Rav Mordechai Yaffe, known as the Levush after his famous ten-volume work, was one of the foremost rabbis and Jewish leaders in Central Europe some four hundred years ago. He was offered the position of rabbi in the important Jewish community of Pozna, which he accepted on a single condition. Before starting his post he wanted to travel to Italy and study the laws of ibur chodesh, i.e. the knowledge of the lunar cycles necessary for understanding the calendar of new months and leap years. Rav Yaffe spent some time in Italy studying under the great sage Mahari Abuhav until he had just about mastered this area of Torah. Towards the end of his stay, he happened to be in the house of his teacher when a child made a blessing on a fruit. Everyone answered “amen,” with the exception of the Levush, who unintentionally neglected to respond.
The Mahari Abuhav was furious and declared a nidoi, a personal excommunication, against Rav Yaffe. For thirty days the Levush remained isolated from the rest of the community, while the ban remained in force. At the end of the period, he went to the Mahari Abuhav to ask him to remove the nidoi. He also wanted to know why his oversight had merited such a harsh punishment.
The Mahari Abuhav said that at the moment that he had not answered amen to the bracha, a heavenly death sentence was issued against Rav Yaffe. The thirty-day ban had weakened the decree, and it could be completely overturned if the Levush and his descendants would undertake to teach the importance of answering amen to all brachos.
When speaking about amen the Levush was instructed that he should relate the following incident, which highlights the life-or-death power of the amen response:
There was a king who despised the Jews and was always looking for an excuse to banish them from his dominion. There was only one thing that prevented him from doing so: There was one pious Jew in his kingdom whom he liked and respected. This man was always successful in persuading the king to refrain from carrying out his wishes.
On one occasion the king was especially angry at the Jews, but once again the pious Jew subdued his wrath. A priest was present in the court at that time, and he proceeded to give the king a lengthy blessing in Latin. When he finished everyone answered “amen,” with the exception of the Jew, who was in the middle of reciting Mincha and did not understand what had been said.
The priest was furious and said that because the Jew had not answered amen, the blessing would not come to fruition. The king’s love of the Jew suddenly turned to hate, and he sentenced him to death on the spot.
Some time after his brutal execution, the pious Jew visited a surviving acquaintance in a dream and explained what he had done to merit such a terrible end. Once a child had made a bracha on bread in his presence, but the old Jew had not answered “amen.” As a result, a heavenly decree of death had been decreed upon him, but had been held off until the incident with the king.
As his teacher annulled the ban against him, Rav Mordechai Yaffe undertook to teach the importance of amen for the rest of his life. Once a month he would fully recount the above incident, and he would often speak about the critical importance of responding to a bracha with amen (as cited in Kaf HaChaim 124,30).
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Daniel Travis and Torah.org