Maoz Tzur: Rock of Ages

The most famous Hanukkah song is a lesson in history and theology.

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This well-known Hanukkah song summarizes historical challenges faced by the Jewish people that have been overcome with God's help. Yet this joyous song also contains a later addition, a sixth stanza composed three centuries after the original Maoz Tzur was written. The appearance of this little-known, rarely-sung stanza poses a challenge to modern Jewish sensibilities. It is a raw, emotional reaction to persecution faced by the Jewish community in Christian Europe. While being able to identify with the emotions that arise out of the historical circumstances, the call for Divine retribution is foreign to the modern ear. Nonetheless, the theological question of God’s role in history raised in the last stanza of this song is a question that is still asked today.

Reprinted with permission from Hanukkah: The Family Guide to Spiritual Celebration. (Jewish Lights Publishing).

Maoz Tzur is undoubtedly the most famous of Hanukkah songs. Composed in the 13th century of the Common Era by a poet only known to us through the acrostic found in the first letters of the original five stanzas of the song--Mordecai-- it became the traditional hymn sung after the candlelighting in Ashkenazi homes. The familiar tune is most probably a derivation of a German Protestant church hymn or a popular folk song.

 

Although many families attempt to sing the first stanza, either in the original Hebrew or in a not-so-accurate English translation by M. Jastrow and G. Gottheil entitled "Rock of Ages," the song as it has evolved through the years now contains six stanzas, the last stanza having been added by an unknown poet sometime during the 16th century. Unfortunately, due either to the exuberance of children rushing to open presents or general illiteracy with regard to Jewish liturgy, Maoz Tzur often gets a token singing at best, with the vast majority of Hanukkah celebrants quite unaware of its true meaning.

In a fascinating look at Maoz Tzur, Professor Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, examined the text of the poem in a penetrating article entitled "A Meditation on Maoz Zur" (Judaism, fall 1988, pp. 459-64). Explaining that he and his family fled from Germany on the first day of Hanukkah, 1938, Schorsch says the singing of Maoz Tzur has always held special significance for him. Yet, he wonders, why was it that their practice was to sing the first five stanzas and not the later sixth?

The theme of Maoz Tzur is a familiar one: God's unfailing redemption of the people Israel. After an opening stanza promising thanksgiving to God now and always, the poet recalls four moments of Divine intervention in chronological order: Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, and the Greeks of the Hanukkah story.

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Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the president of Synagogue 3000.