Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Shnayer Leiman on "A Puzzling Passage in a Book Intended for Jewish Children"

A Puzzling Passage in a Book Intended for Jewish Children, with a Tentative Bibliography of ספרי קודש that Treat the Mitzvah of Answering “Amen”
Shnayer Z. Leiman

In 2004, an anonymous book entitled Serenade the King appeared in print.[1] Addressed primarily to a young audience, it is an anthology of inspirational stories that focus on one teaching only: the importance of answering "Amen." The stories are accompanied by photographs of the great Jewish sages mentioned in them, and by short inserts, mostly quotations from famous rabbis emphasizing the significance of answering "Amen." Letters of approbation (in Hebrew) from distinguished rabbis appear at the beginning of the book, encouraging prospective buyers to acquire the book.

On p. 240, the following short insert appears:
Failure to Answer Amen Desecrates Hashem's Name

Failure to respond Amen to a beracha that one hears is equivalent to actually cursing Hashem, and the punishment for one who is guilty of this sin is equal to the punishment that one who curses Hashem receives.

There is no greater desecration of Hashem's Name than the desecration caused by not answering Amen to a beracha, particularly if the beracha was recited in public. In fact, if it was recited before ten men, the hearer is obligated to sacrifice his life rather than not answer Amen!
Whereas Serenade the King prints mostly inspiring stories, here we have a halakhic ruling -- and an astounding one at that. Ordinarily, there are only three instances where a Jew is obligated to lay down his life (i.e., allow himself to be killed) rather than commit a violation of Jewish law. These are: idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality. Thus, if a Jew is ordered to kill an innocent person, or be killed, he must refuse the order and allow himself to be killed, if no other options present themselves. The above rule applies primarily when the violation of Jewish law is in the private domain. But if the violation takes place in the public domain, i.e., in the presence of ten or more Jews, then one needs to examine the motivation of the person issuing the illegal order. If the purpose is to force the Jew to abandon his faith, then the Jew must be prepared to lay down his life rather than violate any mitzvah of the Torah. If the purpose is for the personal pleasure of the person issuing the illegal order, then the Jew is obligated to violate the law and stay alive, except in the cases of idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality. In a period of general persecution of the Jews, one is obligated to lay down his life even if ordered to violate a mere customary practice of the Jews. Even in those instances where a Jew is obligated halakhically to violate the law and stay alive, there are some halakhic authorities who rule otherwise. They allow a Jew the option to lay down his life (rather than violate a Jewish law and remain alive) in instances other than the three exceptions listed above. All halakhic authorities agree, however, that the Jew -- in those instances -- is not obligated to lay down his life. Thus, a Jew who is ordered at gun-point to eat non-kosher food or be killed, must violate Jewish law and remain alive (according to some halakhic authorities), or may refuse to do so and die (according to other halakhic authorities), but he is not obligated to refuse to eat the non-kosher food. In instances where the Jew is ordered by the enemy to take no action (e.g., not to recite the obligatory prayers or not to wear tefillin), the obligation to lay down one's life is virtually non-existent.

Thus, R. Moshe Isserles rules:[2]
The rules apply only if they order him to violate a negative commandment. But if they issue a decree against observing a positive commandment, he need not observe it and be killed. But if the circumstances require it, and he wishes to observe it -- knowing that he will be killed -- it is permissible for him to do so.
Similarly, R. Mordechai Jaffe rules:[3]
All the above applies only when they order him to violate a negative commandment, so that when he violates it he must engage in an act that violates the Torah. But if they decreed in a persecution that one may not fulfill a positive commandment, one is not obligated to fulfill it and be killed. This is because complying with the decree does not require an act of violation of the Torah; one can simply cease and desist and comply with the decree. Moreover, the enemy can force him to violate the law against his will, by either imprisoning him so that he will be unable to perform any of the commandments, or by depriving him of his tzitzit or tefillin so that the specific mitzvah cannot be performed. Therefore, let it go unperformed and let him not be killed. Nonetheless, even in this case, if he chooses to be stringent and to observe the commandment -- even though he knows that he will be killed -- he may do so. He is not considered as one who brings injury upon himself, for this too is an act of piety and fear of G-d, and a sanctification of G-d's Name.
In the light of the above, it is astonishing indeed that Serenade the King rules that it is obligatory to lay down one's life when ordered not to answer "Amen" to a blessing recited before ten men. At best, it may be permissible to lay down one's life in such a case; it is certainly not obligatory according to the Shulhan Arukh.[4]

To the best of our knowledge, no such ruling appears in the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud, or in any of the halakhic codes, whether Rif, Rambam, Tur, or Shulhan Arukh. Indeed, the ruling appears to contradict the Shulhan Arukh, i.e. the R. Moshe Isserles passage cited above. So we were curious as to the source of this ruling in Serenade the King. One did not have to look very far. At the bottom of the insert, the source is clearly given as: Keser Melucha, page 284. It turns out that Serenade the King is simply an English version of an earlier work in Hebrew entitled שירו למלך, Jerusalem, 2002, also addressed primarily to a young audience.[5] The anonymous author of both books, apparently a reputable rabbinic scholar in Jerusalem, drew most of his material from an earlier work of his entitled כתר מלוכה, Jerusalem, 2000.[6] It is a comprehensive anthology in Hebrew of talmudic, midrashic, medieval, and modern sources relating to the mitzvah of answering "Amen" --- and it is addressed to adults. [There is a rich literature, especially in Hebrew, on this topic. Since we have not seen a bibliographical listing of such books, we have appended to this essay a tentative bibliography of books in Hebrew that treat the mitzvah of answering "Amen."]

