It is not uncommon for a Christian neighbor or friend to offer a blessing to a Jew or to anyone else. Often, these blessings colorfully invoke biblical themes in meaningful ways. Freestyle blessings are part of Christian culture. How should a Jew respond to these blessings? Obviously, a blessing offered in the spirit of friendship should be received in the same spirit. Anything else would be rude. But words have meaning and the precise form of receipt can make a difference. We don’t want to make an inadvertent theological statement greater than intended.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Berakhos 8:8) seems to answer this question. “A gentile who recites a blessing, answer Amen after him. R. Tanchum said: If a gentile blesses you, answer Amen after him. As it says, ‘You shall be blessed from all the nations’ (Deut. 7:14).” A gentile blessing a Jew is not just a personal expression of friendship; it is a fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. While the verse literally means that the Jewish people will be blessed more than other nations, it can also be translated as saying that other nations will bless the Jews. In offering a personal blessing, a Christian fulfills a biblical promise. To this, ostensibly we answer Amen.
Amen is not a small word; its meaning runs deep. The word appears in two places in the Pentateuch (Num. 5:22 and throughout Deut. 27). It indicates approval and confirmation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 111a) adds a theological aspect to this confirmation. The three letters of Amen (אמן) can serve as an acronym for God, the faithful king (Rashi, ad loc.). In other words, responding Amen to a statement indicates our belief that God confirms that statement. When you answer Amen, you are attesting to a divine truth, you are stating your faith in the blessing and its divine source. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110b) asks from what point in a child’s development he merits a place in the afterlife. One answer is from birth. Among other answers, each of which deserves lengthy treatment, is that a child merits a place in the world-to-come when he begins answering Amen. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Berakhos 54b) surprisingly says that someone who answers Amen is greater than the one who recites the blessing. Answering Amen is an act of faith, an act of joining together in prayer.
The Mishnah (Berakhos 51b) says that you must say Amen after you hear a Jew recite a blessing. However, you may only recite Amen after a Kusi’s (Kuthite’s) blessing if you hear the entire blessing. Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (ad loc., p. 40a sv. Kol Zeman) explain that with a Jew, as long as you hear God’s name in a blessing, you must respond Amen. You know what he is doing and what he is saying, so the response is honest and appropriate. However, the Kusim were idolators who were forced in biblical times to join the Jewish people but never completely gave up their idolatry (2 Kings 17:24-30). Instead they combined worship of God with idol worship, what is called syncretism. Even if they say part of the blessing properly, they could add to it or change it to include their idols. You cannot say Amen to that because you might be attesting to their idols. However, if you hear the entire blessing without deviation, you can assume that they have God in mind and therefore respond affirmatively with Amen.
II. Amen to a Classical Blessing
Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah then quote the authors’ teacher, Rabbeinu Yonah, who lived in 13th century Christian Spain. Rabbeinu Yonah says that after a gentile’s blessing, you may recite Amen. Since his intent is to bless God and you hear the entire blessing from him, you may affirm the blessing. The Rosh (Berakhos 8:5) offers a slightly different reason for the same ruling. He says that if you hear the whole blessing and it refers only to God, you can assume that the gentile has God in mind. A gentile does not intend for another being if he mentions God. Note that the Rosh lived in late 13th century Christian Germany and early 14th century Christian Spain.
However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Berakhos 1:13) rules that you may not say Amen after a gentile’s blessing. The resolution of this ruling with Talmudic texts remains a challenge. The Vilna Gaon (Bi’ur Ha-Gra 215:2) struggles and can only reconcile the ruling by positing a textual emendation in the Rambam’s text.
In Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 215:2), Rav Moshe Isserless (Rema) adds a gloss that you may say Amen after a gentile’s blessing if you hear the entire blessing. The Vilna Gaon disagrees and allows saying Amen even if you hear only a part of the blessing. He reads the Rosh differently, as assuming that a gentile refers to God and therefore you do not need to hear the whole blessing. These two opinions reflect Ashkenazic practice. More recently, Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Yalkut Yosef 215:2) rules like the Rambam, that you may not answer Amen to a gentile’s (Christian’s) blessing, reflecting Sephardic practice.
III. Amen to a Freestyle Blessing
All of the above addresses a classical blessing, the kind we find in a prayerbook. These blessings praise God for His various great works and follow strict wordings that cannot be altered. That isn’t quite what we are discussing, nor the subject of R. Tanchum’s biblical inference. R. Tanchum was discussing a gentile blessing a Jew, not God.
Regarding such a blessing, the question seems to be whether we can assume that a gentile refers to God when offering a freestyle blessing. When he recites one of the standard Jewish formulas for blessing, we can make that assumption (according to Rabbeinu Yonah and the Rosh). What about when he recites a freestyle blessing?
The Sefer Chasidim (13th cen., Germany; no. 527) says that if a gentile says to you “may my god help you,” you should not respond Amen. But if he says “may your God help you,” then you should answer Amen. What if he simply says “may God help you”? Sefer Chasidim does not offer guidance in that case.
More recently, Rav Betzalel Stern (Be-Tzel Ha-Chokhmah 3:39:10, cited in Piskei Teshuvos 215:6) discusses this case. He deduces from the Rema’s statement that we say Amen only if we hear the entire standard blessing, that if we hear a freestyle blessing then it does not fit the Rema’s condition. Therefore, we may not respond Amen unless the gentile specifically blesses you in the name of “the God of Israel.” I am not aware of any authority who disagrees although I see room here for a different conclusion. When a Christian offers a blessing in the name of God rather than Jesus, he might be intending the same thing as when I say a blessing in the name of God. However, without an established authority weighing in on the subject, I feel obligated to accept the only existing opinion. (I have written to some leading scholars for their opinions – see Addendum.)
If we cannot affirm a gentile’s blessing, how do we understand R. Tanchum’s biblical inference? R. Tanchum means that the nations will bless the Jewish people in the name of the one true God. This sometimes happens today and will continue to occur in the future. As a nation devoted to God, we affirm blessings in His name and not in the name of any other deity or ambiguous reference.
But that leaves us in an awkward situation. If a Christian blesses a Jew in the spirit of friendship, even in the name of God but not in the name of “the God of Israel,” how do you respond in the same spirit? You don’t want to answer Amen to a blessing that might be directed to anything other than God. Piskei Teshuvos (215 n. 38) suggests answering “thank you.” I suggest responding with a reciprocal blessing. If someone blesses you, bless him back. I think that fully expresses the spirit of friendship and avoids inadvertent acceptance of unclear references to God. By taking Amen out of the picture, we are able to respond honestly and respectfully.
Addendum – I sent this question to Rav Eliezer Melamed and he replied that if a Christian blesses you with the name Jesus, you should thank him in a way that is pleasant. If he blesses you with the name God, you should answer Amen.
While writing this essay, I had the following song in my head. It might be annoying but it sticks with you (the video has over 1.8MM views).
Yeshiva Boys Choir, “Amen” (lyrics from Tanchuma, Vayikra 7: “Whoever answers Amen in this world will merit to answer Amen in the next world”)