Saying Amen is like taking therapy and getting paid for it (in the Afterlife)
Books have been written about it (Feldheim: Joshua Alter Wildman: Ve-imru amen (Hebrew/English), and Esther Stern: Just one word). See also: Artscroll’s Benyamin Forst: The Laws of B’rachos, pages 86-98. That’s how much can be said about it and more. I won’t be specifying the sources for each abbreviated point. When a phrase ends in an asterisk,* I mean, I guess this should be the Halachah. When in doubt, ask your rabbi. This is only an unauthorized course for beginners.
Since there are so many, sometimes conflicting rules, some people would be helped to learn this together with someone else.
Nothing is greater in G^d’s eyes than the Amen of Jewish People! Whoever answers Amen becomes a partner with G^d in Creation. Yet, Amen is not a prayer. Prayers we say to G^d. With, Amen we speak to our fellow humans. Amen is a testimony, a testament to our faith.*
It’s not the only testimony that is regularly misnomered as prayer. The famous Sh’ma’ is a testimony par excellence. It begins with: “Jews, listen!”
You can also say that Amen is a declaration of our hope and a prayer our hopes will come true. But minimally, it’s a witness testimony.
Saying Amen is one of the central activities of being a religious Jew.
You should have its meaning in mind when you say Amen. A mindless recitation is really not it. Amen can have two basic meanings: 1. I agree. or 2. I hope so too. depending on the meaning of the statement you are undersigning at that moment. When we say Amen we also testify of our faith/trust in G^d. First, say it; the feeling will follow.
It is also an abbreviation of Ei-l Melech Ne-eman, literally, G^d’s a reliable King, which implies: the All-Good, All-Powerful, Trustworthy One. Therefore, you don’t say it in the bathroom, under the shower, before pouring water over your hands upon awakening in the morning, etc.
Amen is related to Emunah (trust) and Em (mother). We learn to trust emotionally (vs. intellectually) early in life from our mothers.
Amen’s numerical value equals that of haShem plus how we pronounce it.
Replying Amen is more virtuous than saying a blessing because the former turns the latter into proper witnessing. After all, ideally, the Torah tells us there should be at least two witnesses.
When you don’t say Amen for no good reason, it counts as disagreeing!* As commendable as replying Amen can be, as reprehensible could be an inappropriate refusal to confirm something good. Silence is not always golden. It sometimes is not even neutral. Not answering is answering too.
It is extremely important to answer Amen to Blessings that precede other texts we need to say: Machayey haMeitim [followed by the Kedushah], haMachazir Shechinato leTziyon [followed by Modim deRabbannan], and haMevarreich et Ammo Yisra’eil baShalom [Tachanun/Psalm]. All these Blessings mention Redemption. We may delay it by not saying Amen!
Twenty-two times per week, we say our Main Prayer. Before fifteen of these, directly before our Main Standing Prayers, the Chazzan voices our hope and conviction that G^d will hear and honor our prayers. Yet, many don’t say Amen to that before starting their Prayer. How silly!*
It’s hard to say though it’s only two syllables, two vowels and two letters.
Agreeing is hard for a reason. We Jews are expected to and trained to argue. We don’t agree easily, and we’re Chosen for that (Exodus 34:9). Moses explains it’s a virtue because, when we finally agree, we tend to stick with our hard-won understanding. We won’t change our beliefs so quickly. And trained to question and think, we won’t follow liars or bigots so quickly. We even argue ourselves in the privacy of our skulls. When we can’t argue our case, we don’t really understand it. Only when arguing our case, do we begin to understand. Only when we hear counterarguments do we begin to understand. The Talmud, humanity’s largest book, 30-150 volumes in English, is mostly a condensation of thousands of fundamental arguments. As a Guide to a good life, it must be because life is too complex to be captured in and restricted to absolutes and unyielding certainties.
Yet, the One Who loves us says: I don’t want you to get a bad character from it. I’ll give you free therapy against wicked side effects like becoming quarrelsome. You get to work in the mines, but I have special soap for you.
And the harder it is for us to agree, the more reward we get for letting go of the discussion when we are commanded to do so and just agree.
Before fulfillment of a Commandment, a fellow Jew can make a Blessing for others because we’re all responsible for each other. Yet, both the speaker and the listeners must have this in mind. The listeners must hear every word and preferably say Amen, which then does not count as an interruption between the Blessing and the subsequent religious act.
Judaism prescribes when and how to say Amen, and preferably, Jewish men should try to get in at least 90 times Amen a day. If people reply Amen properly often seems to depend on their community/shul/the rabbi, not on how learned the people are. A shul with 20 humble but proud Jews may reply Amen 20 times louder than the Chazzan, each doing their part, while the Amens in a shul with 20 learned Jews may hardly be audible or even sound depressed or absent-minded. The first thing to teach one’s synagogue is how to make Blessings; then how and when to say Amen.
