Mistaken Minhag - Not Answering 'Amen' to the Second Bracha of Shema: The Unabridged Version

[I’m going to trace this issue from the Gemara through the Rishonim, and then address the Acharonim, paying careful attention to where misunderstandings seems to have crept in. BTW – thanks, bluke, for keeping me honest. I’m going to paraphrase each source, for the sake of brevity, when I can.]

  • Gemara Brachot 45b (bottom): If one answers ‘amen’ to his own bracha, it’s disgraceful, except for the bracha of ‘boneh yerushalayim’.
  • Most rishonim (Rashi, Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah (henceforth TRY), Ritva, Rashba, Ge’onim, R’ Chananel) understand that it’s not just ‘boneh yerushalayim’, rather, any bracha which is the end of a series of brachot one should answer amen to his own bracha. The Gemara only mentioned to teach that it’s considered the end of a series, because it’s not at all obvious.
  • Tosafot (and Yesh mefarshim in TRY) explains that the popular minhag is only to answer amen after one’s own ‘boneh yerushalayim’.
  • Rambam (explained by Talmidei R’ Yonah 33b in Rif pages. The most relevant Rambam’s for this discussion are in the end of Chapter 1 of Hilchot Brachot) says that the issue isn’t that there’s a series of brachot, rather, concurrent brachot. If one makes two brachot or more back-to-back, then one would answer ‘amen’ to the last one. But if the two brachot are separated by time, even if they are technically a ‘series’ (like Baruch she-amar and yishtabach, or the brachot before and after kriyat shema, or the brachot at the beginning and end of hallel, or before and after one eats), one wouldn’t answer to his own bracha at all.

So what’s the difference?

  • For Tos’ position, it’s easy; there’s a ‘hekker’ that’s needed in this one instance, and not in any others. The ‘amen’ is a ‘hekker’, signifying a change from de-orayta to de-rabanan liturgy.
  • For what I’d call the dominant position, 2 explanations are offered in the Rishonim
    The Ritva explains that it’s because of ‘hefsek’ – that until you finish the series, answering ‘amen’ to your own bracha unnecessarily interrupts (mafsik) between the bracha and what follows – be it another bracha, eating (if it’s a bracha on food), doing a mitzvah (if it’s a bracha on a mitzvah), between a bracha and shemoneh esrei (when there’s a requirement to be ‘someich ge’ula le-tefillah), or between the brachot and the recitation of the shema (Note that he lists it distinct from ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’ and also lists it distinct from ‘bein bracha le-bracha). Genreal rule – if there’s a concern for hefsek, don’t say ‘amen’ to your own bracha.
    TRY explains that the issue is specifically because these brachot were composed as a series, and the word ‘amen’ signifies the completion of that series. If one says ‘amen’ to his own bracha when it’s not the end of the series, he gives the impression that the brachot that he’s saying are disconnected, when really they were instituted as a unit. He does not see the saying of ‘amen’ as a question of ‘hefsek’ at all, rather as an issue of when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to signify the end of a continuous series of brachot. He even explicitly recommends saying amen to one’s own bracha after ‘ga’al yisra’el’ – which teaches 2 things:
    1) That saying ‘amen’ is CLEARLY not a hefsek, even between ‘ge’ulah’ and ‘tefillah’
    2) That the 3 brachot of ‘kri’at shema’ are a single unit; otherwise, the bracha of ‘ga’al isra’el’ is independent and not the end of a series!
  • Rambam (Brachot 1:18) explains himself that the purpose of saying ‘amen’ to one’s own brachot is to signify to others (Rambam’s word it le-hodi’a) that he’s finished saying brachot (for one bracha, since it’s only one, there’s no need to signify). It’s not necessary for him (unlike R’ Yonah) that the brachot are part of an actual series. Rather, it’s any time there are back-to-back brachot. However, there are circumstances where this doesn’t apply because, even though he’s finished saying brachot, the brachot are directed toward some object. Saying ‘amen’, which signifies completion, is inappropriate here because he hasn’t actually completed what he’s doing. Rambam (1:17) gives 3 examples for this – the brachot before megillah, the brachot before lighting Chanukah candles, and the bracha before kri’at shema – where even though it’s a series of brachot, since the brachot are directed toward the subsequent mitzvah, it’s inappropriate to signify ‘completion’. Rambam isn’t talking about ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’ here – 2 of the 3 brachot before megillah and nerot Chanukah are not ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’. It’s about the clear connection between the bracha and the subsequent event (Rambam says ‘subsequent thing’, not ‘subsequent mitzvah’. Consistent as always, Rambam says (Brachot 1:16) that one would say ‘amen’ after the final bracha of Ma’ariv (shomer ammo…), but doesn’t mention Shacharit. This is because (as TRY and Kessef Mishneh explain) only at ma’ariv are back-to-back brachot. At shacharit it’s only 1 bracha!

