by R. Moshe Kurtz
Lomdus on the Parsha: Ha’azinu
Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon
Q: What is more important: Reciting a blessing or answering amen?
כִּי שֵׁם ה’ אֶקְרָא – הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלֹהֵינוּ.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness unto our God. (Deut. 32:3)
The imperative to answer amen to a blessing may not merely be a “nice thing to do,” but a bona fide Biblical obligation. Rashi (Berachos 21a, s.v. ki) and the Gra (O.C. 215:2) both record how when Moshe began to recite the shira (song) he instructed the Jewish people, “I will first bless and then you will reply amen. For when I call out God’s name in blessing, you will bring glory to our God by reciting amen.”
The individual reciting the blessing is often conceptualized as the primary actor while those answering amen merely serve as a supporting role. However, answering amen is so much more than just an afterthought. In fact, the Or Zaru’a (siman 192) makes the radical claim that “When one is listening to the blessing of hamotzi (on bread) or borei pri hagafen (on wine) or something similar, neither the one reciting the blessing not the listener have fulfilled their obligation until the latter recites amen – for amen is a component of the blessing.” Achronim are baffled by why the individual reciting the blessing necessitates the listener to answer amen. Afterall, would he never fulfill his obligation when he is the only person present? While we do not rule in accordance with the Or Zaru’a (see Shulchan Aruch O.C. 213:2 and 219:5), the notion of amen playing a critical role does indeed find basis in the Gemara.
The Talmud in Berachos (47a) relates:
רַבָּה בַּר בַּר חָנָה הֲוָה עָסֵיק לֵיהּ לִבְרֵיהּ בֵּי רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר רַב קַטִּינָא, קָדֵים וְיָתֵיב וְקָמַתְנֵי לֵיהּ לִבְרֵיהּ: אֵין הַבּוֹצֵעַ רַשַּׁאי לִבְצוֹעַ עַד שֶׁיִּכְלֶה ״אָמֵן״ מִפִּי הָעוֹנִים. רַב חִסְדָּא אָמַר מִפִּי רוֹב הָעוֹנִים. אָמַר לוֹ רָמֵי בַּר חָמָא: מַאי שְׁנָא רוּבָּא — דְּאַכַּתִּי לָא כָּלְיָא בְּרָכָה, מִיעוּטָא נָמֵי לָא כָּלְיָא בְּרָכָה? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: שֶׁאֲנִי אוֹמֵר, כׇּל הָעוֹנֶה ״אָמֵן״ יוֹתֵר מִדַּאי — אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא טוֹעֶה.
Rabba bar bar Ḥana engaged in preparations for his son’s wedding in the house of Rav Shmuel bar Rav Ketina. He arrived early and sat and taught his son the halakhot of meals: The one who breaks bread may not break the bread until amen has ended from the mouths of those responding. Rav Ḥisda said: One need only wait until amen has ended from the mouths of the majority of those responding. Rami bar Ḥama said to him: What is different regarding the majority that one must wait until their amen ends before proceeding? That until then, the blessing has not yet concluded. If so, when the amen of the minority has not yet ended as well, the blessing has not yet concluded. Why doesn’t the one breaking bread need to wait in that case? Rav Ḥisda said to him: Because I say that anyone who answers an amen of excessive duration is merely mistaken.
While the one does not need to wait for the select few who have decided to extend their amen with a cantorial flourish, we see from this passage that even the one who recited the blessing on the bread is beholden to the listeners’ amen. A similar notion can be found later in Berachos (53b) which records a baraisa in which R. Yossi declares, “the one who answers amen is greater than the reward of the one who recites the blessing.” R. Nehorai illustrates this by saying the following:
אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי נְהוֹרַאי: הַשָּׁמַיִם, כֵּן הוּא. תִּדַּע — שֶׁהֲרֵי גּוּלְיָירִין יוֹרְדִין וּמִתְגָּרִין בַּמִּלְחָמָה, וְגִבּוֹרִים יוֹרְדִין וּמְנַצְּחִין!
Rabbi Nehorai said to him: By Heavens, an oath in the name of God, it is so. Know that this is true, as the military assistants [gulyarin] descend to the battlefield and initiate the war and the mighty descend and prevail.
To put this in more contemporary athletic terms, the individual initiating the blessing performs an assist, while the one answering amen ensures that the points are scored. From this brief sampling, we can now appreciate why the Or Zaru’a ascribes such significance to the role of answering amen. In fact, the Rema cites him and instructs that not only must the listeners hearken well to the individual reciting the blessing, but v’hamevareich yechavin l’amen sheomrim, the one reciting the blessing must listen carefully to those replying amen.
R. Mordechai Carlebach, based on Chiddushei Rebbi Aryeh Leib (Vol. 1, sec. 5), suggests that this Or Zaru’ais more palatable in the content of communal blessings. There is no reason that one’s personal blessing on food should be dependent on whether someone who happens to be listening recites amen. However, when one is reciting a blessing for a tzibbur (community), such as birkas hamazon (“Grace After Meals”) as part of zimmun (intentional group) or the blessing of Torah in shul, the amen becomes an integral part of the nusach habracha, the text of the blessing! Thus, if amen is not recited there are actually words missing from the formula of the blessing then nobody – not even the one reciting the blessing – fulfills their obligation.
Clearly, reciting amen is not a mere afterthought but an integral partnership between the initial reciter and those who are joining with him to ascribe glory to God. May we all merit to join together in fulfilling the mitzvah of being havu godel l’Elokeinu.
Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth that the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon has to offer and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from sources such as Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected]