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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
February 27, 2008
© Rabbi Jack Moline

I begin with a brief discussion of something I know little about the structure of music. A number of years ago, my son Max took lessons from Joe Inman (also an Olympic skating judge) who explained the appeal of music to the human ear. He said every musical phrase was, in essence, promise and fulfillment. The music would come to a point of uncertainty and then conclude with resolution. It was an exercise in what Tim Curry (as Dr. Frank N. Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show") called antici...pation.

The word "selah" is a sort of musical notation in the recitation of prayers and psalms. Spelled "samekh-lamed-heh," it should not be confused with the similar-sounding word that ends with "ayin" and means "rock" (even if it is a kind of music).

While mostly used as an exclamation, selah actually has two meanings. The first is a sort of raising of voice or pitch, that anticipatory moment before the conclusion of a musical phrase. In that sense, its appearance just before the signature of the third brakhah of the Amidah makes us ready for those concluding words. It brings us to that pause, that moment of silent (however brief) in which we wonder how things will end.

The other meaning of selah is "forever," but less in a temporal sense than in the same kind of affirmative sense that we use "amen." (In fact, "amen selah" is a relatively common phrase.) When it occurs at the end of a phrase, it can also be the kind of endorsement by the speaker and listener that validates the preceding words with emphasis.

Put the two meanings together and this little word really opens a world of possibilities. Every silence is waiting with antici...pation to be filled. Until it is, the potential for what enters that space is virtually unlimited, as if even a nanosecond lasts forever. That's the moment that thrills the heart in music and the moment that thrills the soul in prayer.

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