A Special but Frequent Case
Our most basic, traditional Blessings each begin with the six words Baruch [Source of all blessings!], Attah [Thou!], H’ [our Personal G^d!], Ellokeinu [our All-Powerful G^d!], Melech ha’Olam … [the sole Ruler of the Universe, Who …!]. Five Titles, five ways in a row to address G^d.
Because in Hebrew, the verb To Be and the prefix for And Equally are often implied, we could translate: You’re the Source of all Blessing, and equally, You’re Thou, and equally, You’re our Personal G^d, and equally, You’re our All-Powerful G^d, and equally, You’re the Ruler of the Universe, Who …
When affirming this kind of Blessing, there are many special rules for how to reply and when not to reply Amen. These special rules do not cover Blessings that don’t start with this formula. (For instance: May you have easy travails. May G^d bless your efforts.) These rules are many, but the reward is in accordance with our trouble! Jewish Men should strive to make at least 100 such Blessings a day. It’s nothing rare, but it is special. (On Shabbat and Festivals, it’s hard to get to 100 Blessings. Some say that intentionally saying Amen to the Blessings before and after the Torah and Prophets readings is like making Blessings, adding 21 badly needed ones.)
Saying Amen or not to the special Blessing Formula has many rules.
You can only say Amen after the last letter of the Blessing, no matter how long it takes. Even if the Blessing is sung like this Ga-a-a-a-a-a-a-fen, you can only say Amen after the N. If you say it earlier, it’s a Snatched Amen, and some say its punishment is you will be snatched off the planet before your time, Heaven forbid. If the last sound is a lengthened vowel, like Tefilaaaaaah, you can say Amen at the start of that vowel. Yet, watch out for the (almost) silent last letters. Purim: Hamoshia’. As long as the Ah sounds, the last letter (the ‘Ayin) was not said yet. The same as in the non-Ashkenazic Kaddish: MeshicheiH: the Hey should be pronounced. Without it, it doesn’t mean His anointed but An anointed! Yet, this does not have the special formula so there is no punishment for answering too early. But it’s not proper at all, for sure, to pray for just anyone anointed to come.* We need not wait out a Blessing ending in a long-winded ‘Let’s say Amen.’ If we didn’t hear the last letter and other requirements of a correct Blessing, we can’t say Amen unless we have reliable reasons to assume it was pronounced as should. (Properly making Blessings does not happen automatically from being well-versed or even an expert in Judaism. Someone not so familiar may say it clumsily but perfectly (from a note). But someone smart and holy may be not into accuracy, may say Blessings overthinking them so hard that the actual pronunciation suffers, or say them flawed, habitually. You may know them to be accurate, or a Jewish Priest or Levi, who tend to be very exact.) The Priestly Blessing has three verses. Though the two first end in an A, I say Amen after it, and although the last one is not from the special Blessing Formula, I still say Amen after the M, not to teach others to cut off Blessings that maybe we shouldn’t.
However, we are also forbidden to say Amen too late. Longer than two or three seconds after the Blessing, an Amen becomes an ‘Orphaned Amen.’ Some say its punishment is your children will be orphans earlier, Heaven forbid. If the Amen is to a Blessing that needs a quorum of 10 men, as long as only eight responded, you can still say Amen. Yet, when the one who is saying a Standing Prayer Blessing continues with the next, he shows he’s no longer interested in an Amen. Then you can’t say it anymore because that’s like disagreeing. Yet, I found a trick around it.* I connect to the Soul of the one saying the Blessings, and his Soul surely wants me to say Amen. (With little time between Kaddish lines or Morning Blessings, we may say Amen in any case – provided the Morning Blessings were made properly.)
A (forbidden) Orphaned Amen is also one that responds to an improper Blessing or one that was said without need, like a wrong Blessing for the food to be eaten, or repeating a Blessing without need. But if the rabbis differ on whether the Blessing was the right one or needed, we may reply Amen, even when Jewish Law concludes this Blessing was not called for!
When enough is missing from the Traditional Blessing Formula, it is not a Blessing anymore, and saying Amen is strictly forbidden! The minimum is Baruch, H’ or Elokeinu, and Melech ha’Olam. Melecholam doesn’t count.
We must say Amen to any proper Blessing, also when it didn’t specify G^d. Yet, abbreviated formal praises like Baruch haMavdiel Bein Kodesh leChol may be proper for their purpose, but replying Amen is strictly forbidden!
