The Power of 'Amen' on Yom Kippur

Not everyone can keep up with all the prayers on Yom Kippur. Fortunately, according to the Rabbis, the word 'Amen' can sometimes say it all.

We Jews who live in Israel tend to pass the Priestly Blessing by without much attention. Every time that we happen to go to synagogue in the morning, we’re likely to hear it. It’s nothing special to us. But, in the Diaspora, the liturgy omits the Priestly Blessings except on the festivals.

Growing up in England, I always looked on in wonder, as the loveable and aging cohen, the only one in our community willing to take on this liturgical role, a man who seemed to be oozing with righteousness and kindness, would envelope himself in his tallit and sway as if hypnotised by the ancient blessings that he bestowed upon us. The fact that you weren’t supposed to look directly in his direction only made my eyes burn more heavily, convinced that if I could take a peak under that prayer shawl, I would see the Divine Presence overflowing into the room. In the Diaspora, the infrequency of the Priestly Blessings confers a great deal of reverence upon it. And, that reverence is well placed: according to the rabbis of the Midrash, when you say "Amen" to that particular blessing, you quite literally "say it all."

In different contexts, the word "Amen" seems to mean slightly different things. Rabbi Yehuda bar Siman said that in response to the Priestly Blessings, the word "Amen" contains three of its regular meanings all bound up together (Devarim Rabba Parshat Ki Tavo 1).

The first of the three meanings of "Amen" is the legal function of taking an oath upon the utterer. The book of Numbers (chapter 5) describes a ceremony in which the priest, acting as a legal functionary, reads out the words of an oath on behalf of a certain woman; the woman merely has to say "Amen" and the oath becomes hers. When you say "Amen" to the priestly blessings, you are taking an oath-like responsibility upon yourself. You are, as it were, swearing to become the sort of person who is worthy of receiving the blessings that are here on offer. You are, in short, committing to becoming a better Jew.

The second of the three meanings of "Amen" is the function of accepting upon yourself the negative conditions of a transaction. When you sign the rental agreement, you accept upon yourself the condition that if you break something, you’re going to pay a big surcharge. If you decide to sign, that’s because you’ve considered your options, and you think that the risk is worth taking. When the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, they were to enact a ritual that Moses described in Deuteronomy 27. In the ritual, the Levites would describe the blessings and the curses associated with the Torah; the blessings that would accrue if we observed its statutes and the curses that would accrue if we didn’t. In response to each curse, the entire nation said, "Amen." In so doing, they were accepting that having the Torah is worth the consequences of not keeping it. When you say "Amen" in response to the Priestly Blessing, it means that you accept that the burden of the Torah is worth it – you’ve read the small print, and you’re willing to sign up.

Finally, the third meaning alluded to by the Midrash, is that "Amen" can mean "let it be so." When you say "Amen" to the Priestly Blessing, you express the hope that the divine grace and the divine peace described in the blessing really will descend upon you.

The vast majority of Jews will be marking Yom Kippur in one way or another. And for many of us, the experience of staring blankly upon a prayer book written in an ancient and unfamiliar language is daunting. But if you can say nothing else, you can still say "Amen" to the priestly blessing, and you can know, that in doing so, you have really said it all – (1) you have committed yourself, with that one word, to becoming a better Jew, (2) you have accepted upon yourself the consequences of your identity, and (3) you have expressed the prayer that you will live up to your potential and receive abundant blessings in return.

Don’t look over at those Jews who know what they’re doing with the prayer book, as they fervently follow each word of the service, beating away at their chests as they read the confession; don’t let your head hang in shame that you can’t muster the appropriate feelings, nor concentrate through a cumbersome liturgy. Know that, in the words of the Midrash, "Before the Holy One, blessed be He, there is nothing greater than a Jew who says ‘amen’ to the Priestly Blessing." That single word, uttered with sincerity, can make the whole day worthwhile.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.