World of the Sages: Amen, brother!

According to one sage, the one who answers amen is greater than the one who precipitated the response by reciting the blessing.

From widespread practice, we are familiar with the practice of responding "amen" after hearing another Jew recite a blessing (M. Brachot 8:8). Our sages discuss the value of the responsive "amen" vis-à-vis the original blessing (B. Brachot 53b; B. Nazir 66a-b). According to one sage, the one who answers amen is greater than the one who precipitated the response by reciting the blessing. One commentator explained that this is part of a broader principle that credit for an entire mitzva is bestowed upon the one who completes the act (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain). Illustrating this point, another sage offered a parable from the battlefield. Beginning with the exclamation "By Heaven it is so!" this sage explained: In a skirmish, the common soldiers go first to engage the enemy in battle. Later the mighty warriors join the fight to seal the victory. Moreover, the triumph is credited to those who conclude the battle (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Unpacking the parable, we can say that the reciter of the blessing begins proceedings, but the responder seals the act by pronouncing amen. Furthermore, the greatest credit is reserved for the one who responds with the final word. This, however, is not the final word on the issue. Other sages did not subscribe to this approach; they declared that responding amen - though a worthy act - is not greater than the recitation of the original benediction. According to this approach, it is better to be a reciter than a responder. Following this line, two sages are recorded as instructing their sons to grab - or at least adroitly try to gain (Rashi, 11th century, France) - the cup at the end of the meal and recite the Grace After Meals on behalf of all present. This is preferable to allowing someone else to recite the Grace and merely listening attentively and responding amen at the conclusion of each blessing. The Talmud further states that the heavenly emissaries hasten to bestow reward on the reciter before the respondent. To be sure, both the blessing reciter and the amen responder receive reward, yet the reciter is given preference and therefore one should hasten to be the reciter rather than the respondent. The codifiers adopted the approach that one should aspire and deftly position oneself to be honored with leading the Grace After Meals and recite the blessing over the wine at the conclusion of the Grace (Shulhan Aruch OH 201:4). This preference appears not to be limited to the original discussion of blessings associated with the Grace After Meals; with regard to any blessing it is preferable to be the reciter rather than the respondent (Rosh; Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland). Commenting on this talmudic passage, the Munkatcher Rebbe, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro (1871-1937), offered an entirely different explanation of the issue at hand. The Munkatcher Rebbe noted that the two sages who advocated snatching the cup to recite the blessings were both talking to their sons. Thus the talmudic text presents a lesson specific to a parent educating a child, or more broadly to educating the next generation and passing on the tradition. The focus of the directive of these fathers was not the seizing of the cup, but the recitation of the blessing: They were exhorting their sons to demonstratively take the cup and loudly pronounce the benediction. The Munkatcher Rebbe contrasted the value of a quiet recitation of a blessing with blessing publicly recited. People who privately serve the Almighty, away from the public eye have the opportunity to act out of pure motives. Such people are not liable to perform to satisfy societal pressures and their deeds can truly be for God alone. Conversely, people who choose the other path, whose conduct is seen by all, may be subject to acting out of peer-pressure. Yet these people gain another advantage: Children and students see the conduct and can mimic the example. Future generations, acting upon what they saw, will also serve the Almighty publicly and in turn their disciples will learn. Thus the chain of tradition is continued from generation to generation. These two approaches can be read into the biblical verse: The concealed matters belong to God our Lord, whereas the revealed matters are for us and for our children for ever, that we may fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deuteronomy 29:28). Those who are concealed in their service of the Almighty act for God alone; those whose service is revealed to all bequeath their conduct to others and to future generations, ensuring the continuation of the tradition. How then should we understand the opinion that seems to advocate a silent posture, waiting patiently for the opportunity to respond amen? Here the Munkatcher Rebbe creatively explained the unusual exclamation "By heaven it is so!" Sitting quietly and responding with a heartfelt amen is indeed a path that is treasured by heaven. Alas, Torah is not in heaven and for this world it is preferable to expressively declare the Almighty's blessings. A final word on the one who recites the blessing and the one who responds amen: The biblical verses which deal with blessing the Almighty relate to both the reciter and the respondent. Thus the verse says (Nehemiah 9:5): The Levites... said, "Arise, bless God your Lord... [referring to the recitation of the blessing] and let them bless Your glorious name which is exalted upon every blessing and praise" - indicating that for each blessing there should be a praise rejoinder, that is, the amen response (B. Brachot 63a; B. Ta'anit 16b). Another verse that is also quoted in this context also mentions both parties (Psalms 34:4): Declare the greatness of God with me - denoting the reciter of the blessing - and let us exalt His name together - adding the respondent to the picture. The texts used when discussing blessings refer to both the recitation and the response. A blessing is not merely a private obligation incumbent on the individual, rather it is a joint venture, a partnership whose goal is the communal recognition of the Almighty. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.