In Numbers 5:22, a priest orders a woman who is accused of adultery to drink water that is mixed with dust from a tabernacle floor. The priest reasons that if the woman has committed adultery, the brew will inflict her with a wasting disease, but if she is innocent she will consume the drink, unharmed. Adding to the woman’s plight, she is required by God to submit to her shabby fate by yelling, “Amen, Amen!” What’s striking about this passage is not that God thought a woman’s digestive tract could determine guilt, but that it is the Bible’s first—as well as history’s first documented—mention of the term amen.
In early biblical passages, the term “is used as an affirmation, particularly with respect to a curse,” explains Yochanan Rivkin, a rabbi at Tulane University’s Chabad House, but softens in later texts when used as an affirmation after a blessing, which is how it continues to be used today. The literal definition of the Hebrew word is “true,” so when uttered after a prayer, the congregation is underscoring the point that yes, what they just chanted is the absolute truth. The term comes from amanha, meaning truthfulness, which derives from the root alefmem-nun, meaning “to believe.”
Yeshiva students are often taught that amen is an acronym for el melekh ne’eman, meaning “God, Trustworthy King,” but Jon Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University, insists this is just homeletical fun. The term didn’t come from the acronym, he says, which is something scholars noticed later and clawed their fingers through to find deeper meanings. Indeed, “Middle Ages scholars were obsessed with word games and numerology and acronyms,” adds Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
As important as the meaning of the word is how it is used. Explains Rabbi Avraham Litvin, of Louisville, Kentucky’s Congregation Anshei Sfard, one is not supposed to say amen to his or her own prayer, because it would be considered arrogant, a kind of slobbering over one’s own knack for truth-telling. “When a rabbi says a prayer, he is pitching a softball and he wants the congregation to hit it back with amen” says Litvin. “The prayer is the hip hip and the amen is the hooray.”
Rabbis adopted the insinuatory, “And let us say… ” as a way to cue the congregation to say amen, without having to say it themselves. According to Levenson, in the first century BCE, in The Great Synagogue of Alexandria, an attendant would signal the audience with a flag that it was time to respond. The synagogue was so large, says Levenson, that the congregation could hear only snippets of prayers, so they couldn’t track the prayers’ end.
Sarna explains that in ancient times there were no prayer books, so saying amen, which is believed to be the equivalent to saying the entire prayer, was sometimes the only way people could participate. Similarly, early black churches in America relished the term— and its redemptive powers—because most of its members had not been taught to read. This brings us to the thought that amen narrows the divide between Christians and Jews. “It’s something that unites us, making clear that even though Christians pray in vernacular and Jews pray in Hebrew, there is a central rubric,” says Sarna.
But when Christians appropriated amen for themselves in the Second Temple period, it soon became primarily thought of as a Christian term. “When Jewish language is picked up by Christians it becomes Christian language,” says Ruth Langer, an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Boston College. “Look at the terms ‘hallelujah’ and ‘lord.’”
Langer attributes the appropriation to the Christian population size, but the reason might also be a biblical one, since amen is mentioned 30 times in the Old Testament and a whopping 126 times in the New Testament.
In the process of co-opting the word, the New Testament stretched the term out of shape, using it as not only an affirmation but also as an expression of hope and as a worshipful term for Jesus. Revelation 3:14 exalted Jesus as the “The Amen, the faithful and true Witness.” The word was further Christianized at the turn of the 20th century when popular Christian music spread the term to an even broader audience. “Gospel and Christian hymns played a huge role in mainstreaming amen” says Sarna.
Amen may have strayed with abandon, but in the synagogues it still stands with a whip in hand, ready to enforce its many rules. Author Tamar Ansh, in her zany children’s book Let’s Say Amen!, warns against “snatched” amens, or amen chatufa, which occur when people answer amen before the last word of the prayer has been recited. She also advises against the slurred “cut” amens, or amen katufa, describing amens that are not fully pronounced, such as “amei” To chop off the end of an amen is considered careless and disrespectful towards God.
Ansh cautions about the tricky tightrope of inciting a group to say amen. She says prayer-leaders should recite prayers loudly and clearly so that people will hear them and answer amen, lest their congregants fall victim to a “lonely” amen, an amen uttered without hearing the prayer. It’s important to note, though, that “if you think those around you won’t answer amen even if they do hear you, then it’s better to say your beracha in a low voice,” says Ansh.
Chances are you are falling short in your amen-uttering. If someone wishes you well, even with a folksy “Best of luck” or a detached “Get well soon,” you should answer amen, says Ansh, “since this is like a short prayer.” Indeed, if I were to tell my readers that I hope they come away from this article feeling more knowledgeable about this ancient term, there can be only one suitable response: Amen!