Today is April 23, 2017 -

The Significance of Responses

By Hazzan Michael Krausman

An exceptionally erudite member of our Shul posed a rhetorical but poignant question at minyan the other day: Do people still say Amen and Baruch Hu U’varuch Sh’mo (Blessed is the Lord and Blessed is the Divine Name)? The question led me to think about the vital importance of these responses to the interactive nature of the Jewish prayer service. Rather than being a passive experience during which the prayers are chanted by the officiants while the congregation sits as an audience, our services are designed to be a collaborative effort with leader and congregation praying together to the Almighty.

There are basically three types of responses that are mandated during our prayer service, responses that come as a result of hearing the Divine Name, responses that are built into the text, and responses that indicate that the responder wishes to be included in and/or is in accord with the prayer being offered.

Of the latter category, the response “Amen” is the most powerful. Uttering Amen after a prayer or blessing literally indicates that one feels that the blessing or prayer is a true prayer. Saying Amen implies that one is in agreement with what the prayer represents and that one wishes to be included in the prayer being offered. In fact, by merely saying Amen to a prayer, one is considered as having said the prayer on one’s own. Thus, if one person says the Motzi prayer over bread, all who say Amen may eat the bread without having to say their own blessing.

Moreover, when a worshiper hears a Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) chant a prayer in the synagogue, simply by saying Amen, that person may be considered as having said the prayer as well. During the repetition of the Amidah (the standing prayer composed of a series of blessings and supplications) even a worshiper who cannot or has not had the chance to pray on their own can be considered as though they personally had said the required prayers simply by listening to the Shaliach Tzibur and responding with Amen at the end of each blessing.

Some responses are part of the fixed liturgy. In order to emphasize the significance of these sections, Jewish law dictates that they can only be included in the service in the presence of a Minyan – a quorum of ten worshipers over the age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah. An example of this type of prayer is the Kedusha section of the Amidah, which focuses on the Holiness of God. The Kedusha quotes sections of the Prophets which depict the Angels worshiping the Almighty in a responsive fashion.

We, as mortal worshipers, endeavor to emulate the celestial example by having each part of the prayer said individually by the members of the congregation and then repeated by the Shaliach Tzibur. It is often our custom to join the Shaliach Tzibur in singing these important passages. Barchu, the formal call to worship which uses the same text as the beginning of the Torah blessings, is yet another example of this responsive form of prayer.

Perhaps the most interesting type of response is that which is associated with hearing mention of the Divine Name. During the course of a prayer or blessing, it is customary to say “Baruch Hu U’varuch Sh’mo” (Blessed is the Lord and Blessed is the Divine Name) whenever the leader pronounces the formula “Baruch Ata Adonai,” blessed are You our Lord. There is, however, one caveat; saying “Baruch Hu U’varuch Sh’mo” constitutes a break in the flow of the blessing so that one does not say Baruch Hu U’varuch Sh’mo if one wishes to be considered as though they have said the required prayer. “Baruch Shem K’Vod Malchuto L’Olam Vaed” (Blessed be God’s glorious sovereignty throughout all time), the response recited after the first line of the Shema, began in ancient times as the expected response to the mention of God’s name. In our times, this phrase is said silently except on Yom Kippur. It was only on Yom Kippur that the high priest would enter the forbidden, holiest chamber of the Temple and utter, with great trepidation, God’s Sacred Name in order to determine the lot of the people of Israel for the year to come.

The best known response in this category is “Y’hei Shmei Rabbah M’vorach L’olam Ul’al mei Almaya,” (May God’s great name be praised throughout all time). Out of this phrase, which began as a response used in the context of a rabbinic discourse, grew what was to become one of the best known and most familiar of all prayers – the Kaddish. Responses from all of the above categories are of fundamental importance to the complexion of our services. A minyan of worshipers, by listening to the Kaddish and giving the appropriate responses, empowers a mourner to have the courage to lead the community in praise of God in memory of a departed loved one. A congregation supports and encourages a Bar/Bat mitzvah by offering a resounding “Baruch Hu U’varuch Sh’mo” during the Blessing following the Haftara. A person connecting to the repetition of the Amidah feels fulfilled knowing s/he has expressed the required prayers simply by listening to the Shaliach Tzibur and responding with Amen.

The above examples show how these responses can galvanize the congregation as one strong unit in prayer. Indeed, our dear congregant raises a vital and valuable point through his query; active participation in the form of offering the traditional responses can be the wellspring from which flows true Kavana – sincere intent and intensity of worship that renders our prayers true supplications to the Almighty.