Turning to page 284 of כתר מלוכה, one discovers that the source of the insert is: מנח"א י"א ב. Since neither Serenade the King nor כתר מלוכה contain bibliographies or lists of abbreviations, some readers will experience difficulty deciphering the abbreviation.

Amateurs attempting to decipher the abbreviation will doubtless suggest that it stands for מנחת אלעזר, the classic collection of responsa by the late Munkatcher Rebbe, Rabbi Hayyim Eleazar Shapira (d. 1937). But the responsa in that collection are always referred to by volume and by the number of the responsum (e,g., IV:19), never by page number (e.g., 11b). More importantly, our passage does not occur on p. 11b (or anywhere else) in any of the printed volumes of מנחת אלעזר.

While leafing through the pages of כתר מלוכה, it became apparent to me that מנח"א (cited throughout the volume) was itself an anthology of sources on the significance of answering "Amen." It was a simple matter to peruse the titles of all previous anthologies on the significance of answering "Amen," and to see which one had a title that matched the abbreviation in כתר מלוכה. The only volume to do so was R. Yehudah Leib Rogalin's מנחיל אמונה, Poltava, 1913.[7] And sure enough on p. 11b, there appears the full text of the passage summarized in כתר מלוכה.

The passage reads:
וכמו ששכרו של העונה אמן כמה דאצטריך אין ערך ושיעור וכמובא במדרשי חז"ל, כמו כן להיפוך חלילה עונש של האינו עונה אמן, וכמובא גם כן שבאמת הוא ניאוץ וחירוף וגידוף כלפי מעלה, אלא שזה בשב ואל תעשה, אבל עונשו שוה למגדף בפועל שזה בזיון למלך הכבוד דמי שלא חש לכבד את המלך בעת שנותנין לו כבוד הוא בזיון גדול אין דגמתו, ואינו דומה מי שאינו נותן כבוד למלך למבזה ברכת המלך, וברבים הוא חילול שם שמים בפרהסיא, ובעשרה מישראל מחוייב למסור נפשו על זה מקל וחומר, שאם הוא מחוייב למסור נפשו לקדש שם שמים בפרהסיא, כל שכן שמחוייב למסור נפשו שלא לחללו, ואין לך חילול שם שמים גדול מזה שלא חש לאמן ברכותיו של המברכו וגורם שברכת המברך יהיה חלילה כברכת שוא, עיין מכילתא (משפטים ס' כ"ג) משום ר' אלעזר וכו'. ומכאן אזהרה למי שרואה את חבירו שאינו עונה אמן אחר השליח ציבור שמחוייב לגעור בו בנזיפה יהיה מי שיהיה, דבמקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד.
The claim, while certainly interesting, will hardly persuade most halakhists.[8] In any event, this is surely a matter for Gedolei Ha-Poskim to decide, and not the authors of treatises on the importance of answering "Amen." One wonders whether such a halakhic decision -- of life and death import -- should appear in a children's book. Heaven forbid that a child be put to the test, and instead of consulting a posek, he will rely on the ruling of Serenade the King that "the hearer is obligated to sacrifice his life rather than not answer Amen." One wonders whether the rabbis who wrote letters of approbation for Serenade the King also gave their approval to this ruling. If not, perhaps we need to rethink what a letter of approbation really means.


1] Serenade the King, Jerusalem: Vehagisa, 2004. The book's spine bears the imprint of Feldheim's Books.

2] Shulhan Arukh: Yoreh De'ah 157:1.

3] Levush Ateret Zahav 157:1.

4] For possible support for the halakhic ruling in Serenade the King, see the sources cited in R. Hayyyim Yosef David Azulai, Birkei Yosef, Yoreh De'ah 157, paragraph 2, ד"ה הגהה

5] See שירו למלך, Jerusalem: Vehagisa, 2002.

6] כתר מלוכה, Jerusalem: Makhon Mayim Hayyim, 2000. An earlier and much abridged preliminary version of כתר מלוכה appeared in print with no place and no date on the title pages. It appears to have been published in Jerusalem, circa 1998.

7] The volume was published without הסכמות. On Rogalin, an accomplished rabbinic scholar who served as rabbi of Alexandrovsk in the Yekaterinoslav province from circa 1888 until 1913, see S.N. Gottlieb, אהלי שם, Pinsk, 1912, p. 9.

