7.08.2009

Why does the word "Amen" loom so large?

It is true that the things that are most common to us are often the things we know the least about. They are part of our natural routine and so we don't question them. For many, the intricacies of breathing only become understood when that process is interrupted. Otherwise, there are many of us who happily walk around totally unaware of the science behind that which allows us to function.

Our spiritual habits are no different. People say אמן or "Ayyymen" all the time, assuming they both know what they mean and what it means--or maybe mindlessly parroting an accepted mimetic tradition, and knowing neither.

Last night, in the late summer of my years, I learned and then taught about the importance of this one word--not only in liturgy, but in everyday discourse.

The word Amen makes a brief appearance in the Talmud. It is a word with power. Resh Lakish says when said with gusto that it opens the gates of heaven. Ben Azzai cautions with a severe warning that one should never "orphan" an Amen, but it should always be connected to a bracha. Amen means nothing on its own, but becomes powerful only when it is responding to a blessing.

Well, what is it doing? What does it mean? What are we doing when we say it? Most people when they say amen are affirming what has been said to them. But it is more than that. Amen is an acronym for Al Melech Ne'eman אל מלך נאמן (God, the faithful king) and by saying it we affirm that all God's promises will eventually come to pass.

People often improvise their own wishes in life where people affirm these impromptu blessings with an enthusiastic Amen. They are indeed affirming the words of the speaker, but they are also bearing witness that the One who created the world is in charge of fulfilling these wishes. We, impudent snots that we are, invoke Him even in circumstances where we are implicating Him in promises He has not made. It's a sort of spiritual activism in which one should engage with some care, for a misplaced Amen the Gemara says, is a dangerous thing.

Amen is testimony. Amen is affirmation. Amen, at its best is done in response to others, so Amen does not only connect us to God, but our relationship with others--it is an opportunity to unify the commandments between people and God and the commandments between human beings in just one word.

No wonder it can open the gates of heavens.

4 comments:

  1. Just checking out your page. Thanks. Great insight. andrew

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  2. This seems only tangentially to answer the question of whether or not it is proper to respond "amen" to someone's good wishes, brachot, etc. While we may well be "impudent snots" in Hashem's realm (I like your choice of words), the fact is that we live in a lower world where we might well be considered imputent snots - or worse - for not responding.

    Look forward to seeing you in shiur.

    Tehila Leah

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