To summarize for our issue, all Rishonim agree that one should not answer amen to his own bracha right before Shema, but for 4 different reasons:

  • Tosafot – with the exception of ‘boneh Yerushalayim’, we never do.
  • Ritva – it’s a ‘hefsek’.
  • Rambam – it’s not the ‘completion’ of anything since the bracha leads directly into the Shema
  • R’ Yonah – it’s not the end of a series of brachot.

It should be noted that the issue is saying ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha! This has nothing to do with saying ‘amen’ to someone else’s bracha, or the bracha of a ‘shli’ach tzibbur’.

However, looking at these 4 reasons, we can ask – would any of them apply equally to the bracha of the shaliach tzibbur?
For Rambam and R’ Yonah, that the purpose of answering ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha is to signify or conclude a string of brachot, the answer is that, obviously, this has no bearing on answering ‘amen’ to the bracha of someone else, where the purpose is to affirm his statement! In fact, Ramah, who R' Yonah holds to be in agreement on this with himself and Rambam, states explicitly that one WOULD answer the Sha"tz!
Same logic would hold for Tosafot.
The only question would be with the Ritva, who suggests that it’s hefsek. Perhaps it’s possible to suggest that Ritva’s logic would apply even to the case of answering ‘amen’ to the bracha of another?
Though this possibility exists theoretically, the Ritva himself (ad loc) explicitly rejects it! He states that one is REQUIRED to say ‘amen’ to the bracha of the ‘sha”tz’ and even specifically singles out the bracha before shema for saying ‘amen’ or ‘kel melech ne’eman’ which is an expanded form of ‘amen’!
He does bring circumstances where even ‘amen’ to the bracha of another would be a hefsek – like between ge’ulah and tefillah, during shemoneh esrei, between ‘hashem elokeichem’ and ‘emet’, between a bracha and the mitzvah it’s on (in the case of ‘birkat ha-mitzvot which, as is quite explicit and obvious, doesn’t include the bracha before Shema), or a bracha and the food it’s on.

Thus, within the Rishonim, it is implicit in all and explicit in some (namely, Ritva, Ramah, and as we'll see later, Rosh) that one must say ‘amen’ when the ‘shli’ach tzibbur’ says the bracha before Shema.

The confusion begins with a Responsum of the Rosh (4:19) that the Tur quotes in Orach Chaim 59. The Rosh’s Teshuvah is all about davening along with the Sha”tz, what one’s supposed to say and when, etc. It’s quite clear from the context that he’s talking about a situation where the sha”tz was saying everything out loud (kind of like what Sephardim still do). It’s also clear that this was necessary because there was no such thing as a ‘siddur’. There were manuscripts with the ‘seder ha-tefillot’, and perhaps the ‘sha’tz’ used them, but in general, nobody had siddurim, so the most effective way to keep pace, whether or not one knew the prayers by heart, was to recite along with the sha”tz. The Rosh adds, however, that it’s proper for one to finish up the bracha before the sha”tz so that he can answer ‘amen’, because it’s inappropriate to do so if he finishes along with the sha”tz (because then it would be like answering ‘amen’ to his own bracha which is wrong for any of the 4 reasons listed above). The Rosh furthermore doesn’t differentiate between the brachot of ‘yotzer’ and ‘ha-bocher’. The same practice should apply for both.