8] It will not persuade most halakhists for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the קל וחומר suffers from a serious פירכא. Indeed, a person may be obligated to lay down his life rather than actively commit a violation of Jewish law (under the right set of circumstances, as outlined above). But this cannot obligate a person to lay down his life rather than passively violate a Jewish law – by not answering “Amen.” Moreover, the halakhic source (Mekhilta to Exodus 23:1; ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 322) cited by Rabbi Rogalin does not treat the issue of laying down one’s life at all.

A claim similar to that of Rabbi Rogalin appears in a much earlier work: R. Moshe Kahana, דרך משה, Amsterdam, 1699. I am indebted to R. Eliezer Brodt for calling this claim to my attention (via Dan Rabinowitz). On p. 41 (of the Jerusalem, 1983 edition of דרך משה), the text reads:
על כן כל איש מישראל ששומע הברכה מישראל מחוייב לענות אמן אפילו שומע מאשה או מקטן, ואם שומע ואינו עונה חייב מיתה. וסימן אמ"ן נוטריקון א'ני מ'וסר נ'פשי, שכל אחד מישראל מחוייב למסור נפשו על עניית אמן
No halakhic source is cited for this פסק הלכה, (that not answering "Amen" is a capital offense; and that a person must lay down his life for the sake of answering "Amen"), either from the Talmud, Rishonim, or Aharonim. And while a famous story about R. Mordechai Jaffe, author of the לבושים, suggests that not answering “Amen” under normal circumstances is a capital offense (בדיני שמים), it does not suggest that a person must lay down his life if forced not to answer “Amen” (see דרך משה, loc. cit.; cf. R. Mordechai Jaffe, לבוש החור, Jerusalem, 2000, vol. 2, pp. 579-580).


The tentative bibliography that follows lists ספרי קדש that treat the mitzvah of answering "Amen." The list does not include books that treat a variety of mitzvot, including the mitzvah of answering "Amen." Thus, for example, the list does not include R. Aharon Avraham b. R. Barukh Ha-Levi, אגרת הטעמים (Mantua, 1582), even though pp. 12b-15a of that treatise treat the mitzvah of answering "Amen." For similar reasons, we have not listed R. Aharon Roth, שומר אמונים (Jerusalem, 1942), though see item 8 on the list. Books in foreign languages are not listed, though many exist. R. Menahem Nahum Bochner's ספר עניית אמן (Tchernovitz, 1913) is also omitted from the list; it does not treat the mitzvah of answering "Amen." The list certainly needs to be expanded. I've included only the titles of books I have held in my hand.

רשימת ספרים העוסקים במצוות עניית אמן

1] ואמרו אמן, לר' יהושע אלטר ווילדמאן, ב' כרכים, ירושלים, תרפ"ז-תרפ"ט

2] ונאמר אמן: יצחק לשוח, לר' שלום יודא גראס, ברוקלין, תשמ"א

3] חוברת לימוד בנושא מעלת עניית אמן יהא שמיה רבא, בלי שם מחבר, ב' כרכים, ירושלים, תש"ס-תשס"ב

4] חובת עניית אמן, לר' הלל דוד ליטוואק, ברוקלין, תשנ"ט

5] כתר מלוכה, בלי שם מחבר, ירושלים, בלי שנת דפוס (לפני שנת תש"ס), והיא הוצאה ראשונה וצנומה של ספר כתר מלוכה דלהלן

6] כתר מלוכה, בלי שם מחבר, ירושלים, תש"ס

7] לקוטי תורת אמן, לר' נחום זק"ש, ווילנא, תרס"ז

8] מאמר פתחו שערים מספר שומר אמונים, לר' אהרן ראטה, בית שמש, תשנ"ה

9] מדריך לעניית אמן, לר' שלום יודא גראס, ברוקלין, תשמ"א

10] מנחיל אמונה, לר' יהודה ליב ראגאלין, פאלטאווא, תרע"ג

11] נוטרי אמן, לר' אברהם קסלר, ב' כרכים, בני ברק, תש"ס-תשס"ד

12] עניית אמן כהלכתה, לר' ישכר דוב רומפלער, מאנסי, תש"ס

13] קובץ ונאמר אמן, בלי שם מחבר, בת-ים, תשס"ד

14] קונטרס הבו לה' כבוד: התעוררות וסיפורים...בעניני...עניית אמן, בלי שם מחבר, ירושלים, תשנ"ג

15] קונטרס מהלכות עניית אמן, לר' אברהם דוד בלאך, ווילנא, תרס"ט. נלוה לספרו ציצית הכנף, ווילנא, תרס"ט

16] קונטרס עניית אמן כהלכתה, לר' שלום יודא גראס, ברוקלין, תש"ם

17] קונטרס שומר אמונים, בלי שם מחבר, ברוקלין, תשי"ג

18] שומר אמונים, לר' אליהו וויגאדזקי, פיעטרקוב, תרס"ו

19] שירו למלך, בלי שם מחבר, ירושלים, תשס"ב

20] תשובת נפש תיקון אמן תשובת תענית, בלי שם מחבר, לובלין, תל"ז

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