Can I Get an Amen?
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, amen “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 alef-mem-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 amen 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 say amen. 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.’”