Amen is an ancient Hebrew word that has been adopted by many languages and cultures. What exactly does it mean?
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:
“גַּדְּלוּ לה’ אִתִּי, וּנְרוֹמְמָה שְׁמוֹ יַחְדָּו. (תהלים ל"ד:ד)
“Declare God’s greatness with me; and let us exalt His Name together.” (Psalm 34:4)
What is the difference between the two parts of the verse, between “declaring God’s greatness” and “exalting His Name together"?
This verse describes a kind of dialog. One individual declares God’s greatness, and others listen and join in.
We use our faculty of speech to express our inner awe of God. This declaration starts, as the verse says, “with me.” It emanates from within. We openly express these inner feelings in order to awaken others, so that they will also be aware of God’s grandeur.
The second half of the verse depicts a second stage — the response. “Let us exalt His Name together.” Together we will acknowledge the holiness of God’s Name. Together we will acknowledge the limitless kindness to be found in God’s elevated rule.
This second stage in fact requires no outward expression. Just the contemplations of a pure heart, the reflections of the soul. Speech is a vehicle to communicate to others, to inform those who are not yet aware. This stage, however, belongs to the future era, a time when there will be no need to teach others, a time when all will be filled with an inner recognition of the truth.
The Sages saw this verse as a model for the dialog between one initiating with a blessing, and others responding with Amen. The response, they stressed, should be recited as described in the verse — ‘together.’ It should be no louder than the original blessing. What is so terrible about an extra-loud Amen?
We must first determine: what does Amen mean?
By answering Amen to a blessing, we indicate our agreement. Amen means that what we have heard conforms to our inner understanding. It is not a form of communication, but an inner response of the soul. We acknowledge 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 moved by speech and actions — but speech is only a means 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 is a public cry: “Declare God’s greatness!” It is a charge, a challenge for others to deepen their inner awareness.
And our response is Amen. “We will exalt His Name together.” We exalt God’s Name, with our inner recognition, above and beyond all language. Unlike the blessing, expressed openly in speech, Amen is rooted within the mind and its thoughts.
The blessing is the means. Amen is the goal.
The Sages wrote in Shabbat 119b that the word Amen is an abbreviation for the phrase “El Melech Ne'eman” (‘God, faithful King'). This is another indication that Amen belongs to the realm of thought, a realm where speech is brief and reflection is extensive. Like an iceberg, only a small part of this inner response is revealed. Its full content remains hidden within.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II p. 202 on Berachot 45a)