The Meaning and Power of “Amen”

In this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, the Israelites are presented with a list of curses that they would bring upon themselves if they did not fulfil God’s commands. In the first set of curses, the Israelites answer each statement with “amen”, a term connoting agreement and acceptance. The now-ubiquitous term is actually quite rare in the Tanakh. In the Torah itself it appears in only one other context with the same meaning (Numbers 5:22). What does “amen” really mean, and why is it recited at the end of blessings? Why does it have the power to include its reciter in another person’s mitzvah?

Truth and Faith

Upon initial inspection, we find that amen (אמן) clearly shares the same letters as, and is the root of, emunah (אמונה), “faith” or “belief”. We also see a noticeable resemblance to the word emet (אמת), “truth”. What is the difference between truth and faith? Something true is undeniable, irrefutable, factual. The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) famously points out that the letters of truth all firmly stand on “two feet” as opposed to the letters of falsehood (שקר) that stand on one shaky foot. Moreover, the letters of falsehood are all next to each other in the alphabet (ק-ר-ש), and their order is out of place, whereas the letters of truth are the first, middle (when including sofit letters), and last letter of the alphabet. This is to teach that truth is ordered and everlasting, while falsehood is jumbled and short-lived. Where does that place amen?

Amen (אמן) has the same first two letters as emet (אמת). However, instead of having a firm tav at the end, the mem is followed by the very next letter nun, standing on a shaky foot. The implication is that faith is just a little short of absolute truth. There is room for doubt! Unlike truth, faith requires some work. It is a constant, active choice to believe. And this is how God intended it to be, for otherwise life would have little meaning. If everyone knew the ultimate truth with total certainty and no doubt whatsoever, there wouldn’t be much room for free will. Everyone would be compelled to act righteously by default. Human beings only have the opportunity for free will because of that bit of doubt, and they sin only because of a temporary (or permanent) lapse in faith. If a person knew without a doubt that God was watching them and will punish them severely for their sin, they would not commit the sin in the first place (much like a person wouldn’t, say, steal something right in front of a police officer).

This is why God had to conceal Himself from the world, and why the term for “world” (עולם) shares the same root letters as the term for “concealment” (העלם). In this world, God must remain concealed to allow for free will. Having said that, He left His fingerprints all over the place so that it wouldn’t be too hard to find Him. Maintaining faith, therefore, requires keeping one’s eyes open to see God within the seemingly mundane nature of everyday life. One has to consciously make that critical choice to see God in the world.

Albert Einstein once summarized it like this: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, 1787-1859) phrased it a little more forcefully: “One who does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere.” This is one reason why the Talmud (Makkot 24a) states that the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) condensed the entire Torah into one singular principle: tzaddik b’emunato ichyeh, the righteous lives in (or through) his faith. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Berakhot 33b) teaches that “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven.” Ultimately, it all boils down to that one choice: to believe, or not to believe.

Having said all of that, Judaism does not like the concept of blind faith. Faith is supposed to be based on facts. There should be a solid foundation for one’s beliefs, and faith should be built upon a great deal of evidence. This is why amen is very close to emet. It has nearly all the elements of truth. So, no dramatic “leap” of faith is required. It should be a very well-informed decision; not emotional, but rational. It should be based on factual knowledge and real-life wisdom.

As discussed in the past, the universe was formed by God through 32 “Paths of Wisdom”, and there are 32 forms of wisdom accessible to us (see Sefer Yetzirah, together with the commentaries of Sa’adia Gaon and the Ra’avad). Interestingly, the term amen appears a total of 32 times in the Tanakh. This happy “coincidence” is meant to remind us that God is the creator of the universe—the One who formed it through the 32 paths, and Whose name appears in the account of Creation exactly 32 times. Indeed, every time we say “amen” to a berakhah we are affirming that God is the King of the Universe, for each berakhah states that God is melekh ha’olam. The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) actually points out that amen stands for El Melekh Ne’eman, “God, faithful King”. Some translate the words as “God, trustworthy King” or “God is the true King”. Perhaps it means that God is the only King we believe in.

