Question: Should the congregation say “Amen” after the berachah of “habocher b’amo Yisrael b’ahavah” (right before Shema)? I have seen different shuls do different things.
Answer: Rabbi Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger writes in Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz that the Ramah and Ramban were so influential in Spain that they successfully abolished the custom of saying “Kel melech ne’eman” before Shema in their lands as they considered these words to be a hefsek.
The Ramah noted that this custom is not found in the Mishnah or Gemara. It appears nonetheless to be very old. It was later abolished in some communities because “Kel melech ne’eman” was determined to be a hefsek. Instead, the chazzan started repeating the last three words of Shema – “Hashem Elokeichem emes” – out loud. That way, Shema would have 248 words corresponding to the 248 limbs of a person’s body.
In none of the siddurim of Sefardic and Oriental Jewry that I’ve examined do the words “Kel melech ne’eman” appear. So if it was an age-old minhag to say them, it seems to have been very thoroughly eliminated.
The Me’iri does not regard saying “Kel melech ne’eman” as a hefsek and actually finds proof for his position in the words of the Ramban himself. The Ramban writes, “One who answers Amen [to his own blessing] is an ignoramus.” If saying “Kel melech ne’eman” constituted a hefsek, the Ramban would have written, “One who answers Amen [to his own blessing] has not discharged his obligation to recite Shema.”
He also notes that a shevach haboreh (a praise of the Creator) is not a hefsek; it’s part of the blessing, which is in itself praise of Hashem.
In Birkat Hamazon, we say “Amen” after “boneh b’rachamov Yerushalayim” as a way of separating the first three biblical blessings from the next blessing, which is rabbinic. Evidently, the Sages did not regard “Amen” as a hefsek.
Why not? The Me’iri cites the following Gemara (Berachot 4b): Rabbi Yochanan proclaimed, “Who is worthy of the World to Come? One who connects geulah to tefillah [Shemoneh Esrei].” Mar, the son of Ravina taught: “In the evening one recites two blessings before Shema and two after. Now, if you say that we must connect geulah to tefillah, we are not actually connecting them because we must recite Hashkiveinu [after ga’al Yisrael].”
His question was answered as follows: “Since they instituted Hashkiveinu, it is considered like an elongated geulah. For if you do not say so, then at Shacharit too how do we connect? For Rabbi Yochanan said: At the beginning [of Shemoneh Esrei], one should say, ‘Hashem sefatai tiftach’…[which constitutes a hefsek between ge’ulah and tefillah]. But since they instituted ‘Hashem sefatai tiftach,’ it is considered like a long tefillah. Similarly, since they enacted Hashkiveinu, it too is considered like a long tefillah.”
Now we can better understand the Me’iri’s view that “Kel melech ne’eman” before Shema does not constitute a hefsek.
(To be continued)