"Amen"
© 2010 S.H. Parker

"Amen" (אָמֵן) may be the best know word in Torah. Jews, Christians and Muslims all use it. Christians use it at the end of prayers and hymns. Muslims terminate supplications with "amen." Even the most flagrantly irreligious folks know and use it to express agreement.

Is that what אָמֵן means, "I agree?" Or, "I agree?" - That's what most people think.

As I draft this, we've just finished reading parshah Ki Tavo (Devarim 26:1 ff). The most prominent and striking passages in Ki Tavo are the "Blessings and Curses," starting at 27:1.

Moshe and the elders begin (27:1) by ordering a well written copy of the torah be placed in public view (standard near eastern practice) immediately on crossing the Jordan, in Shechem. This is just a stele. 

Then an alter must be built. A burnt offering and well-being (peace) offerings are to be made and eaten (most sacrifices were eaten by the person(s) offering the sacrifice -- hence my claim that Jews invented the barbeque picnic-- the burnt offering being the primary, possibly only, exception).

Then something quite striking is described. The people are divided into two groups, one to stand on Mount Gerizim, the other on Mount Ebal. The Levites then loudly proclaim "Cursed be the one that ..." twelve times, twelve curses. This is followed by "Blessed are you..."


Mounts Gerizim (left) and Ebal (right), i.e., Shechem (modern Nablus)

But, after each curse,

 וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן All the people said "amen"

(this can also be correctly translated "The people will say 'Amen'" but that doesn't seem correct here, even though many chumashim render it that way).

The curses are the most awful predictions of what will happen for failing to listen to and do the mitzvot. And "the people said 'amen'!"

If "amen" means "I agree" or "I strongly agree," should we render thus: "Cursed be he that perverts the justice due to the stranger, fatherless or widow. And the people said 'we agree'?"

"Yeah, right, that's a good idea! Curse that dude!"

I don't think so.

Rabbi Victor Weissberg sites tractate Sanhedrin (111a; also see Shabbat 119b), arguing that אָמֵן is an acronym for אל מלך נאמן (’El melekh ne’eman, "God trustworthy King" -- note, this is the phrase we say immediately before reciting the shma.)

The etymology of אָמֵן

אָמֵן comes from the root א-מ-ן (aman), meaning to be firm, confirmed, reliable.

Pointilized as it is in אָמֵן, the word means "let it be," "so be it" or, in the immoral words of Jean Luc Picard, "make it so."

When we say אָמֵן, at the end of a brucha, in response to any statement, we are saying "make it so." It is, therefore, a term not to be taken lightly.