Besides the 32 times that amen appears in the Tanakh, there are three additional instances where the same exact word (אמן) appears but has a different meaning. In I Kings 22:26 it is simply the name of a person called Amon. In Song of Songs 7:2, the pronunciation is oman, meaning a “craftsman” or “skilled artisan”. Based on the classic interpretation of Song of Songs being a metaphor for God and Israel, the oman in question is God Himself. Finally, in Esther 2:7 the term is used to describe how Mordechai adopted and raised (omen) Esther. This has the same connotation as a craftsman, ie. that Mordechai “shaped” Esther into the person she became.

From these additional instances, we can once again learn that amen is supposed to remind us of God, the Creator who crafted this universe, and to affirm his kingship. On a deeper level, pronouncing “amen” carries much greater significance.

Opening Up the Heavens

On a number of occasions in the past (such as here) we explored the significance of the number 91. In brief, it represents the fusion of Heaven and Earth. It is the value of HaElohim (האלהים), a name of God that is used when God “descends” from Heaven above to Earth below (such as when Enoch “walked with God” [Genesis 5:22] or when Noah “walked with God” [Genesis 6:9] or when God visited Abraham [Genesis 17:18]). It is also the value of the Octagrammaton (יאהדונהי), the Name of God derived by combining the Ineffable Name (representing the Heavens) with the way we pronounce it here below on Earth, Adonai. The value of sukkah (סוכה) is 91, since the sukkah is the place where one can experience the Heavenly Clouds of Glory here on Earth. The value of malakh (מלאך), “angel”, is 91 because angels are those beings that bridge Heaven and Earth and freely move between these realms.

The gematria of amen (אמן) is also 91. It, too, has the power to link Heaven and Earth. An “amen” is almost like an instant message sent up to Heaven. This explains why if another person recites a berakhah and fulfils a mitzvah and you say “amen”, it is considered as if you recited the berakhah and fulfilled that mitzvah, too! In doing a mitzvah, a person makes a connection with Heaven. If a bystander says “amen” at that moment, he is similarly able to affect a connection to Heaven and becomes a part of the other’s mitzvah (ie. he becomes yotze, “exempt” from his own obligation, going along for the spiritual ride with his fellow).

Amen can do this because it is a simple, three-letter formula with the power to bridge Heaven and Earth. The Midrash goes so far as to say that reciting “amen” with true intention has the power to open the gates of Heaven for any person—even for a sinner in Gehinnom. This teaching is a very ancient one, and first appears in the ancient Heikhalot, as well as in the Talmud (Shabbat 119b). It is found in its fullest in Yalkut Shimoni (on Isaiah 428-429):

Said Reish Lakish: “Each person who answers ‘amen’ with all his might, the gates of the Garden of Eden are opened for him, as it is said ‘Open the gates so that the righteous nation that keeps faithfulness [shomer emunim] may enter’. [Isaiah 26:2] Do not read shomer emunim [‘that keeps faithfulness’], rather read sh’omrim amen [‘that say “amen”’].” What is “amen”? Said Rabbi Chanina: “El Melekh Ne’eman.”

… Do not read shomer emunim, rather read sh’omrim amen, for with just one “amen” that the wicked answer in Gehinnom they are saved from it. How? In the future, God will sit in the Garden of Eden and expound [upon the Torah] to the righteous that sit before Him… At the end of the discourse, Zerubavel ben She’altiel will stand and recite kaddish. His voice will resonate from one end of the universe to the other, and everyone will answer “amen”—even the sinners of Israel and the righteous idolaters who remain in Gehinnom will answer “amen”. The universe will tremble and God will hear their cry. God will ask: “What was that great noise that I heard?” The ministering angels will answer: “Master of the Universe, they are the sinners of Israel and the righteous idolaters that remain in Gehinnom who answer ‘amen’ and accept their judgement.” Immediately, God’s mercy will be aroused…

At that time, God will take the keys to Gehinnom and hand them over to [the angels] Michael and Gabriel in front of all the righteous. He will say to them: “Go, open the gates of Gehinnom and raise them up.” Immediately, they will go and open the eight thousand gates of Gehinnom, each [opening to an area] three hundred parsa* wide, and three hundred parsa long, and one thousand parsa thick, and one hundred parsa deep. Each sinner that falls in there can never escape. Yet, at that moment, Michael and Gabriel will raise each one of them up… so great is the power of “amen”.

Shabbat Shalom!

*A parsa is equal to 4 mil, while each mil is 2000 cubits. Therefore, one parsa is about 5 or 6 kilometres. In this description, what is even more striking than the vast dimensions is the fact that the Sages give four dimensions instead of three!