Did You Know?

By Rabbi Fabian Werbin

The Gemara (Berachot 8a) teaches, “One should always finish the Parshiot with the community [by studying] Shnayim Mikra V’echad Targum (the Parsha twice and Onkelos’ translation once).” This statement is the source of the obligation for every Jew to study the parasha (the weekly portion) and its translation (or Rashi’s commentary). From this statement we also learn that every word in the Torah had a translation or at least was understandable for those who translated the Torah to other languages.

The picture in the rest of the Tanach (Bible) is a bit different. There is a word that appears seventy four times in the Tanach and we don’t know its meaning until recent times. The word is סֶלָה‎ (Selah) and should not be confused with the Hebrew word סֶלַע meaning rock. סֶלָה‎ (Selah) appears seventy one times in the book of the Psalms and three times in the third chapter of the book of Habakkuk.

Some scholars believe סֶלָה‎ (Selah) is a musical rubric of some kind or it signifies a break in the song or the psalm. Others believe Selah means “forever” as it does in some places in the liturgy. For example, the second to last blessing of the Amidah includes סֶלָה‎ (Selah) but most prayer books translated into English do not offer a translation. Another explanation is that סֶלָה‎ (Selah) relates to measuring weights.

Just as the Hebrew word Amen is an exclamation of confidence, truth, or certainty of what has been said, so Selah is an exclamation that we should measure and reflect upon what has been said. In the prayer it is common to find the addition of both words at the end of some sentences, making Amen Selah a stronger affirmation of what has been said.

Although some people believed that Selah was a commandment to be silent, Rabbi Kimhi believed the opposite, that it was a signal to elevate the voice. Eric Werner, a professor of liturgical music at Hebrew Union College, believes the word was originally a marginal explanation, or gloss that crept into the sacred text over a period of centuries.

Our tradition has many examples of controversy like this which help to make the traditions so interesting. The search for meaning in all different levels in our lives is one of the central goals of our tradition. One’s search for the meaning is a never-ending process that poses questions we as Jews should be asking every day. There are many questions that cannot be definitively answered and the meaning of the word Selah is one of them.

May we see the day when all the questions that have no answers will be solved.

Amen Selah – אמן סֶלָה