Question #1: As a child in shul, I noticed that shortly before the Shemoneh esrei was begun, some of the older European Jews would wait before reciting the words "Shirah chadasha” until the chazzan completed the entire beracha and said "Ga’al Yisrael." They would answer "Amen" to the chazzan’s beracha, then complete the beracha themselves and begin the Shemoneh esrei. I no longer see anyone doing this. Were they following a correct procedure?
Question #2: I have noticed a recent trend that the chazzan recites the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael very softly, and some members of the tzibur recite the beracha aloud with him. Is this a correct procedure?
Question #3: I see that in some minyanim, the chazzan says the words Ga’al Yisrael inaudibly, and in others he says it loud enough for people to hear. Which is the correct approach?
Before we can explain this issue, we first need to discuss a topic that appears to be unrelated. The Gemara quotes two apparently contradictory statements as to whether one should recite "amen" after one’s own beracha; one beraisa stating that it is meritorious to do so and the other frowning on the practice. To quote the Gemara:
"It was taught in one source, ‘someone who responds "amen" after his own blessings is praiseworthy,’ whereas another source states it is reprehensible to do this." The Gemara explains that the two statements do not conflict. Rather, they refer to two different berachos. It is praiseworthy to recite amen upon concluding the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim in bensching, whereas it is reprehensible to recite amen after any other beracha (Berachos 45b). The halacha is that someone who is completing a beracha at the same time as the chazzan or anyone else may not recite amen to the other person’s beracha, since in doing so, one has recited amen to his own beracha. For example, when reciting Baruch she’amar, if one completes the beracha at the same moment that the chazzan did, one may not recite amen (Elyah Rabbah 51:2).
What is unique about the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim that one may recite amen after his own beracha?
The Rishonim note that it is not the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim that makes its law special; rather, it is its location as the last of the three main berachos of birchas hamazon. (Although there is still another beracha afterwards, this last beracha is not part of the series, as it was added at a later time in history. Because it is not part of the series, it begins with a full beracha "Baruch ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam,” whereas berachos that are the continuation of a series, such as most of the berachos of Shemoneh esrei, do not begin with these words [Pesachim 104b].) Reciting amen after Bonei Yerushalayim demonstrates the completion of a series of berachos (Rambam, Hilchos Berachos 1:17, 18). On the other hand, reciting amen after one makes any other beracha implies that one has completed a unit, which is not true (Rabbeinu Yonah). We find a similar idea that, upon completing the pesukei dezimra, we repeat the last pasuk (both at the end of Chapter 150 and at the end of Az yashir) to demonstrate that this section has now been concluded (see Tur, Orach Chayim Chapter 51).
Is Bonei Yerushalayim Unique?
Are there other instances, besides Bonei Yerushalayim, when it is praiseworthy to recite amen to your own beracha at the closing of a sequence?
Rashi, in his comments to the above Gemara, indeed mentions that one concludes with amen after reciting the last beracha of the birchos keriyas shema, which is the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael in the morning and of Shomer amo Yisrael la’ad in the evening. (The beracha that Ashkenazim outside Eretz Yisrael recite on weekdays after Shomer amo Yisrael la’ad, beginning with the words Baruch Hashem le’olam, is an addition from the times of the Geonim, and is not one of the birchos keriyas shema.) Many other Rishonim advise reciting amen at the end of any sequence of berachos, adding to Rashi’s list also Yishtabach, the end of a "sequence" that begins with Baruch she’amar, and the closing beracha of Hallel, the sequel to the beracha introducing Hallel (quoted by Beis Yosef, Orach Chayim 66).
From our personal experience, we all realize that there must be something more to the story. We know that whereas we always complete the beracha of Bonei Yerushalayim with amen, we do not close the other berachos mentioned with the word amen. This practice is very old and is already mentioned by Tosafos, who notes that the custom among Ashkenazim is not to recite amen after one’s own beracha except after Bonei Yerushalayim.
To explain our practice, we will first see what other Rishonim state concerning the topic. For example, although accepting the premise that we may recite amen following the last beracha of a series, the Rambam disputes what is considered a succession. He contends that if anything is recited between the berachos, there is no longer a series – thus, Yishtabach, the latter beracha of Hallel and the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael are not considered the ends of series, although the berachos immediately before keriyas shema are (see Hilchos Berachos 1:17, 18, as explained by Beis Yosef). The Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 51) explains that the Rambam accepts the same distinction regarding reciting amen after Yishtabach or after Hallel. The pesukim recited between the berachos break the succession, and, therefore, one should not recite amen. Those who dispute with the Rambam contend that both Yishtabach and the ending beracha of Hallel are considered the end of a series, since they connect back to the original beracha.
How do we rule?
