By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
The Mason’s response is “So mote it be”. It seems to be regarded as equivalent to “Amen”, and there is evidence from the Middle Ages that both were used together – “Amen, so mote it be”, probably deriving from a Hebrew phrase, Amen, Ken Yehi Ratzon (“Amen, may it be so”). The Masonic and the Hebrew phrases both come at the end of a prayer or sentence, fulfilling the Jewish rule to wait until one has heard the whole statement before saying “Amen”. However, “Amen” is sometimes found in the New Testament at the beginning of a sentence. An example is John chapter 3, where the translators seem to have missed the nuance of the original text, in which the first word may have been Omnam (“verily, indeed”) and not “Amen”.
“Amen” is actually a stative verb. It does not convey an action (“I stood, I sat”) but a state of affairs. Stative verbs of the same Hebrew grammatical form include zaken, “is old”, and ra’ev, “is hungry”. The root meaning of “Amen” is “truth”: saying “Amen” means “It is true”. Instead of “It is true”, a statement of agreement or endorsement, “So mote it be” is a prayer for the future: “May it be so”. The root seems to connect with our English verbs “may” and “might”, from Old English “motan”, “to be allowed”.
But all this is too pedantic for today’s Mason, for whom “Amen” and “So mote it be” probably mean the same. The discussion does, however, touch on another major issue with our craft ritual. It has often been pointed out that Masonic ritual constantly uses archaic language, so that modern people who would never dream of saying “thou” and “thee” in the street find themselves handling in Lodge – with varying degrees of success – King-James-Version phraseology.
The archaic language certainly has a beauty and elegance of its own, and I have known Masonic ritualists who walked up and down reciting the classical phrases like the poetry which they are. But by retaining such outmoded language, are we turning ourselves into old fogeys? Should we not modernise the ritual and adopt a much more modern style? There are arguments on both sides. There was a time when I favoured the modernist approach, feeling it would make life easier for the Masons we have and attract more candidates to the Masonry of the future. I am no longer so sure. Having done some international travel, I see the drawbacks of tearing down old landmarks and destroying classical heritage buildings in the rush to make everything streamlined and similar.
Severely functional places of worship, for instance, may be easier to keep clean, but they lack the ambience of the grand soaring cathedrals on which, for all we know, our operative ancestors worked for decades of their lives. In my own career in the clergy, I held office in three heritage buildings. All had their deficiencies from the practical point of view, but their classical feel enabled the worshipper to feel linked with great historical traditions.
Masonic language likewise reminds us that there are eternal verities; what is newer is not necessarily much of an improvement. Even with its archaic terminology, our ritual can help us to carry the principles of the past into a future hungry for values. So mote it be.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.