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The Connection Between the Prophet Elijah and Paul Simon

We all know the phrase “kol demamah” from the Netaneh Tokef prayer. But what I only learned recently was that this phrase was borrowed from a story about the prophet Elijah. These two Hebrew words mean “sound of silence,” an inherent contradiction. (The next word “dakah” comes from “dak”=thin. A similar phrase, but without “dakah,” is found at Job 4:16: “demamah va-kol eshma.”)

Here is a brief summary of the story about Elijah told in I Kings (chaps. 18-19). When Jewish prophets protested against the idolatry to Baal practiced by their country’s aristocracy, Queen Jezebel ordered those prophets murdered. Thereafter, Elijah held a contest against 450 prophets of Baal. The contest ended with God choosing Elijah’s sacrifice and with all of those prophets of Baal being killed. Jezebel then threatened the life of Elijah and he fled.

Eventually, an angel gave him food, which gave him enough strength to travel 40 days to Mount Horeb. There he told God that he had worked very hard for Him, but the people of Israel had torn down God’s altars and killed His prophets, and only Elijah was left, and now they were trying to kill him as well. Then the story continues: “The Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain; it was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a kol demamah dakah.” It was in this sound of silence that God’s voice was found. Here God gave him his instructions for the last stage of his life.

Is it only coincidence that Paul Simon uses almost exactly this same phrase in his famous song? The original title of this song from 1964 was “The Sounds of Silence.” (“Sounds” was later changed to “Sound.”)

Let’s look at Simon’s early life story and early music.

He was born in Newark in 1941 into an Orthodox Jewish family. In 1945, the family moved to Kew Gardens Hills. He once said that during his boyhood he thought that everyone in America was Jewish! Nevertheless, Simon did become very influenced by Christian music in his early years.

He first met Art Garfunkel when he was 11.

He attended Queens College. During his senior year, on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated.

Some believe that Simon began to write “The Sounds of Silence” after the assassination, but Simon recalls writing it before that. The song was recorded by the duo in March 1964. Around that time, the other 11 songs for their first album were recorded as well.

Prior to 1964, the two had performed under names like “Tom and Jerry” and “Kane and Garr.” But when their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, came out in 1964, they (or perhaps their producer) decided to use their real names. This album had many songs with Christian themes. (Not all were written by Simon.) Elijah is of course a prophet to Christians as well as Jews.

Around the time the album was released, Simon moved, without Garfunkel, to England. They broke up as a duo. Simon worked with other musicians while in England. Garfunkel returned to his studies at Columbia University.

Only about 3,000 copies of the album were sold initially. But U.S. radio stations began receiving requests for “The Sounds of Silence.” Simon & Garfunkel’s producer, Tom Wilson, decided to release it as a single, without informing the duo (who were no longer a working entity anyway). But he considered the song too soft and felt it needed a rock rhythm. He changed it by adding electric guitar, bass guitar and drums. It was released in Sept. 1965. Reportedly, Simon was “horrified” when he first heard it.

During the last half of 1965 this single gradually moved up the charts. It reached Number 1 on New Year’s Day 1966. When Simon heard of the success of this single, he decided to return to the USA and rejoin with Garfunkel. The rest is history.

Let us analyze the lyrics of our song. It has phrases like “and the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made” and “the words of the prophets.” This alone suggests that the phrases “sound of silence” and “sounds of silence” (both of which appear in the song) are borrowed from the Elijah story.

What is the song about? I have seen the suggestion that a main theme of the song is God’s difficulty in communicating through prophets to human beings. God’s prophets are not recognized by humans, who reject real prophets and turn to false prophets. God’s prophets are quiet, humble people who speak softly but wisely. (This suggestion is based on the idea that Simon wrote this song at a time when Christian thought was a big influence on him. I have read that this is seen from other songs on the 1964 album.)

All of this fits with the theme of the Elijah story that likewise involves the rejection of a true prophet, Elijah. It also has the same message as the Elijah story: God’s voice comes from a quiet place, not a loud one. (I have seen the suggestion that the words of the song represent the words of a modern Elijah.)

Here are some of the lyrics:

In restless dreams I walked alone…

….

Hear my words that I might teach you,

Take my arms that I might reach to you.

But my words like silent raindrops fell,

And echoed in the wells of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made.

The words of the prophets

Are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sounds of silence.

The last stanza suggests that true prophets are people who have low stations in life.

When Simon first learned the story of Elijah, the translation of “kol demamah dakah” that he most likely would have read or heard was “still small voice.” This is what the King James Version had, translating “dakah” as “small.” The Soncino commentary, published in 1950, writes that the literal translation was: “a sound of thin silence; sound of a light whisper.”

I doubt that Simon saw the Soncino commentary. But it is striking that he ends the song with the phrase “whispered in the sounds of silence.” That word “whispered” may be his way of utilizing the word “dakah.” It is a widely accepted understanding of the word “dakah” in the context of the passage. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 201, Metzudat David, and Daat Mikra.

(Admittedly, Simon himself has never stated that his song is related to the Elijah story.)

***

I wrote all the above many months ago. Then last week I read that an audiobook just came out by Simon in collaboration with two others in which he discusses his memories of how he created his songs 60 years ago! The audiobook is five hours long. I did not buy it, but you are all welcome to get it and see what he recalls about this song!


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He is used to living a contradictory life (as in “sound of silence”): As a lawyer: stretching the truth, and as a scholar: seeking it. (P.S. You might also be interested in his article “John Lennon and the Plague of Arov” in his “Roots and Rituals” book.)

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