We have all recited this simple word thousands of times in our prayers. But what does it mean?
To give you some background, it appears 71 times in Psalms and three times in Habakkuk (all in Chapter 3). It appears nowhere else in Tanach. It never appears at the beginning of a verse, but occasionally comes in the middle of a verse (Ps. 55:20 and 57:4, Hab. 3:3 and 3:9). Otherwise its position is at the end of the verse. (Four times it appears at the end of the entire psalm.) It may appear more than once in the same psalm.
There is a statement by a Tanna quoted at Eruvin 54a that “selah” has a meaning like “va-ed” and “netzach,” i.e., something that will continue forever. The Tannaitic statement cites Ps. 48:9 as support for this: “God will establish it ‘ad olam selah.’ ” While this verse fits the Tannaitic “forever” explanation, this explanation does not fit all 71 occurrences of the word “selah.” The Targum also adopts the “forever” explanation. Accordingly, when the word “selah” is used in rabbinic prayers, it is typically used with the meaning “forever.” For example, “selah” occurs three times in the daily Amidah with the implicit meaning of “forever.” See the “kedushat ha-shem” blessing and the “hodaah” blessing. Another example is the “selah be-emet” just before the morning Shema.
How have the Nach commentaries interpreted the word “selah”? Let us look at several commentaries on Psalms 3:3, where the word first appears. Metzudat Tziyon interprets it as meaning “forever.” Malbim interprets it as indicating a break, symbolizing the end of the subject. Ibn Ezra thinks the word means something like “it is so,” an affirmation of what preceded it. He also mentions a view that the word has no meaning but is used as a filler to make the melody and the length of the line correspond! See U. Simon, Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms, p. 295.
There was also an interesting suggestion made by some scholars that the word was derived from “sal”=basket, and that “selah” was the instruction for a basket-shaped drum to be beaten! See Encyclopaedia Judaica 13:1322, and the concordance of S. Mandelkern.
Today the widespread view among scholars is that the word was an instruction to the singers or musicians. This view was expressed by the Radak (d. 1235). See his comm. to Psalms 3:3 and his Sefer Ha-Shorashim. As pointed out by the Radak, evidence for this approach is that “selah” only appears in the book of Psalms and in the third chapter of Habakkuk. This chapter of Habakkuk ends with the words “la-menatzeach be-neginotai.” This ending indicates that this chapter of Habakkuk is of a similar genre to what is found in Psalms. In all of Tanach, if we find a word only in Psalms and in Habakkuk Chapter 3, this is strong evidence that it is a word relating to musical instruction and not a regular word. Perhaps it was an instruction relating to raising the singers’ voices or the music level, since it may derive from the root “S-L-L=raise.”
The word “selah” is found right after the word “higayon” at Ps. 9:17 (“higayon selah”). Our next question is the meaning of this word. Before we discuss the word itself, let us discuss its root H-G-H. This root appears many times in Tanach. Sometimes it means “think about, meditate.” Other times it means “murmur, speak.”
Aside from the vague use of the word “higayon” at Ps. 9:17, the word “higayon” appears only three other times in Tanach (in various forms). At Eichah 3:62 (“hegyonam”), it has a meaning like “murmurings.” At Psalms 92:4 it is connected with a musical instrument: “higayon be-chinor”=a higayon with a harp. Finally, we have “hegyon libi” at Ps. 19:15, a verse very familiar to us, as we recite these two words at the end of every Amidah. Here it means the “thoughts” or perhaps even the “murmurings” of the heart.
OK, so what does “higayon” mean at Ps. 9:17, preceding “selah”? The consensus is that this too is a musical instruction, either to the singers or to the musicians. But what kind of musical instruction? On the one hand, H-G-H has a “murmur” meaning. On the other hand, it has a “think about, meditate” meaning. The Encyclopaedia Judaica (13:1322) suggests a “murmuring glissando,” while the Soncino commentary to Ps. 9:17 suggests “a solemn meditative melody.”
Now let us discuss a similar difficult word: “shigayon.” Psalms 7:1 begins “Shigayon Le-David.” Habakkuk Chapter 3 begins: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, ‘al shigyonot.’ “ These are the only references to this word in Tanach, either in the singular or the plural.
The Soncino commentary to Psalms 7:1 writes that the word has been “explained as a ‘dithyrambic song of irregular structure and of impassioned character.’ The term may be connected with the root shagah, ‘wander aimlessly, stagger.’ “ Their commentary to Habakkuk 3:1 is similar: “the term has been defined as ‘a dithyrambic poem in wild ecstatic wandering rhythms.’ ” My trusty Random House dictionary defines “dithyramb” as “a Greek choral song or chant of vehement or wild character and of…irregular form.”
But instead of seeing the root as the Hebrew Sh-G-H, others see the word as of Akkadian origin with the meaning “dirge.” But the contents of Psalms Chapter 7 and Habakkuk chapter 3 do not seem to be “dirges.”
It is interesting that if one looks carefully at the Even-Shoshan concordance on these two words, “shigayon” and “shigyonot,” one sees that he made an error when he quoted the text of Hab. 3:1. This is ironic since Sh-G-H means “wander off and err”! (I am sure that the error here was not a purposeful joke. Concordance authors are surely perfectionists!)
I mentioned above that the word “selah” appears 71 times in Psalms, and otherwise only appears in the third chapter of Habakkuk. What other word has such a similar skewed distribution? If you think for a bit, you can figure it out, as I already gave you a clue. The word is “la-menatzeach.” Aside from one appearance in the book of Habakkuk, it appears 55 times in the book of Psalms. In the case of “la-menatzeach,” the root N-Tz-Ch means “supervise.” It is most likely a word that gives an instruction to the supervisor of the music about the musical accompaniment to the psalm. (Elsewhere in Tanach, the word “netzach” usually means “eternity.” As I wrote in a previous column on this root, it is hard to connect this “supervise” meaning of N-Tz-Ch with the “eternity” meaning.)
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First writes scholarly articles for The Jewish Link and is an injury attorney who takes the other side to the brink. Selah!
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.