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The Brief History of the Word ‘Hallelujah’

Do you know the interesting history and origin of this joyful expression?
Credit: Olga Yastremska, New Africa, Africa Studio

Hallelujah! The word exists in virtually every modern language. It’s a word that means whatever the user intends … something to shout when leaving the office on Friday afternoon, or when your candidate gets elected, or when your child makes it into college. My wife once owned a pony named Glory Hallelujah—an ill-tempered little beast. In its original Hebrew, however, the word had only one meaning. It was a refrain at the end of many psalms. Hallel, “praise,” Yahweh, “God.”

With Christianity, hallelujah traveled west and has been an expression of gratitude to God ever since, especially during the Easter season. In the Middle Ages the word was scrupulously not used during Lent, the 40 days of penance before Easter. In acknowledgment of human sin, it seemed appropriate to put aside the beloved shout of joy until the Resurrection of Easter Day. And so in monasteries across Europe there arose a custom of saying good-bye to the hallelujah.

On the last Sunday before Lent, Christians would chant the word over and over while they could still do so. The chants contained no other words, just Hallelujah! Hallelujah! in a hundred musical settings. At the end of the service, a piece of parchment on which hallelujah was inscribed was buried in the ground, to remain there until it was reclaimed on Easter Sunday.

Some of these farewell hymns survive to this day. The great hymn writer John Mason Neale translated one of them:

     Alleluia, song of gladness,
     voice of joy that cannot die.
     Alleluia is the anthem
     ever dear to choirs on high …

Dear to choirs on high, but dear to composers on earth too. Hallelujah! Its sound is so singable: all those vowels and lovely liquid l’s and y’s. No grammar to worry about, just a simple, complete, beautiful thought… Praise God! Composers of every age have taken that sound and made it their own, from the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah to Leonard Bernstein’s “Alleluia” for Candide.

I’m confident that Hallelujah! will be chanted forever, to the instruments and harmonies of the future, by people singing, as men and women have done for thousands of years, in the “voice of joy that cannot die.”

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