The third verse of "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen goes like this:

You say I took the name in vain I don't even know the name
But if I did well really what's it to you
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

What is meant by the 'holy' and 'broken' Hallelujahs? Is this a reference to something?

The holy "Hallelujah" (literally "God be praised") would be then calling God in prayer, the broken one - calling him in vain.

In one of the version of the songs, there is this part:

And remember when I moved in you
the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

So the singer was praising the Lord with every breath. Now if you look at the lyrics of the part in OP, you'll notice that the singer is being chided for "taking the name in vain".

You say I took the Name in vain
I don't even know the Name

This is of course against the commandment "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain". So in another words, the singer apparently called God while not addressing him in prayer - judging by the rest of the song it was something akin to "Oh God, she is so beautiful!".

You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you [...]
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

This was of course a blasphemy, but then the singer argues:

It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Similarly, you can take another part of the song :

Maybe there's a God above
All I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Or in different version

It's no complaint you hear tonight
It's not some pilgrim who's seen the light
it's a cold and it's a lonely(/broken )Hallelujah

Someone (who lost the loved one) is not wordlessly crying or praying (seeing the light) at night - they instead keep sobbing and calling God (as in "Oh God, Oh God, why?" ), in such a "broken", blasphemous hallelujah.

  • I like your answer. :) And thanks for citing the different versions. – Sean Duggan Jan 12 at 12:19

Addressing your question from a somewhat literal perspective, the "holy" Hallelujah is likely that of the first verse, "The baffled king composing hallelujah" where as the "broken" Hallelujah is that that the female of the song (Bathsheba based on the bathing reference) drew from him, "She broke your throne, and she cut your hair / And from your lips she drew the hallelujah". My reasoning is essentially that the first versus associates the Hallelujah with God, which fits the definition of "holy" whereas the second is paired up with imagery of broken thrones and cut hair.

Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

<chorus>

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

From that context, the third verse seems like it would be contrasting the sacred and the profane joys in life.

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

That said, I've yet to find a statement by Leonard Cohen on the subject, only what others have stated. Complicating matters, Leonard Cohen initially wrote 80 different verses according to Wikipedia, and changed them for different performances, only keeping the final verse the same.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah
  • Can you please explain why this is likely? Stating the conclusion without the process used to get to the conclusion is... less than ideal; see also literature.meta.stackexchange.com/q/977/58. – Mithrandir Jan 4 at 21:48
  • plopping a quote without explaining what the quote means isn't very helpful. – user111 Jan 4 at 21:55
  • 1
    I've added a bit more. Frankly, I thought about just putting in a comment that we have two examples of Hallelujah in the first and second verses, so it makes sense that those would be the two referenced in the third verse, but I've been chided on other SEs for leaving a "comment answer". – Sean Duggan Jan 4 at 21:57
  • "My reasoning is essentially that the first versus associates the Hallelujah with God, which fits the definition of "holy" whereas the second is paired up with imagery of broken thrones and cut hair." This doesn't really make sense to me: could you elaborate? – user111 Jan 4 at 21:58
  • 1
    @Hamlet: Association of "holy" with religion and "broken" with imagery of things that are broken? I'll admit that I'm a bit at a loss of how to explain it other than, as I said, it seems like a fairly straightforward and literal thing. "Here's thing A. Here's thing B. Here's two things" generally implies that it encompasses the prior two unless otherwise stated. – Sean Duggan Jan 4 at 22:01

My understanding of this has always been that the "holy" Halleluy-ah is the Jewish (Old Testament/Old Covenant) one and the "broken" Halleluy-ah is the Christian one. Leonard Cohen had a lot of trouble figuring out which of these was truer to him, and changed his mind on the matter multiple times throughout his life. It seems that the various women in his orbit, including the one to whom this song is addressed, did not exactly make things clearer--but that at the point when he wrote this song, it seems he thought there was some "light" in both.


Sources:

These are less biographical than I'd like, but here are some sources which treat Leonard Cohen's religious dilemma (including the majority of articles on Leonard Cohen in The New Yorker):

This and this and this and this and this and this and this.

My position, and apparently The New Yorker's, is that one has first to understand Leonard Cohen as a seriously religious man. Religion is his Berlinian hedgehog and his bête grise; it is his obsession. Most of all (for us), it is his paintbox, and to understand his songs correctly, you have to understand that they are made of religion and of Scripture. There are some exceptions - "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," which I think is the saddest song I've ever heard, is apparently one - but, in general, religiously was how Leonard Cohen wrote -- as it was how Nikolai Gogol wrote and how Fra Angelico painted and how many, many artists now and before have done their work.

Leonard Cohen has admitted as much. But you don't need to read biographies nor interviews to pick this up. You just have to read the holy sources, then read his work.

  • Your second sentence (and, subsequently, the first one) could use a reliable reference to make your answer more solid. – Gallifreyan Sep 17 at 22:01
  • @Gallifreyan It's obvious if one has any kind of poetic sensitivity. (There, I said it.) Will look for some sources for you in any case. – SAH Sep 18 at 4:28

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