World of the Sages: A unifying response

Whoever answers amen with all his power, the gates of the world to come are opened for him.

jew kotel prayer 298 (photo credit: AP)
jew kotel prayer 298
(photo credit: AP)
When responding to a blessing pronounced by another person by saying amen, our sages tell us that the respondent's voice should not be louder than the voice of the one who recited the benediction (B. Brachot 45a). This rule is adduced from the biblical verse, "Declare the greatness of God with me and let exalt His name together" (Psalms 34:4) - with me meaning equal to me, with a voice that is equal to mine, says the one who has just declared the greatness of God by reciting a blessing (Ritva, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). Elsewhere in the Talmud, a different tone is perhaps presented (B. Shabbat 119b). Our sages tell us that whoever responds with all his power to the kaddish prayer by pronouncing "Amen, may His great name be blessed [forever and ever]," an evil decree in judgment against him is torn up. The merit of responding "with all his power" counters whatever heavenly verdict has been rendered against him. Moreover, even if there is a trace of idolatry in him - a most grave sin - he is forgiven as a result of his response. The Talmud continues lauding even the seemingly negligible one word amen response to blessings: Whoever answers amen with all his power, the gates of the Garden of Eden in the world to come are opened for him. One commentator vividly explains the significance of the open gates for the spirit that leaves the body upon death: In normal circumstances the soul of a deserving person arrives at the Garden of Eden and only then the gates are opened. Amen responders who answer with all their power merit that the gates are opened as soon as their souls begin the journey from this earthly world toward the Garden of Eden. The soul perceives the gates being opened from a distance and gains significant satisfaction from knowing that it has merited entering without hesitation (Rabbi Yosef Hayim, 19th-20th centuries, Baghdad). The value of an amen response may be reflected in the meaning of the word amen, which is an affirmation of the blessing just said. Moreover the word may be understood as an acronym for el melech ne'eman (Powerful God, trustworthy King) - an affirmation of the Almighty's sovereignty and trustworthiness. According to one commentator every time we respond by saying amen we should meditate on the meaning of this acronym (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Returning to the issue of volume: What does "with all his power" mean? Some commentators explain that the response should be said in as loud a voice as possible (Ri, 12th century, Germany). Such a thunderous pronouncement is said to stimulate focus and indicates devoting our entire being to blessing the Almighty (Ritva, 13th-14th centuries, Spain). How loud should we say "Amen, may His great name be blessed forever and ever"? One authority limits a vociferous response: There is no need to answer with such a loud voice that others present will laugh (Rabbenu Yona Gerondi, 13th century, Spain). While such a clamorous response may be well-intentioned it may in fact be bringing others to sin (Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, 19th-20th century, Poland). This limitation - so that others will not laugh - is a far cry from the aforementioned volume restriction - no louder than the one who recited the blessing. Perhaps in light of the more limited volume restriction, other authorities understood advocating a "with all your power" response to be referring not to volume but to the power of concentration: A person should respond to the kaddish with the utmost attentiveness (Rashi, 11th century, France). What is the reason that a volume restriction is placed on the amen respondent? We recall that there are commentators who advocated shouting the response in order to rouse concentration. There are also commentators who stated the exact opposite: The volume restriction is designed to facilitate focus (Rabbi Yosef Hayim). By attentively listening to the prayer leader to ascertain the permitted volume level, the responder is also likely to meditate on the content of the blessing - the appropriate course considering he is about to affirm what the blesser just asserted. Moreover, loud shouting in a communal situation is hardly conducive to concentration; our sages therefore declared that the maximum volume of the response is defined by the volume of the leader. This commentator adds that in addition the volume equalizer also conveys the relative importance of the two acts - both the recital of the blessing or kaddish and the response are of equal valence. A different approach that also contrasts volume with concentration suggests that a loud response is an external expression that at times may hide an internal abyss (Rabbi Moshe Tzuriel). Shouting amen is no substitute for a heartfelt amen. To avoid the folly of a loud but heartless response, a cap was placed on the volume. Perhaps we can suggest a further explanation that is not based on the tension between volume and concentration, but that focuses on the forum where this responsive amen takes place. The responsive "Amen, may His great name be blessed forever and ever" can only be recited in the presence of a quorum. Even the minimal amen requires more than the individual for it is said - apart from a few select exceptions - in response to the blessing of another. Thus the primary nature of the response bespeaks community. A communal prayer effort is not a competition, it is a joint undertaking; the respondent should strive to complement the one who offered the blessing not compete against him. There is little value accorded to an individual standing out while standing with the congregation. At this time audible conformity is called for in an attempt to foster a cooperative spirit of kinship. The community responds in unison so that the experience is truly a shared spiritual endeavor. The true power of our people lies in that illusive unity that we so covet; perhaps responding "with all our power" is when we declare our faith and fidelity in once voice. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.