Many formal Blessings lack parts of the formula but still take an Amen. How come? Well, they ‘lean’ on a complete Blessing before it. Even when the first Blessing was not properly said so that responding Amen became forbidden, we must still answer Amen to the subsequent Blessings if they are (somewhat) properly pronounced and their meanings are not changed.
On (Semi-) Festivals, an additional text is said in one of the Blessings of the Main Prayer. In the middle of it, we customary say Amen three times. For those Amens, it doesn’t matter if they are early, late, or even absent.
It’s easy to say. Two syllables, two vowels and two letters, that’s all. But we need to pronounce it exactly. Amen; stress on the second syllable; not the American AAAmen; not Men; not Ameh; not Ah Men; not just in thought; not just as fish that open and close their mouths, but you don’t hear them.* If you snatched off the Ah, it’s like a Snatched Amen. If you cut off the Ah, M, N, or cut the Amen in two, it’s like a Cut-off Amen. Some say its punishment is you will be cut off life before your time, Heaven forbid.
You must know what you agree with! Just saying Amen because others do so is not agreeing, is falsehood, and can do no good. It’s also (a third case of) an Orphaned Amen. So, when listening to the Chazzan, we need to pay attention (which creates a habit of noticing what is going on). That is easier when we follow the text in the Prayer book with our forefinger. When we lost track of which line of Kaddish is on, we can still say Amen in unison with others. But when we got confused about which Blessing of the Standing Prayer was just said, we must not say an Orphaned Amen. Saying it on the automatic pilot is a sin. When you can’t concentrate, don’t say Amen. But try and make it your habit to not let your mind wander always. We must pray in a language we understand except for Hebrew. The Holy Tongue is subconsciously understood by our Souls. Yet, ideally, we should have an aware clue of what our prayers say. So, it seems to me that if your Hebrew is rusty, as long as you can pray in Hebrew, you can respond Amen on the basis that your Soul knows it, as long as you heard all the words.*
Even when we can guess which Blessing it was, or if we just came in and didn’t hear the beginning, some say, we are forbidden to respond Amen. Yet, when it is not a prescribed Blessing in the Standard Formula, like the Kaddish, even if you didn’t hear the start, many rule you can say Amen.
We should respond Amen to a deaf person’s Blessing, also if it sounds a bit funny in the beginning, but especially so when all the words are there.
It’s the tone that makes the music. So, we need to say Amen in a way that sounds like we agree. We shouldn’t say it louder than the one we agree with because then it would sound like disagreeing. (But we are allowed to do so to alert others to say Amen.) However, the words are always more important than the melody. We must say Amen to a tone-deaf Blessing said well and not to a musically rich blessing that is missing crucial words.
Amen needs to be said as one word, in two to three seconds, not too fast. An Amen said too condensed is a Hastened Amen; a lengthened Amen lengthens your life! But also, don’t say it too stretched-out that it becomes distorted as often in a song. It should stay a statement. That can be hard for a Torah Reader taught (wrongly) to use his Amen to the prior Blessing to intonate his Torah Cantillations. And his Amen should not be too quickly answered to give eight men a chance to say Amen first. When he lost from where to start reading, he first says Amen and then searches.
Although few agree, I think that mumbling Amen under one’s breath is disagreeing rather than agreeing.* Even if that’s not the Jewish Law’s rule, please speak up, don’t sound like an intimidated or uninterested witness.
When we heard, simultaneously, the ending of two different Blessings, we respond Amen we’Amen. But we don’t say that to express that we very much agree with a Blessing because that sounds as if one Amen is empty.
Sometimes, by Jewish Law, we’re absolutely forbidden to say Amen:
When we are in the middle of our Silent Prayer or the Shema’,
Between making a Blessing and acting upon the Blessing, unless someone makes a Blessing for you and you agree with an Amen,
When we are in an unclean place (bathroom, naked, smelly diaper),
When you concluded the same formal Blessing less than 3 seconds ago (except when it’s a final Blessing from a row of Blessings),
When you said anything after their Blessing (even a word of prayer),
When you have food in your mouth (but it’s OK if you can quickly swallow it, spit it out without being disgusting, or stuff it into your cheek pouches, outside of your rows of teeth),
When someone is rehearsing the words of a Blessing. But when such a person should make a needed Blessing, we respond Amen to it to encourage the person, even if it’s not said so perfectly.
If one first needs to pour water over one’s hands (after a night’s sleep, bathroom visit, or touching private parts), but if one then would miss this chance to say Amen, one may quickly wipe one’s hands instead and say it.
