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Selah (Hebrew: סֶלָה, also transliterated as selāh) is a word used 74 times in the Hebrew Bible – 71 times in the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk – and is a difficult concept to translate. (It should not be confused with the Hebrew word sela‘ (Hebrew: סֶלַע) which means "rock.") It is probably either a liturgico-musical mark or an instruction on the reading of the text, something like "stop and listen." Selah can also be used to indicate that there is to be a musical interlude at that point in the Psalm. The Amplified Bible translates selah as "pause, and think of that." It can also be interpreted as a form of underlining in preparation for the next paragraph.
The Psalms were sung accompanied by musical instruments and there are references to this in many chapters. Thirty-one of the thirty-nine psalms with the caption "To the choir-master" include the word selah. Selah notes a break in the song and as such is similar in purpose to Amen in that it stresses the importance of the preceding passage. Alternatively, selah may mean "forever," as it does in some places in the liturgy (notably the second to last blessing of the Amidah). Another interpretation claims that selah comes from the primary Hebrew root word salah (Hebrew: סָלָה) which means "to hang," and by implication to measure (weigh).
Its etymology and precise meaning are unknown. This word occurs seventy-one times in thirty-nine of the Psalms and three times in Habakkuk 3: altogether 74 times in the Bible. It is found at the end of Psalms 3, 24, and 46, and in most other cases at the end of a verse, the exceptions being Psalms 55:19, 57:3, and Hab. 3:3, 9, 13.
The significance of this term was apparently not known even by ancient Biblical commentators. This can be seen by the variety of renderings given to it. The Septuagint, Symmachus, and Theodotion translate διάψαλμα (diapsalma, or "apart from psalm") — a word as enigmatic in Greek as is selah in Hebrew. The Hexapla simply transliterates σελ. Aquila, Jerome, and the Targum translate it as "always." According to Hippolytus (De Lagarde, "Novæ Psalterii Græci Editionis Specimen" 10), the Greek term διάψαλμα signified a change in rhythm or melody at the places marked by the term, or a change in thought and theme. Against this explanation Baethgen ("Psalmen," p. 15, 1st ed. Göttingen, 1892) notes that selah also occurs at the end of some psalms.
An alternate interpretation is that "Selah, [celah], is from the primary Hebrew root word [calah] which means 'to hang,' and by implication to measure (weigh). This is readily understood because in Biblical history, money, food and other valuables were 'weighed' by hanging or suspending them on a type of balance (the equivalent of our measuring scale) to determine their value." This implies a possible meaning is an instruction to measure carefully and reflect upon the preceding statements.
E. W. Bullinger believes selah is a conjunction linking two verses (or thoughts, or Psalms) together either in contrast, further explanation, or to mark a cause/effect relationship.
Another meaning is given by assigning it to the root, as an imperative that should not properly have been vocalized, "Sollah" (Ewald, "Kritische Grammatik der Hebräischen Sprache,"p. 554; König, "Historisch-Kritisches Lehrgebäude der Hebräischen Sprache," ii., part i., p. 539). The meaning of this imperative is given as "Lift up," equivalent to "loud" or "fortissimo," a direction to the accompanying musicians to break in at the place marked with crash of cymbals and blare of trumpets, the orchestra playing an interlude while the singers' voices were hushed. The effect, as far as the singer was concerned, was to mark a pause. This significance, too, has been read into the expression or sign, selah being held to be a variant of "shelah" (="pause"). But as the interchange of shin ש and samek ס is not usual in Biblical Hebrew, and as the meaning "pause" is not held to be applicable in the middle of a verse, or where a pause would interrupt the sequence of thought, this proposition has met with little favor. Though there are not any official cases of evidence to support this claim, it is reported in various cities in the middle east, that the word selah originates in Syrian Aramaic as a word reserved for prayer as a praise that is used exclusively for praising God and is the highest form of praise man is able to give.
