The scene is repeated in countless Jewish homes around the world. The Hanukkah blessings are recited. A hush falls over the room while the candles are lit. Some chant the ancient song, HaNerot Halalu. And then everybody (yes, everybody!) breaks into a powerful rendition of Maoz Tzur.
Although Maoz Tzur has become the de facto anthem of Hanukkah, a close read of the entire poem recalls a painful Jewish history, salvation from our enemies and even a graphic call for retribution. Today, a look at this popular poem.
If you wrap up singing Maoz Tzur in about a minute, you are not singing the entire poem. The song actually has six stanzas which touch on various oppressions of the Jews (by the Egyptians, during the Babylonian captivity, the Purim story) and our rescue by God. Here is the well-known first stanza and the fifth which focuses on the Chanukah story.
|מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי, לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּחַ
תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָּתִי, וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ.
לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ מִצָּר הַמְנַבֵּחַ.
אָז אֶגְמוֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.
|Ma’oz Tzur Yeshu’ati, lekha na’eh leshabe’ah.
Tikon beit tefilati, vesham toda nezabe’ah.
|My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation! ‘Tis pleasant to sing Your praises.
Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer You our thanks.
When You will have slaughtered the barking foe.
Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar’s dedication.
|יְוָנִים נִקְבְּצוּ עָלַי, אֲזַי בִּימֵי חַשְׁמַנִּים
וּפָרְצוּ חוֹמוֹת מִגְדָּלַי, וְטִמְּאוּ כָּל הַשְּׁמָנִים
וּמִנּוֹתַר קַנְקַנִּים נַעֲשָׂה נֵס לַשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים
בְּנֵי בִינָה יְמֵי שְׁמוֹנָה קָבְעוּ שִׁיר וּרְנָנִים
|Yevanim nikbetzu alai, azai bimei Hashmanim.
Ufartzu homot migdalai, vetim’u kol hashemanim.
|The Greeks gathered against me, in days of the Hasmoneans.
They broke down the walls of my towers, and defiled all the oils.
When you look at the entire poem, you may notice the first five stanzas begin with the Hebrew letters mem-resh-dalet-chaf-yud which is an acrostic for the Hebrew name of the poem’s composer, Mordechai. As to which Mordechai, scholars are not sure. It could be Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel of Nuremberg who himself fell victim to persecutions in the 13th century. Or perhaps it was Mordechai Ben Yitzhak Halevy who was born in Italy and composed other liturgical poems for the Sabbath.
The final stanza, which seems to have been added in the 16th century, poses a challenge to our modern sensibilities, as it calls on God to wreak vengeance on enemies of the Jews and, as some translations word it, “thrust the enemy into the shadows of death.” MyJewishLearning.com calls it “a raw, emotional reaction to persecution faced by the Jewish community in Christian Europe.”
The word used for “enemy” in that final stanza is “admon,” literally, the “red one.” That word is associated with “Edom” a traditional name alluding to Esau, later to the Roman Empire, and later still to Christianity. As the Wikipedia entry points out, “this stanza was dropped from many printings of the poem, perhaps from fear of a Christian reaction against it, as well as in countries under Communist rule, because the red colour is traditionally associated with Communism.”
Why has this liturgical poem thrived while so many others have fallen to obscurity? Beyond the rousing tune (which we will get to in a moment), Professor Efraim Hazan, an expert in Hebrew poetry, suggests “Jews have always identified with the song, adding to it in every generation a stanza that suited the period. … It deals with the major problems that have plagued Israel. People in every generation continue to feel that despite their own bad times, they have not disappeared. “
Here are two contemporary efforts to update the poem, the first by Rabbi Shmuel David of Afula:
“The Nazis surrounded us / And for a moment almost destroyed us / With strange and cruel deaths / And to the remnant of the survivors / You gave strength to redeem to us / From seventy exiles and from all the dispersions / To our Holy Land you gathered us.”
And here’s another with a more upbeat, Zionist spin by Morey Schwartz:
“Two thousand years of memory / Never losing our hope in destiny / Age after age, in many a land / We raised our eyes to Zion’s sand / We are back in our ancient home/ Our dispersed can come / State and people, we shall fulfill our dream”.
As for that popular tune, its roots are German. Cantor Birnbaum of Königsberg identified it as an adaptation of the old German folk-song “So weiss ich eins, dass mich erfreut, das pluemlein auff preiter heyde,” found in Böhme’s “Altdeutsches Liederbuch” (No. 635). It spread widely among German Jews as early as 1450.
Cantor Bernard Beer says the power of the melody is so strong that this very Ashkenazi – and originally non-Jewish – tune “has also penetrated the Occidental and Oriental Sephardic communities as they too sing it today after candle lighting.”
You undoubtedly know the tune, too. And if you’d like to play it on a musical instrument, you can download the sheet music free of charge from several sources. I particularly like this one because the notation says it should be played “steadily and with confidence” … which sounds just about right.
Next time, eight (or so) variations on a Maoz Tzur theme.