Some say we are allowed to say Amen even when what we heard is not directly from the horse’s mouth but an electronic representation of it as in a recording, but also: a life broadcast, via a sound system, or phone.
We don’t respond Amen in the Temple, may it be rebuilt speedily and in our days. As a statement of faith, there, it is redundant. However, we do respond to Blessings there: Baruch Sheim Ke’vod Malchuto le’olam wa’ed.
When a non-Jew makes a proper blessing, we must say Amen unless we think it to refer to an idol. When an Atheist, especially a Jew, says: May he get well again soon, we say Amen. G^d is great is valid praise. But a Jew can’t say Amen to: May Jesus save all of us. When someone we generally disagree with or we dislike makes a blessing, we answer Amen too. The issue is what is said and meant, not who made it. Generally, we should not say Amen to curses. If a wish is a curse for some and a blessing for others, let’s be so sensitive not to say Amen.* Let’s hope the schools won’t strike.
When you don’t know if you should say Amen, don’t. (When in doubt, cut it out.) But try to figure out (learn, ask) if you should have.
We must make our blessings out loud not to rob others of the opportunity to answer Amen and not rob G^d of this Amen. But when in the presence of people who apparently didn’t answer Amen on proper blessings before, make the blessing silently, not to make them sin.
A Chazzan who prompts the Priestly Blessing does not say Amen. Rather, he waits for the Congregation to say Amen and then says the next word.
What to do when someone expects your Amen and might be offended if you don’t say it, but the Blessing was so imprecise that Jewish Law forbids or might forbid you? One trick is to say under your breath Psalms 72:19 and the last two syllables (Amen) out loud. Or to say: Be’ezrat haShem or G^d willing. Or Ken yehee ratzon or May this be His will. Reb Shlomo Carlebach once told the proud father of a Bar-Mitzwah boy whose Blessing had no word correct: I never heard a Blessing like that in my life, after which they embraced each other in tears. If you can’t respond with an Amen, sometimes, for the form or sake of peace, you can say ‘I agree,’ or change the subject: Look at that bird! It’s not good to offend people.
Even a million Jews saying Amen when Jewish Law says not to say Amen doesn’t permit us to respond Amen. Even a million Jews not saying Amen when Jewish Law says to say Amen doesn’t allow us not to respond Amen.
If someone would take a herb and make the right Blessing before smelling it, you must say Amen. But if he then refuses to smell it, it was a redundant Blessing. And then, the Amen was an Orphaned Amen—a grave sin, no? What can you then do about that? You do not need to do anything about it. When you made de Amen, the Blessing and your response were valid.
At the repetition of the Main Prayer, if not 9 men reply Amen, the Blessing was redundant, no? If so, we should not answer Amen. But such an under-answered Blessing is only like a redundant Blessing. So, we must say Amen.
Proper Jewish Blessings
Jewish Law obliges us to reply Amen upon the standard Blessing formula, and if the Blessing is too imperfect, an Amen is absolutely forbidden. This is different from a free-style blessing to which we are freer if to reply.
Let’s discuss when a Blessing obliges an Amen and when it forbids one.
You can only distinguish between a proper and a faulty Blessing, or being obligated and forbidden to answer Amen, by paying undivided attention.
Be ready for lots of doubts. Ask your rabbi.
The first word of such a Blessing is Baruch, which means: Source of all blessings, and it’s essential. When making a standard Blessing and omitting Baruch, an Amen is forbidden to utter. That’s easy. But what if the word erroneously is stressed on the first syllable: Baaaruch. When I notice this, I don’t say Amen, since that is a popular mispronunciation of the first name for men, Baruch. The second word will be Ata, Thou. Thou artn’t Baaaruch. What if someone jams the two words together and says Baruchata or Bruchta? I don’t say Amen. When in doubt, cut it out. Certainly, it is against Jewish Law to say Amen to a ‘Blessing’ that begins as Bruchtolam asher …
This word is nice because it shows how close we are to the One we acknowledge. It’s not He, it’s Thou, the intimate form of You. Still, when someone skips or maims this word, we must still say Amen.
Ado nai, Elo hei nu
The first word is G^d’s First Name, and the second means Master of all forces. As long as one of the two is said, it’s a kosher Blessing. Problems start when one is mispronounced and the other’s also, or missing in action. Baruch ata haOlam is not only not a valid Blessing; it’s the opposite: ‘The source of all blessing is the world.’ If only one of the two is there, but it’s a mispronunciation of Ado nai, I notice that many reply Amen. Far too many Ashkenazics say instead of Adoi noi: Adee noi. Far too many Mizrachics say instead of Ado nai: Adoo nai. Also, it’s not Aaa do naaai, or Aaa do nai. It horrifies me but often it’s on the automatic pilot for decades, and people just can’t say it as they should. But, a speaker for US radio reportedly once quipped: Just make sure you don’t pronounce it like the Conservatives: I deny, or as the Reform: I donno. In my opinion, Lo (means: not) doesn’t qualify for Elo hei nu. Nor do Elo wei nu/Elo yei nu.
