they had learned.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the Kaddish prayer, which is by design a call and response prayer. For the Hatzi Kaddish, the service leader chants, and the congregation responds with “Amen” to confirm the prayer. When congregants, by habit, chant the Hatzi Kaddish straight through, saying the prayer and the “Amens” they have missed the meaning of “Amen.” This is particularly important in the Mourner’s Kaddish. By design, a mourner should say the Kaddish, and those surrounding the mourner should “Amen” the blessing. The origins of this comes from the Talmud, as early as 5th century CE, wherein we are taught why a Jew is never to say the Mourner’s Kaddish without a minyan. A mourner should never mourn alone, nor should they have to “Amen” their own Kaddish. Today in Reform Judaism, we leave it to the congregants to decide if they wish to say the Kaddish, or say the “Amen” and responses. You may have noticed, and you will hear tonight, when I lead the Kaddish, I leave out the “Amen” and wait for the congregation to do so. If you are commemorating the yahrzeit of someone, by all means, say the Kaddish, and even if you want to say the Kaddish, say the Kaddish, but allow the congregation to show care for you, by leaving off the “Amen.” Doing so allows you to truly feel the support of the congregation for you. It also empowers members of our congregation to show support, by choosing to only say the “Amens” and the responses in the Kaddish. We should never have to “Amen” our own blessings. Not even in the Torah did the Levites “Amen” their own blessings, or curses; they said them, and the congregation confirmed them.
In closing, we should realize that “Amen” isn’t just a word. It’s not just a song lyric. It’s not just part of a prayer. It’s not just a habit that we’re comfortable with. It is disappointing that Classical Reform Judaism took away this aspect of our prayers, and caused so much confusion and misconception about what it means to say a prayer, and what it means to confirm it. But as a rabbi, I want you to know that “Amen” is the voice of the congregation, confirming the prayers and blessings that we as Jews say, and it is an awesome responsibility. “Amen” is how we create community. It is how we know others are there, how we work as a congregation to fulfill the halacha, the traditions of our people. It is also the sign of humility, that when we bless, we leave it to someone else to confirm that blessing.
And to that, I hope you all will answer: (Wait for Amen).
 Jer 28:6
 Psalm 41:14
 Neh 8:6