Parshas Nitzavim (5768)
Trivia Question: Which Hebrew word is used more times by more Jews throughout the year than any other word in the Hebrew language?
Answer: The word "Amen".
That's right, the word Amen is recited by all different types of Jews (from the most secular and unaffiliated to the ardently religious) at all different types of occasions at all different times throughout the Jewish calendar - weddings, funerals, bar/bat mitzvahs, unveilings, circumcisions and baby namings, Passover Seders, Sabbath meals - and especially during the High Holiday season when more Jews attend synagogues services than at any other time of the year.
Which is all kind of ironic if you think about the fact that although it is the "most prayed word" by Jews the world over, most Jews haven't a clue what the word Amen actually means and what are the implications of answering Amen after hearing a blessing.
Let us briefly explore the source, meaning and laws of Amen.
In the Torah Moses tells the Jewish people: "When I pronounce the Name of G-d, glorify our G-d" (Deuteronomy 32:3). Our Sages infer from these words that a person is obligated to answer Amen after hearing a blessing. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the Sages instituted this mitzvah, which is an expression of our faith, because emunah (the Hebrew word for "faith" and the root of the word Amen) is so very fundamental to our entire Jewish tradition.
However, it is not sufficient to answer Amen without thinking of the meaning. The principal intent one should have when answering Amen is that the words mentioned in the blessing are true, that he believes them and agrees with all that was mentioned, as if he had said the blessing himself. So, for example, when someone is called up to the Torah on Rosh Hashanah for an aliyah and makes the blessing before the reading "Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, G-d, Giver of the Torah" and we answer Amen, we are, in effect, stating that this is true and that we totally believe in it.
Since answering Amen means agreeing with what was just said, the following guidelines apply: In order to answer Amen, one may either hear the complete blessing, the ending of the blessing, or at least know to which blessing one is answering Amen to. If he does not hear the blessing at all and does not know to which blessing he will be responding, he does not answer Amen.
One should answer the Amen immediately after the blessing is completed. One should not answer a "Hurried Amen," that is an Amen which is said before the blessing is even completed. Nor an "orphaned Amen," that is an Amen which was said a while after the blessing was completed.
Now that we understand what we are really saying when we answer Amen, we can better appreciate the irony of saying it without knowing what we are agreeing to. After all, would any sane person sign a contract without having first read its contents? And yet, over the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, millions of Jews the world over will be answering many millions of Amens and (apparently) agreeing to blessings and prayers without knowing what they just agreed to! Amazing, isn't it?
In truth, I believe that this strange scene can be better understood in light of another perplexing question we can ask about the Rosh Hashanah prayers themselves.
One of the basic components of the very long Rosh Hashanah service is Shofros (lit. rams' horns), in which, among other things, we ask G-d to remember the merit of our forefather Isaac who was willing to give up his life to fulfill the word of G-d and do the right thing. What is puzzling is that maybe Isaac was great enough to risk his very life for G-d, but why should that help us, his very distant descendants, who likely have never given up much of anything, let alone life itself, to do the will of G-d? Is it just because we are related to this great Patriarch and happen to share the same bloodline that we ask G-d to grant us a good judgment even though we don't really deserve it?
The great mystics explain that our forefathers and matriarchs in relation to us can be compared to a tree's roots and its branches - the essence of the roots of the tree is revealed in the branches that grow from it. In other words, since we are the spiritual heirs of these great people who had such incredible faith and courage against all odds, we possess all that "spiritual DNA" inside of us - whether we realize it or not. So on Rosh Hashanah we ask G-d in the Shofros prayers to remember the greatness that was bequeathed to us from our ancestors - and that we inherited - and to allow us another chance to bring out this amazing hidden potential.
In a similar way, the power of Amen - i.e. the tremendous inner faith that is the hallmark of the Jew who believes in the truth of G-d and his Torah and declares this faith at every opportunity and after every blessing - is a gift that was handed down to us throughout the generations and millennia from our ancestors who lived and died for this belief. And even if many, if not most, of us are not actually aware of the great power of this one word, and we haphazardly answer Amen to every blessing and prayer that comes our way without first "reading the contract" and understanding what exactly it is that we are declaring our belief in - it is a testament to the deep-rooted emunah and faith that is inside each and every one of us, whether we realize it or not.
May this Rosh Hashanah be the beginning of a year in which we all commit to exploring within to learn more about this great 3300-year-old tradition and belief system that we each bear inside of us - and, in the merit of our reconnecting with the faith of our great ancestors, may G-d bless us with a good judgment and a sweet New Year ... Amen!