The Shulchan Aruch, reflecting Sephardic practice, rules a compromise position: Upon concluding Yishtabach, one may add amen to one’s own beracha, but it is not required (Orach Chayim 51:3). It is curious to note that in another place (Orach Chayim 215:1), the Shulchan Aruch mentions that Sephardic custom is to recite amen after Yishtabach and the last beracha of Hallel, and the Rama there notes that, according to the Shulchan Aruch’s conclusion, one should recite amen also after concluding Shomer amo Yisrael la’ad, the last beracha of the evening keriyas shema series. Thus, we see that there is a qualitative difference between berachos that complete a sequence and those that do not. After the first group, one may recite amen after one’s own beracha, whereas after the second group, one may not.
Although Ashkenazim agree that one may recite amen after these berachos, we usually do not recite amen then. However, if one hears the closing of someone else’s beracha when completing one of these berachos, one answers amen to the other person’s beracha (Elyah Rabbah 51:2).
Why is Bonei Yerushalayim Different?
However, we have still not answered the original question: Why single out the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim? If, indeed, one may recite amen after the last beracha of any series, to signify that the series is completed, why does the Gemara mention this only regarding the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim? And, furthermore, why is the prevalent Ashkenazi custom to recite amen, almost as if it is part of the beracha, only after the beracha Bonei Yerushalayim, but not after other closing berachos?
Both of these questions can be answered by studying a different passage of Gemara (Berachos 45b), which cites a dispute between Abayei and Rav Ashi whether the word amen recited following Bonei Yerushalayim should be said aloud. Abayei recited this amen aloud in order to announce his completing the main berachos of birchas hamazon. He did so to remind employed workers to return diligently to work. That is, although Chazal had instituted a fourth beracha to birchas hamazon, they exempted people working for others from reciting this beracha, thereby emphasizing an employee’s responsibility to be meticulous not to cut corners on his full day of work. (In today’s environment, where it is assumed that workers take off for coffee breaks during the workday, an employee is required to recite the fourth beracha of birchas hamazon.) Abayei recited amen aloud at the end of the third beracha, so that everyone would realize that the fourth beracha is not part of the series and is treated halachically differently.
Rav Ashi, on the other hand, deliberately recited amen softly, so that people should not disrespect the fourth beracha. Reciting amen after the third beracha of Bonei Yerushalayim is an apparent carryover of Abayei’s practice – that is, we emphasize that the fourth beracha is not min hatorah.
At this point, we understand the laws applicable to the question of whether one recites amen after Bonei Yerushalayim, Yishtabach, Shomer amo Yisrael la’ad, and the end of Hallel. Sephardim recite amen after all these berachos. Ashkenazim permit this, but in practice say amen only after Bonei Yerushalayim, and for the other three berachos only when responding to someone else’s beracha at the same time.
What about Sheva Berachos?
The Beis Yosef and other authorities note what appears to be an inconsistency in Sephardic practice: Whereas they recite amen after the above-mentioned berachos, they do not recite amen after other series of berachos, such as the morning berachos (birchos hashachar) or sheva berachos.
The resolution of this seeming inconsistency is that a “series” for our purposes means a unit of berachos that one is not permitted to interrupt, which includes Hallel, pesukei dezimra, birchos keriyas shema and birchas hamazon. Although morning berachos and the berachos of sheva berachos are recited as a group, one may interrupt between them. This means that they are not an indivisible unit or series.
What about Ga’al Yisrael?
Now that we have completed our analysis of the amen after Bonei Yerushalayim and other ends of series, we are in a position to discuss whether one should recite amen after the beracha Ga’al Yisrael, and what should be the proper practice regarding the closing of this beracha.
The Beis Yosef contends that, logically, this beracha should be treated the same as any other beracha at the end of a series, which would mean that Sephardim would recite amen afterwards and Ashkenazim would recite amen if they hear the ending of someone else’s beracha at the same time. Indeed, this is how the Rama rules, contending that if someone recited Ga’al Yisrael at the same time as the chazzan, he should recite amen. However, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim Chapter 66 and Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 66:7) reports that the Sephardic custom is different, but because of a special consideration: "Now the custom is not to say amen after Ga’al Yisrael… because it is considered a hefsek, an interruption, between completing Ga’al Yisrael and beginning Shemoneh esrei." In a different place, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 51) quotes an ancient source for this "custom" – the Zohar.
The Rama disputes this, contending that reciting amen between Ga’al Yisrael and Shemoneh esrei is not an interruption. However, once one began reciting the words Hashem sefasei tiftach, one is considered to have started Shemoneh esrei and he should not answer amen (Elyah Rabbah).
Now the story gets interesting. Since the early authorities dispute whether or not one should recite amen after Ga’al Yisrael, which side should we follow? With time, different attempts to resolve this predicament developed. Not wanting to take sides, a practice developed of waiting before one says either Shirah chadasha or Tzur Yisrael in order to answer amen. The Acharonim decry this practice for two reasons:
1. Both of these places are in the middle of the birchos keriyas shema, where it is prohibited to answer amen for any beracha except for Ha’keil hakadosh and Shomei’a tefillah.
