Sunday, January 31, 2021

Etymological Adventures: Amen

Amen. It’s a sign of agreement. It’s the end of a prayer. It’s a word I never thought to wonder what it meant in some other language because its meaning in English is so clear. But yesterday it occurred to me to wonder, and what I found was meaningful in more ways than one. In Hebrew, I learned, amen (אָמַן) is a verb that means to be faithful, stand firm, or to believe. 

As I am currently learning about Judaism, I discovered this reading the weekly Torah portion, Beshalach, in which God parts the waters of the Red Sea and the Israelites cross over into the Promised Land. I was reading in English, but a particular phrase caught my attention and I wondered what it was in Hebrew. In English, the phrase was “[. . . the people] believed in the Lord and in Moses” (from Exodus 14:31), as translated on Since believing in God is, in any Bible, an important idea, I wondered how to say ‘believe in God’ in Biblical Hebrew. What I saw was that the Hebrew word for believe looked to my eyes—which know the Hebrew alphabet but no grammar—a whole lot like amen. 

Over at, an amazing hyperlinked repository of Jewish texts, the phrase was translated “they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.” Yet when I clicked on the key Hebrew word and the definition popped up on the right of the screen, there it was: amen, a verb meaning, among other things, to trust or believe. 

So amen is an expression of faith or belief. It’s not so surprising, now that I know. Yet I didn’t know. I didn’t really think it meant anything. I thought it was a word whose meaning was self-evident, like ‘ouch!’ 

On that note, what part of speech is it, anyway, at the end of a prayer? It doesn’t seem like a verb as used in that context. It’s just something people say, as in “and we say: Amen.” Merriam-Webster says amen is an interjection (like ‘ouch,’ I might add). Find amen in a prayer on Sefaria, and the Klein Dictionary will tell you that it can mean “so be it, truly, certainly,” which make it sound, ‘so be it’ aside, like an adverb. Sort of like ‘indeed.’ 

When amen means ‘so be it,’ it doesn’t necessarily signify agreement. It can be an expression of resignation. In the story of the two angels who accompany someone home from a Friday night shabbat service, one angel who wants the house to be neat and tidy and ready for 25 restful hours, the other who wants it to be messy, one of the angels has to concede to the other when their person arrives home to the house, in whatever state it may be in, and the angel does that by saying ‘amen.’ 

One of my favorite things about learning new words is that they tend to pop up everywhere, and so it was with amen once I discovered its various Hebrew meanings. I found it in a psalm sung on shabbat, and the interesting thing about that was that in that case, God was the one being described as being faithful, to people. The word amen can refer to people believing in or being faithful to God, but it can also indicate the other half of an apparently reciprocal relationship. I find that satisfying.