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Don’t say that Hebrew word!

For now, and until Easter, Catholics are holding back on their most joyous praise for the Lord

As noted in my last post, Christians are in the midst of Lent — the annual 40-day season of penance in preparation for Easter.

We focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In Poland as in Jerusalem, we meditate with special attention on the mystery and the scandal of the Cross.

In song and with ancient and primitive forms of theater, we try to enter into and understand what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem.

Here’s how the Dominicans do it in Kraków:

Whatever else you do for Lent is pretty much up to you. People give up chocolate for Lent. They give up coffee. They give up Facebook.

But there’s something that the whole Church — at least my own Catholic Church — gives up during Lent, all together: a Hebrew word.

Every year, for the first days, even weeks, of Lent, the whole community struggles to remember not to say or sing “Alleluia.”

Alleluia — along with “Amen” and “Hosanna” — is one of only three Hebrew words that survives in the daily prayer of the Church. When we sing it, we are imitating the crowds that surrounded the Temple of Jerusalem and filled its outer courts, singing the “Hallel” prayers — psalms 113 to 118. And, at least in decent Christian translations (like the Jerusalem Bible, a Dominican production!), each of these psalms still begins with “Alleluia!”

Then there is Psalm 136, sometimes referred to as “The Great Hallel” — invoked not only at the old Temple, but in synagogues now on great feast days, and (I am told) by the hairy monks of Mount Athos on certain mornings, where it marks the highest point of prayer.

On Athos at dawn, the community sings the “Hallel” and all the candles are lit, the chandeliers are made to swing, bells rung and the church doused with sweet smoke — by means of a censer, itself bristling in bells.

In my community, as in all Catholic monastic communities I know of, we sing “Alleluia” many times a day as part of the Liturgy of the Hours, the regular cycle of psalms that punctuates every day. Typically, an “Alleluia” falls right after the invocation of the Trinity. It seems no other word is as worthy of God.

(Here, from a very old Benedictine community in Kraków, is an example of the Liturgy of the Hours:)

But in Lent the word is replaced by awkward silence. The “Alleluia” we sing at Mass before the proclamation of the Gospel (which is the main scripture reading) is replaced by a “Gospel acclamation” — simply, a prose statement such as “Praise to You, Word of God” or “Praise to You, King of Ages.”

That’s fine, but it lacks punch.

Like June strawberries or July plums, I miss “Alleluia” when it’s out of season.

But what is this mysterious series of syllables, and why is it censored from the liturgy in Lent?

Most Catholics vaguely understand “Alleluia” to be an exclamation of praise. It sounds like “Abracadabra” and means something like “Hurrah.” Most of us learned to pronounce it as children, along with other mysterious nonsense-words like “trespass” and “communion.”

We’re not kids now, though, and we can do better. Christianity is not shamanism (so I say, at least), and there are no magic words in our prayers. For the Church, words have meaning.

In Christian liturgy, the assembly shouts “Hallelujah” and God draws near. But the Hebrew expression (as I understand it) is really a phrase rather than a word. And it’s an exhortation to praise, rather than an expression of it.

Correct me, dear Jewish readers, if I’m wrong: הַלְּלוּיָהּ (halelu-yah) is made of two parts: “halelu,” a second-person imperative masculine plural form of the Hebrew verb halal (הלל) — an exhortation to praise! addressed to a group — plus the short, strange syllable “yah.” “Yah” of course refers to God Himself — and in a way so intimate it is almost dangerous, since “Yah” or “יָהּ” is part of the four-letter Name that some Jews refuse even to try to pronounce.

So why do we say “Alleluia” rather than “Hallelujah” in most places in the Catholic world?

Well, that’s down to the Greeks — or, more properly, the Greek-speaking Jews of Egypt who translated the Hebrew Bible three centuries before Christ, giving the Septuagint to the world and, in time, to the Church. (I know some think the creation of the Septuagint was a colossal catastrophe and a desecration of the Torah. I’ll have to think about that.)

In Greek, הַלְּלוּיָהּ became ἀλληλούϊα (allēluia). Sometimes, the translators rendered “Yah” as “Kyrios” — just as Hebrew-speakers replaced the Divine Name with “Adonai” — “the Lord.” And there are ways to get out of saying “Alleluia” altogether by using phrases like “Praise ye the Lord!” or “Thanks to our God!” But none of those formulations have the powerful history of the compound word “Alleluia.”

And none are as fun to say, sing, or shout.

About that shouting: we Christians have grounding in our own Scriptures for using “Alleluia” as an expression of praise rather than an exhortation to it. In the song of triumph for God’s victory over the Whore of Babylon in chapter 19 of the Book of Revelation — the Apocalypse of Saint John — we see “Alleluia!” four times, always as an ejaculation, not an admonition. So it’s natural for us to express our joy with this ancient word.

Yet the Koheleth, the preacher of the Book of Ecclesiastes, warns, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” And so it is that we put away “Alleluia” — along with other joyous things — for 40 days every year, to prepare ourselves in soberness to celebrate the mysteries of the Passion. (But on that Easter night — how we’ll shout “Alleluia!”)

* * *

After the philology and theology, dessert:

Everyone knows that this word-phrase הַלְּלוּיָהּ, with its nice long vowels, has been irresistible to composers of music both sacred and profane. This is true in Hebrew, Greek, or Polish (where it’s “Alleluja” — pronounced with three distinct “L” sounds, if you please).

Even if we are in the heart of Lent, and even though the word is forbidden in church, I think it’s not particularly wicked to gorge in private on a little Alleluia-music.

Here are some musically-inclined Poles doing their thing, in a contemporary “Alleluja” that’s a credit to the man who wrote it, Piotr Pałka:

For a Hebrew “Hallelujah”, I turn to a Yemenite rendition of psalms 113 and 114.

Then there is Mozart’s operatic outflowing from his religious motet Exsultate, jubilate.

There is Mississippi John Hurt drawling out the Old South classic “Glory, Hallelujah, since I’ve laid my burden down”.

And Leonard Cohen’s sad and cryptic number — it’s not directly religious, but not as purely secular as what Vincent Youmans and Kate Smith (or Harold Arlen and Judy Garland) did.

Don’t forget G.F. Händel’s prancing chorus of enthusiasm. In a spun-sugar Beit HaMikdash, the silk-stockinged Levites would have sung like this.

Or try a Greek “Alleluiarion” with plenty of testicular vim.

Sneak in these banned Alleluias now — and they just might hold you until Easter.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.