The Original Amen Party

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by R. Gil Student

I. Amen’s Limited Impact

In the mid-1500’s, a Rabbi Yisrael in Adrianople initiated a new synagogue practice. On arrival in shul in early morning, a group of men would alternate reciting the morning blessings, the Birkos Ha-Shachar. One man would recite all the blessings while the others answered Amen. Then another man would recite the blessings while everyone recited Amen. And so on, as everyone received a turn and all the men answered Amen to many blessings. In this way, they hoped to recite, or answer to, 100 blessings before sunrise. Rabbi Yisrael actively encouraged the spread of this practice, which invited scrutiny from the great rabbis of the day.

Rav Moshe di Trani (Mabit), who studied in Adrianople before moving to Tzefas, published a responsum critical of the practice (Responsa Mabit, vol. 1 no. 117). Rabbi Yisrael published a booklet defending the practice, to which Mabit responded as well (ibid., no. 180). The Mabit objects that answering Amen only counts as a blessing, and fulfills the Talmudic statements about its importance, when you are obligated to recite a blessing and someone says it for you. The Amen of your response counts as a blessing. Similarly, your Amen to the blessings of someone called to the Torah counts because the Torah reading is a communal responsibility. However, when your friend recites his personal blessings out loud, your Amen does not count. If it did, there would be no need to stretch to find one hundred blessings on holidays when the prayers have fewer blessings.

Additionally, if one person says the blessings and everyone answers Amen, the listeners fulfill their obligations. They only can recite the blessings themselves if, while listening and answering, they specifically have in mind not to fulfill their obligation — they have kavanah not to be yotzei. However, it is best for one person to recite the blessings for everyone. When multiple people praise God together, their joint praise is better than individual praise — be-rov am hadras melekh. When these men have intent not to fulfill their obligation and then recite the blessings themselves individually, they are forsaking this additional level of joint, public praise.

II. Unnecessary Blessing

Rav Shmuel de Modena (Maharshdam; Responsa, Orach Chaim no. 1) published a similar responsum against this practice. Maharshdam quotes the Gemara (Yoma 70a) that the kohen gadol, on Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem, would read multiple passages in a Torah scroll. He would read one of those passages by heart, because it was far away within the scroll. One opinion in the Gemara is that, due to the time required to roll the scroll to the passage, the kohen gadol would have had to recite a new blessing on the reading. Rather than say an unnecessary blessing, he would recite the passage by heart. Maharshdam points out that it is better to read a Torah passage by heart, which is otherwise forbidden, than to recite an extra blessing. And yet here we find people reciting many extra blessings rather than fulfill their obligation from the prayer leader.

Mabit quotes a different Gemara as a proof. The Gemara (Berakhos 53a) says that if people are studying Torah in a beis midrash after Shabbos and someone brings a Havdalah candle, Beis Shammai says that everyone should recite their own blessing on the light while Beis Hillel says that one person should say the blessing for everyone. The Gemara continues that Beis Hillel’s reason is that joint praise is better. Beis Shammai agrees in principle but believes that the potential lost Torah study for the joint blessing overrides the preference for the joint praise. Absent the concern for lost Torah study, everyone agrees that it is better for one person to recite the blessing for all the listeners.

Mabit and Maharshdam have to explain why anyone prays rather than just listening and answering to the prayer leader. Why do people say their own blessings on tallis and tefillin? Why do the kohanim when they dukhen each say their own blessing rather than one kohen saying it and the rest answering? Mabit and Maharshdam argue that when a blessing is long or requires people to be ready at the same time then everyone says it individually. We cannot expect too much coordinated effort and attention. Many people cannot focus on the leader’s prayer and therefore everyone prays on their own. People need to put on their tallis and tefillin right after the blessing, which is unlikely with a group. The kohanim need to be prepared to recite the biblical passages and might get confused if they have to follow a leader’s blessing. Similarly, when counting the Omer, people might get confused if they have to count right after the leader’s blessing. The cases where we recite blessings individually while together as a group are the exceptions. As a rule, we prefer one person to recite the blessing for everyone.

III. Permissive Rulings

However, Mabit’s colleague in Tzefas, Rav Yosef Karo, disagreed with the above arguments in his Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 6:4). Rav Karo says that there is no need to protest what was then a new practice, as long as people have the proper intent regarding fulfilling and not fulfilling their obligations. In his Beis Yosef (ad loc.), Rav Karo quotes the Maharil’s citation of a practice for people to recite for each other in synagogue the blessing on washing your hands in the morning. Rav Karo saw this as a limited precedent for the more extensive practice he permitted. Similarly, their younger contemporary, Rav Menachem Azariah of Fano (Responsa, no. 109), praises this new practice.

Regarding the specific argument about an unnecessary blessing, Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida; Birkei Yosef, Orach Chaim 295:5) argues that if you are obligated to recite a blessing, it is not considered unnecessary if you say it. That is the obligation! If you have the opportunity to hear someone else say it but choose to say it yourself, you are merely fulfilling your obligation. Rather, says the Chida, everyone is free to follow this practice of multiple people taking turns reciting the morning blessings and answering Amen.

In 1814, Rav Elazar Flekles of Prague was informed of a community that instituted the controversial practice discussed above. A correspondent severely criticized this practice but Rav Flekles (Teshuvah Me-Ahavah, vol. 2 no. 212) upheld it. Since the standard practice is for everyone to recite their own blessings, there is no unnecessary blessing in doing so even if you also hear it from someone else — if you keep in mind that you want to say it yourself. However, Rav Flekles cautions, this has to be done in a way that does not disturb other attendees in the synagogue. If every person trying to pray has to constantly stop and answer Amen, they will not be able to focus properly.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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