Grätz argues that selah introduces a new paragraph, and also in some instances a quotation (e.g., Psalms 57:8 et seq. from 108:2 et seq.) The fact that the term occurs four times at the end of a Psalm would not weigh against this theory. The Psalms were meant to be read in sequence, and, moreover, many of them are fragments; indeed, Psalm 9 is reckoned one with Psalm 10 in the Septuagint, which omits διάψαλμα (diapsalma) also at the end of Psalms 3, 24, 46 and 68 B. Jacob (l.c.) concludes (1) that since no etymological explanation is possible, selah signifies a pause in or for the Temple song; and (2) that its meaning was concealed lest the Temple privileges should be obtained by the synagogues or perhaps even by the churches.
BDB shows that the main derivation of the Hebrew word selah is found through the fientive verb root סֶ֜לָה which means "to lift up (voices)" or "to exalt," and also carries a close connotational relationship to the verb סָלַל, which is similar in meaning: "to lift up" or "to cast up." The word סֶלָה, which shifts the accent back to the last syllable of the verb form, indicates that in this context, the verb is being used in the imperative mood as somewhat of a directive to the reader. As such, perhaps the most instructive way to view the use of this word, particularly in the context of the Psalms, would be as the writer's instruction to the reader to pause and exalt the Lord.
Selah is used in Iyaric Rastafarian vocabulary. It can be heard at the end of spoken-word segments of some reggae songs. Its usage here, again, is to accentuate the magnitude and importance of what has been said, and often is a sort of substitute for Amen. The Iyaric term has also been said by folk etymology to signify "Seal up" as in, "may JAH seal up any inadvertent mistakes in what was said."
Furman Bisher, the well-known former sports editor and former columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for decades signed off his columns with "Selah."
In Predator 2, just before being killed by the predator, the Jamaican drug lord King Willie says, "His foundation lie in the holy mountain" before pausing and adding "Selah."
"Selah!" is used at the end of the second part (titled Dimanche) of Conversations dans le Loir-et-Cher by French writer Paul Claudel (1935). Selah is the last word in Anita Diamant's book The Red Tent and in Edward Dahlberg's Because I Was Flesh. Katherine Kurtz uses it in some of her Deryni novels, including The King's Justice (1985); it is among the acquired Eastern influences on the ritual practices of Deryni at King Kelson's court, largely brought by Richenda, Duchess of Corwyn, after her marriage to Duke Alaric Morgan. It is also the last word in Gilbert Sorrentino's novel Little Casino (2002), probably in homage to Dahlberg. In Hunter S. Thompson's collected works "Songs of the Doomed," "The Proud Highway: Saga of A Desperate Southern Gentleman 1955-1967," and Fear and Loathing in America: the Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, The Gonzo Letters Volume Two 1968-1976 the word Selah is used frequently in letters and diatribes written from the 1960s to the 1990s. The word is used similarly to the word allora in Italy. It is also akin to Kurt Vonnegut's use of the phrase "So it goes" in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. It is also used by famous Czech writer and philosopher John Amos Comenius at the end one of his books (Ksaft). "Selah" is the name of a song by R&B/Hip-Hop artist Lauryn Hill. Selah was also defined to mean 'pause and consider' in Babylon 5 episode "Deconstruction of Falling Stars." "Selah" is also the title of a miniature for trio (flute, clarinet and piano) by Argentinean composer Juan Maria Solare.
Characters named Selah appear in:
- George Elliot Clarke's long narrative poem Whylah Falls
- the film The Book of Eli
- Shane Jones's first novel Light Boxes
- Charlaine Harris's novel Dead as a Doornail
- Virginia Hamilton's novel The House of Dies Drear
- "Selah in the Psalms".
- Tony Warren. "What Does Selah Mean". The Mountain Retreat. Retrieved 2008-09-13.
- Brown, F., S. Driver, and C. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.: Peabody, MA, 2006. (p. 699)
- "Selah in Urban Dictionary". Urban Dictionary (database). Retrieved 2009-06-09.
- "Babylon 5 episode".
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Selah". Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.