2. One is required to start the Shemoneh esrei together with the tzibur.
With this background, we can answer question #1 raised above:
“As a child in shul, I noticed that shortly before the Shemoneh esrei was begun, some of the older European Jews would wait before reciting the words "Shirah chadasha until the chazzan completed the entire beracha and said "Ga’al Yisrael." They would then answer "Amen" to the chazzan’s beracha, complete the beracha themselves, and begin the Shemoneh esrei. I no longer see anyone doing this. Were they following a correct procedure?”
The answer is that although these Jews had observed such a custom, the halachic authorities are opposed to this approach.
So we return to our predicament. Since there is a dispute as to what to do, what should we do?
Among early Acharonim, we find two other suggestions regarding answering amen to the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael. The Magen Avraham advocates reciting the words Ga’al Yisrael together with the chazzan and not saying amen to the beracha. Based on the records of community minhag books and the halachic recommendations of later authorities, it appears that this was the custom followed in most Ashkenazi kehillos. The chazzan recited Ga’al Yisrael aloud, and the community recited it softly along with him.
However, this approach does not resolve all conflict, since, according to the Rama, in this situation one should recite amen after Ga’al Yisrael.
Another suggestion is mentioned, which appears to resolve all difficulty. The Levushei Serad suggests beginning saying Hashem sefasei tiftach just a little bit before the chazzan completes the beracha Ga’al Yisrael. Since this is considered having already started Shemoneh esrei, one may no longer answer amen according to all opinions, thus avoiding being caught in a dispute, and one will begin the Shemoneh esrei together with the tzibur.
Today, I have noticed that many shullen follow a fairly new method of avoiding the shaylah by having the chazzan complete the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael silently, so that no one can answer amen to his beracha. Although I have occasionally heard of prominent talmidei chachamim who advocate this position (see, for example, Yesodei Yeshurun, Volume I page 284), one should be aware that several renowned gedolei Yisrael have strongly contested this practice, including Rav Elyashiv zt”l, and Rav Henkin zt"l (Hapardes, Tishrei 5730). In addition, I am personally unaware of a single community that did not have the minhag that the chazzan recite the ending of the beracha Ga’al Yisrael aloud. Proof that this was a universal custom can be rallied from the fact that during the entire discussion as to what to do, none of the earlier authorities mention the option that the chazzan close the beracha Ga’al Yisrael inaudibly.
Of course, the question is: why is this option ignored? Why not have the chazzan close the beracha in such a soft voice that no one is placed in the halachic predicament whether to answer amen or not?
The answer lies, I believe, in the words of the Rambam, who says explicitly that the chazzan recites the words Ga’al Yisrael aloud. The Rambam explains that the requirement of having a chazzan includes reciting the entire birchos keriyas shema aloud. Initially, this was so that the chazzan could be motzi those who could not daven on their own. Although today most people use siddurim and thereby fulfill their own mitzvah, the institution of the chazzan and his requirements still remain.
Some may take issue and contend that according to the Rambam’s position, the chazzan recites every word of the birchos keriyas shema, which reflects Sephardic practice to this day, whereas Ashkenazi practice is that the chazzan says aloud only the end of the beracha. The contention, then, is that Sephardim rule that the chazzan’s responsibility is to recite the full berachos, but Ashkenazim do not require this. However, the universal custom demonstrates that the Ashkenazi custom still requires the chazzan to close the beracha in way that the individual could at least hear the end of the beracha. Even if the individual does not fulfill his halachic responsibility this way, it would still seem that some measure of birkas keriyas shema is accomplished this way, and this was included in the takanah.
Those who advocate that the chazzan recite the closing of Ga’al Yisrael softly contend that there is no such takanah.
At this point, we can now address the other questions that I raised above:
“I have noticed a recent trend that the chazzan recites the beracha of Ga’al Yisrael very softly, and some members of the tzibur recite the beracha aloud with him. Is this a correct procedure?”
“I see that in some minyanim the chazzan says the words Ga’al Yisrael inaudibly, and in others he says it loud enough for people to hear. Which is the correct approach?”
I prefer that the chazzan recite the words Ga’al Yisrael aloud, and the tzibur recite the words quietly either along with the chazzan or just ahead of the chazzan and begin the verse Hashem sefasei tiftach while the chazzan says the words Ga’al Yisrael. There is no reason for the tzibur to close the beracha Ga’al Yisrael aloud, since this simply creates a shaylah for those hearing their beracha and it is not part of the takanas chachamim.
Chazal emphasize that one should not interrupt between reciting the words Ga’al Yisrael that close the birchos keriyas shema and beginning the Shemoneh esrei. Only by remembering the unique redemption of our forefathers and our identification with their travails can we proceed to pray to Hashem.