Psalm 34: Amen - the Response of the Soul


Amen is an ancient Hebrew word that has been adopted by many languages and cultures. What does it mean, and how should it be said?

The Sages taught an insightful lesson about Amen from the following verse, familiar from the call of the chazzan as the Torah is returned to the ark:

"Declare God's greatness with me, and we will exalt His Name together." [Psalm 34:4]

What is the difference between the two halves of the verse, between "declaring God's greatness" and "exalting His Name together"?

Outward Speech and Inner Thought

This verse describes a kind of spiritual dialog. There is the one who declares God's greatness, and there are those who listen and join in.

We use our faculty of speech to express to others our inner awe of God. This declaration starts, as the verse says, "with me." We openly express these sentiments in order to awaken others to join us in sensing God's greatness.

The second half of the verse, on the other hand, depicts a different stage. "We will exalt His Name together." Together we acknowledge the sanctity of God's Name. Concurrently we acknowledge the infinite kindness in God's elevated rule.

This second level requires no outward expression - just the contemplations of a pure heart, the inner feelings of the human soul. Speech is a vehicle to inform those who do not know. This stage, however, belongs to the future era when there will be no need to teach others, a time when an inner awareness of the truth will fill the world.

A Quiet Amen

The Sages saw in this verse the dialog between the one initiating with a blessing and the one responding with Amen. The response, they stressed, should be recited as described in the verse - 'together' - no louder than the original blessing [Berachot 45a]. What is so terrible about an extra-loud Amen?

We first need to determine: what does Amen mean?

By answering Amen to a blessing, we indicate our agreement. Amen means that our inner understanding is at one with what we have heard. It is not a form of public communication, but an inner response of the soul. We confirm that the sentiments that we have heard resonate with our own thoughts and feelings.

If Amen is said more loudly than the original blessing, this would indicate that our Amen is coming to add our own emotions to those already expressed in the blessing. This is not a negative act — due to our physical nature, we are influenced and emotionally moved by external speech and actions - but speech is only a vehicle to awaken inner enlightenment. A true Amen is not a loud outburst of emotion, but rather the quiet reflection of agreement and inner awareness.

The blessing calls out, "Declare God's greatness with me!" It is a public cry to awaken inner awareness in others.

And we respond with Amen. "We will exalt His Name together." We exalt God's Name, with inner recognition, above and beyond all language. Unlike the blessing, expressed openly in speech, Amen belongs inside the mind. The blessing is the means, and Amen is the goal.

Short in Letters, Long in Thought

The Sages wrote [Shabbat 119b] that the word Amen is an abbreviation for "El Melech Ne'eman" ('God, faithful King'). This is another sign that Amen belongs to the realm of thought, where speech is brief and reflection is extensive. Like an iceberg, only a small part of this response is revealed; its true content is hidden within.

[adapted from Ein Ayah vol. II p. 202]

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