The Beis Yosef (ad loc – henceforth HoJo = House of Joseph) posits that this Rosh is in disagreement with Rambam and R’ Yonah that we addressed earlier, and even throws in the Ramah (R’ Meir HaLevi) and Ramban, that one should NOT answer ‘amen’ to ‘Ha- Bocher’.

HoJo explains that the bone of contention is whether or not the brachot before kri’at shema are connected to the Shema or not. According to Rosh, they’re not (or at least it’s not a ‘birkat ha-mitzvot’), so there’s no problem of ‘hefsek’ between the brachot and shema. According to the others, though, it is problematic as a ‘hefsek’. The dispute then is, acc. to HoJo, whether or not one should say 'amen' to his OWN bracha - and the Rosh is truly a 'da'at yachid' on this matter! Though the Rosh doesn't explicitly state this position, both Rema and HoJo understood him in that way.

HoJo then goes on to explain that perhaps there’s really no dispute here, and that all would agree with the Rosh that it’s desirable to say ‘amen’ to the sha”tz’s bracha, and the Rosh says nothing about one's own bracha.

From the preceding discussion, it’s most likely that HoJo’s second explanation is the correct one. It’s actually quite clear that the Rosh and the others are talking about different cases – Rosh about answering the Sha”tz, the others about answering one’s self, and there’s no dispute.
R’ Yonah, essentially, agrees with Rambam’s rationale as to why one wouldn’t say ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha before ‘kri’at shema’ – i.e., that it’s an inappropriate place to signify a conclusion – even though he argues with the Rambam about other aspects of this issue, i.e., whether one should answer ‘amen’ to his own bracha of ‘ga’al yisra’el’. Regarding the issue of ‘ha-bocher’, however, R’ Yonah and Rambam are in full agreement, and the Rosh, for whichever reason, most likely agrees with them.

HoJo concludes that the prevalent custom is not in accordance with the Rosh; rather, one would say the ENTIRE bracha with the sha”tz and therefore not say ‘amen’ to his own bracha. It seems clear that HoJo is obviating the entire issue – if there’s a machloket, even though the Rosh would say that you would answer ‘amen’ if you say the bracha along with the Sha”tz, we don’t pasken like him. If there’s no machloket, then everybody agrees that if one recites the bracha along with the Sha”tz, he should not say ‘amen’. Everyone, however, would agree that if one finished the bracha before the Sha”tz, that one would say ‘amen’, and he quotes the Ramah (who he earlier quoted as being in agreement with Rambam, R’ Yonah, et al) as saying so explicitly.

The Darkei Moshe (Rema – ad loc and in SA OC 61:2) says that the prevalent custom in his place is not like that. Rather, everyone answers ‘amen’ to the Sha”tz (seemingly, even if one said the bracha along with the Sha”tz, but it’s unclear). It should be noted that it’s possible that they don’t disagree about the halakha. Rather, HoJo’s custom was that everyone recited EVERYTHING along with the Sha”tz – from the beginning of the first bracha to the end of the second – and therefore by saying ‘amen’ would be answering their own bracha, whereas in the Rema’s locale people finished reciting the bracha ahead of the Sha”tz and therefore could say ‘amen’ without it going on their own bracha. The disparity in the law reflects a disparity of common practice, not an actual dispute! It should also be noted that this indeed describes differences in practice between Ashkenazi and Sephardi services which persist today!

