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Hallelujah! The remarkable story behind this joyful word

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

In Handel's great chorus, the word is joyous, victorious, accompanied by trumpets and drums. In Sergei Rachmaninoff's "All Night Vigil," however, hallelujah reflects a more quiet devotion. Repeated over and over again, it serves almost as a mantra.

"I imagine an older Russian person in front of an icon, just murmuring to themselves, 'Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah,' " Gershon said.

As a side note, the Russians add an extra vowel sound to their hallelujah and drop the "H" so it is pronounced Ah-lay-lu-ee-yah. That opens up even more possibilities to the liquid, fluid approach to the word, Gershon said.

Hallelujah first appears in the Book of Psalms — a compendium of sacred poems in the Jewish Bible that dates to the 5th or 4th century BC. There it generally prefaces the beginning of a passage or shows up at its conclusion.

"Hallelujah functions as a summary," said Chris Blumhofer, assistant professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "It's meant to usher you into the experience of praising who God is and what God's done."

Sarah Bunin Benor, director of the Jewish Language Project and a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, said hearing the word makes her think of the Hallel — a recitation of Psalms 113-118 chanted by observant Jews on holidays.

 

"We say it on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the month celebration. It's part of the Passover Seder," she said. "It's a very joyous prayer, very beautiful and very meaningful."

Hallelujah shows up just four times in the New Testament, all in the Book of Revelation. All four come at the climax of the text, when God delivers his people from the destructive power of Babylon. In response to this deliverance the people cry out, "Hallelujah!"

"They are praising the salvation from oppression and violence," Blumhofer said. "They are praising God for delivering his promises and protecting his people."

Scholars can't say for sure why hallelujah was preserved intact when nearly every other Hebrew word in the Bible was translated first into Greek and then into Latin (amen is another notable exception). Markus Rathey, a professor of early Christian music at Yale University, said it suggests the word was already charged with an emotion that transcended its linguistic meaning.

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