The meaning is the Monarch/King/Ruler/Lord [over] the Universe. These two words are essential. If they are missing in a standard Blessing, saying Amen is not an option. It would be a great sin. It’s like saying to a king of flesh and blood: Nice coiffure—who’s your hairdresser? Not appropriate. Melech ha is not enough. Nor is Melech Olam. Nor is Melecholam. How about Meych ha’Olam? I don’t think it counts if it doesn’t say Lord [over] the Universe. A common error is leaving out one of the two words.
Our Main Daily Standing Prayer is a special case of a special case. Its Blessings have the same status as all Blessings with the special formula. Yet, the last 18 Blessings ‘lean’ on the first one because they lack the special form. And even the first one doesn’t have Melech ha’Olam. But, Abraham was the first to recognize G^d, so Elo hei Avraham takes the place of Melech ha’Olam. Now, the fourth, fifth, and sixth words are Elo ke nu wei lo kei avoteinu. Unfortunately, the fifth word is often skipped. Then one says: Elo ke nu wavoteinu, which means: Our G^d and our ancestors. But we don’t pray to our ancestors, so I won’t confirm this with Amen. Yet, although the following Blessings lean on this faulty one, everyone agrees that they must be answered with an Amen. Now, I’ve been telling many Chazzans to say the fifth word. I just heard someone finally do that but then, disrupted in his routine, he skipped Elo hei Avraham, so, no Amen.
The endings of such Blessings are crucial and especially prescribed. When they’re mispronounced, I doubt if I can say (and mean) Amen. They mean well, but can good intentions undo faulty acts? I can’t forgo acknowledging The Creat^r of the fruit of the vine (Borei peri hagefen), saying: the vine is the creator of the fruit (Borei feri hagefen), Heaven forbid. Or instead of lauding The Creat^r of all kinds of herbs (Borei meenei vesameem), saying: the herbs are the creator of the kinds (Borei meenei besameem). I have a problem with choley yisra’el for choley ‘amo yisra’el, go-yeil for goy’eil, nohe for no’e, beshalom for bashalom, izrel for Yisra’el. But my rabbi says that’s all fine with him when they mean to say it well. Ask your rabbi.
One should make it one’s custom to try and respond as often Amen as possible, and teach one’s students, kids, and friends to do the same.
Different Jewish Traditions may have different customs and rules.
Ashkenazics don’t say Amen to their own blessings, also not after a block of Blessings. Therefore, Ashkenazics pause a little before saying Amen after the Third Blessing of the Grace after the Bread Meal.
Non-Ashkenazics don’t say Amen to the Blessings surrounding the Shema’ except the last one in the evening prayer. But they do say Amen to their own Blessing if it’s the last of a set, like those surrounding the Shema’ in the evening prayer, but not after the Havdalah. (Perhaps that’s because the first three Havdalah Blessings are not created as part of a set.)
You don’t say Amen to a Blessing that your Tradition doesn’t have. So makes an Ashkenazic two Blessings on putting on Phylacteries and for ‘Half Hallel,’ but a non-Ashkenazic does not and says no Amen to the alien ones.
Yet, you say Amen to the Blessing of the Wedding ceremony; it doesn’t mean that now you got married too. (I heard someone claim this!)
Strangely enough, our Tradition doesn’t say we should reply to the Shema’ with Amen. Mizrachim would try to join in, saying the Shema’ in unison.
Ashkenazic women should say the Shehecheyanu Blessing at the Festival Candles she lights and then not say Amen on that Blessing at the Kiddush.
The Dutch-Ashkenazic custom is to say the Amen after Shoumeiang tefiloh extra lengthened. It is then important not to say Omeihein or Ame’en.
We should pronounce Amen in accordance with tradition: Amen, Omen, Omein, or Omah-in. But in a prayer quorum with a different pronunciation Tradition than our own, it is proper to pronounce it as they do, if one can. Especially if it otherwise would lead to arguments.
A Sephardic friend of mine wanted to be funny and said to my traditional Ashkenazic Kiddush Oymein. That was not a known, correct way to say Amen. It was speech between my Blessing and his drinking. So, he had to make his own Kiddush after that to be allowed to drink, I think.*
Here you have the bare minimum in 4500 words. Go learn the details with sources and disagreements between the different rabbis about Amen.