In the Shulchan Arukh, OC 59:4, HoJo distills the discussion with the following ‘p’sak’:

The Brachot of ‘Yotzer’ and ‘Arvit’ (i.e., the first bracha of Shema), one
should say quietly along with the Sha”tz, and he should not answer ‘amen’ at
the conclusion of “ha-bocher…” because it’s a ‘hefsek’.

These lines in the Shulkhan Arukh, without proper context, are very misleading. He seems to be saying that one shouldn’t even answer the Sha”tz because of hefsek. However, with what we now know, it’s pretty clear that what he’s doing is paskening the Rambam straight-up, and this is what he means:
One recites all of the brachot along with the Sha”tz. Obviously, he wouldn’t say ‘amen’ to the first bracha, because one never answers ‘amen’ to his own bracha. However, the second bracha one might think you should, because the Rambam paskens (and the Shulchan arukh seconds this in 215:1) that at the end of a string of 2 or more brachot, one should even say ‘amen’ to his OWN bracha. However, in this case you wouldn’t, because it interrupts the link between the bracha and Shema (i.e., EXACTLY what the Rambam paskens, down to the very last detail).

By the way, you don’t have to take my word for it – look at the ‘Bi’ur Ha-Gra’! In his explanation why ‘one should not answer…” – he writes “because one who answers after his own brachot is a boor, because he disrupts between the bracha and what is supposed to come after it” , i.e., like the Rambam understands the sugya. In his next entry, he comments on the Rema. He understands that the Rema agrees with Rosh and Ramah that there’s no issue of hefsek (i.e., when saying ‘amen’ to the Sha”tz’s bracha, otherwise the inclusion of the Ramah – quoted in full in Tur 61 – who explicitly distinguishes between answering one’s self and answering the Sha”tz – doesn’t make sense), and then quotes the Rambam as talking about where one answers himself.
While there is some confusion in the Gr”a (as well as HoJo) about what he thinks is the position of the Rosh and what exactly is the disagreement (if there is one) between the Rosh, Ramah, and Rambam, it’s clear that he understood the Shulchan Arukh’s psak to be the opinion of the Rambam regarding answering ‘amen’ to one’s own bracha, and that all would still agree that if one DID finish before the Sha”tz, he would say ‘amen’ to the bracha of the Sha”tz and there’s absolutely no issue of hefsek at all.

Case closed.

However, the ambiguous formulation of the Shulkhan Arukh (and the Gr”a) has led a few (VERY few) acharonim (Elyah Rabbah and Sha’arei Teshuvah) to conclude that Rambam and R’ Yonah say (against Ramah and Rosh) that one shouldn’t even answer ‘amen’ to the Sha”tz’s recitation of the bracha, which we’ve demonstrated is a misunderstanding of their true position.
The Mishna Berurah himself, in the Biur Halacha (OC 59:4 s.v. ‘ve-lo’) presumes that HoJo understand the Ramah to be disagreeing with Rambam et al – a presumption that simply doesn’t make sense.
Nevertheless, this misunderstanding leads the MB to conclude that the reason that the HoJo advocates finishing along with the Sha”tz is to remove all doubt that may rise from having finished before the Sha”tz. As I’ve demonstrated, there IS no doubt about what to do in that scenario; the Mishna Berurah INVENTS a doubt about what to do in that scenario, INVENTS a machloket between Ramah and Rambam, and then reads it back into the Shulkhan Arukh! As I mentioned before, HoJo recommends saying the ENTIRETY of the 2 full pre-Shema brachot with the Sha”tz – not just the conclusions – because that’s how they davened then! With no siddurim then, they said everything aloud (though softly) with the Sha”tz. The Mishna Berurah’s ‘safek’ is non-existent! Thus, the idea that it’s in any way desirable to specifically conclude the bracha together with the Sha”tz results from a misunderstanding of the position of the Shulchan Arukh and should not become a basis for rejecting the practice of the Rema and the majority of Acharonim.

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