Don’t Be So Quick to Respond

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The acknowledgment “Amen” to a bracha is certainly considered a standard routine in Jewish daily practice, an almost involuntary (not that it should be) response to the shevach/hodaa concerning God. Yet, there are times when a person has to hesitate before uttering this word, as the bracha is not subject to this honored response. This article will address two scenarios where “Amen” is not necessarily the right answer.

The Rambam writes as follows (Hilchos Brachos 1:13):

“Anyone who hears someone from Israel (a Jew) enunciate a bracha from all the brachos, even if he did not hear the bracha from start to finish, and even if he is not obligated in that bracha, he is obligated to answer ‘Amen’. And if the individual making the bracha is a non-Jew, apikoris, kusi (Samarite), child who is learning, or an adult who changes the text of the bracha, one does not answer ‘Amen’ after them.”

When it comes to the case of the non-Jew, one might think it is simple – of course not! Our initial gut reaction, though, is clearly not a reliable barometer of halachic clarity. An analysis of a unique debate about this issue will help elucidate the problem. 

A source for the nature of this question, as well as a defense of answering “Amen” to the bracha of a non-Jew, can be found in the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah (Berachos 40a). At first, he distinguishes between the case of the kusi and the non-Jew. In the case of the kusi, as long as one hears the entire bracha, he can answer “Amen”. The reason for this is that one can assume the intentions of the kusi are non-idolatrous, expressed in the fact that he enunciates the entire bracha (the subject of kusi is not for this article). However, in the case of the non-Jew, one should not answer “Amen” - it is “certain” that his intention is solely towards something idolatrous. He also notes that today, a kusi is considered to have the same halachic status as a non-Jew. Rabbeinu Yonah then brings in another opinion, where a Jew should respond “Amen” to the bracha of the non-Jew. He explains that the Jew ultimately is hearing an individual who is making a bracha directed towards God (as demonstrated in his use of the Name of God), even though the non-Jew has no idea who God is, and who just so happens to believe that the creation of the universe was the product of another deity. Nonetheless, since his intent was directed to God (through the use of His name), and the Jew hears the entire bracha, he should respond with “Amen”. He concludes with a proof from the Talmud Yerushalmi, which indicates that even though other nations do not recognize God, the fact that their “thoughts” are towards God with the enunciation of the bracha justifies the need to answer “Amen”.

While this debate may not have significant everyday practical consequence, the fact that these two opinions are mutually exclusive requires some sort of explanation. What is the nature of this debate? 

The concept of a bracha actually has two components to it as it relates to the halachic system. On the one hand, a bracha is a halachic action, a religious performance like any other. The reason a person recites a bracha prior to eating food, for example, is that benefiting from this world requires a matir, so to speak; thus, the bracha is functioning as a halachic performance. As such, a person must be able to relate to this very system in order to recite the bracha. He must be a gavra hamechavein, possessing the inherent ability to have intent prior to engaging in a halachic performance. Based on this reasoning, one would never answer “Amen” to the bracha of a non-Jew, as he is essentially unable to engage in any Jewish religious performance. 

There is another aspect to bracha that makes it unique, which will aid us in understanding how one could answer “Amen”. The text of a bracha is a statement of objective reality. Within the bracha, a person expresses the fact that God is Blessed, King of the Universe, and relates this idea to the performance at hand, such as referencing God as the “boreh pri ha’adama”. And as we know, the response of “Amen” is in fact an acceptance of this very truth. The Rambam notes that we answer “Amen” even if we are not ourselves obligated in said bracha, indicating that it reflects our acknowledgment of the truth contained in this expression. If this is the case, then the intent of the individual becomes of secondary import. It is true the non-Jew does by definition not have the right intent when making the bracha. However, the cheftzah of bracha is able to emerge regardless, as it stands on its own as a declaration of truth. Therefore, according to this opinion, one should respond “Amen” when (on the off chance) he hears a non-Jew recite the bracha. 

In terms of practical pesak, both positions can be found throughout the works of Rishonim and Acharonim. The Tur (OC 215) cites both opinions (his father, the Rosh, following the second line of reasoning). The Shulchan Aruch (ibid 2) only cites the issue as it relates to a kusi; however, he writes in another place (ibid, Beis Yosef) that the kusi is equated to the non-Jew, and therefore we would not answer “Amen” to his bracha. The Rema, however, writes explicitly that one should answer “Amen” to the bracha of the non-Jew.

A more contentious issue emerges in the case of answering “Amen” to the bracha of a kofer/apikoris, an individual who denies a fundamental yesod of Judaism, such as Torah from Sinai, or possesses a distorted idea of God. As noted above, the Rambam clearly indicates one should not answer “Amen” to such a bracha, and based on the above explanation, it would seem this individual lacks the ability to create any true halachic statement as it relates to God. This issue has relevance to the situation of answering “Amen” to a bracha recited by a Conservative/Reform rabbi. R Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe OC 2:50, as well as in other teshuvos) expands on this issue, reinforcing that one should not answer “Amen” to a bracha recited by a kofer. He writes, in referring to Conservative/Reform rabbis, that since they are denying God and his Torah, the enunciation of the name of God by them is simply words (devarim be’alma) without any intent towards God. Therefore, it does not even rise to the level of an actual bracha, lacking in shem and malchus.  His basis for this position comes from the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 6:8, based on the Talmud), where the Rambam writes that one is obligated to burn a sefer Torah written by an apikoris. The rationale for being allowed to burn the sefer Torah stems from the apikoris’s distorted belief in God, resulting in the inability to produce the requisite sanctity of God’s name – the words of the sefer Torah are just words then, not the transmission from God to Moshe. However, the Rambam points out that one is actually obligated to burn the sefer Torah written by an apikoris, so as not to give any validity to their thoughts and ways. Clearly, R’ Moshe explains, if the words of the sefer Torah written by the kofer are considered devarim be’alma, the same should be said of the words he articulates. As a result, R’ Moshe maintained that one should not respond “Amen” to the bracha of a Reform or Conservative rabbi.