BOSTON, Dec. 5 (JTA) The sages of the Mishnah said about the Torah, “Turn it over, turn it around, for everything can be found in it.”
I firmly believe that our traditional Jewish texts, liturgy and song are living organisms that hold countless levels of meaning, if one only looks at them in the right way.
And so it is with the popular hymn “Maoz Tsur,” popularly and loosely translated in English as “Rock of Ages.” After Jews around the world light the menorah, they traditionally sing “Maoz Tsur.”
Not so fast, though. This year, stop and ask yourself: “What is this brief text? What’s “Maoz Tsur all about?” The answer is much more interesting than you probably thought.
First, most of the six-stanza liturgical song called “Maoz Tsur” (literally, “Mighty Stronghold,”) has nothing to do with Chanukah. In particular, the first stanza, which is by far the most familiar, is almost completely unrelated to the holiday. The translation in the ArtScroll version reads:
O mighty stronghold of my salvation,
To praise you is a delight.
Restore my House of Prayer
and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.
When You will have prepared the slaughter
for the blaspheming foe,
Then I shall complete with a song of hymn
the dedication of the Altar.
For most Jews, this stanza is all they know of “Maoz Tsur.” But it’s really more of a preface to the song than it is a song itself.
Structurally, this blunt invocation, calling on God to restore the Temple worship and avenge the enemies of the Jews, serves as an introduction to the next four stanzas, which are the real essence of the hymn and allude to four eras of persecution and eventual redemption of the Jewish people.
These are the period of slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt (stanza 2), the destruction of the First Temple (stanza 3), Haman’s failed attempt to exterminate the Jews (stanza 4), and finally, the oppression by the Hellenistic Syrians that led to the Chanukah miracle (stanza 5). A sixth stanza of “Maoz Tsur” recapitulates and once more asks God to exact revenge on the enemies of the Jews.
So it seems that textually, “Maoz Tsur” is as relevant to Passover or to Purim as it is to Chanukah. We don’t really know why the song became permanently attached to Chanukah. We do know that it originated in 13th-century Germany and was written by an otherwise unknown poet named Mordecai.
The well-known melody came later; its first known use in connection with “Maoz Tsur” is found in a 1744 manuscript, but scholars think it was borrowed from 15th-century church hymns.
As Hebrew poetry, “Maoz Tsur” is straightforward. Even in the full six-stanza form, it is relatively brief. It relies on both ordinary and internal rhyme and is mostly free of the obscure allusions that are present in much of the literature of medieval synagogue poetry.
“Maoz Tsur” includes several clear references to biblical verses; there is nothing surprising about this, as the Hebrew Bible was known to all Jews at the time and was the basis for all religious Jewish literature of the period.
However, the revenge motif that is explicit in “Maoz Tsur” has troubled some segments of the Jewish community for more than a century. In fact, two well-known American Reform rabbis, Marcus Jastrow and Gustave Gottheil, composed the considerably toned-down English version “Rock of Ages” in the 19th century to get the blood and slaughter out of the song and to make it more palatable to what they saw as contemporary sensibilities.
In a 1997 online article in Jewish World Review www.jewishworldreview.com historian Lawrence Charap points out that the paradox of “Maoz Tsur” is the same as the paradox of Chanukah: A holiday whose theme was originally particularistic and even a little xenophobic has been transmuted in contemporary Christian America into a universalistic glorification of the freedom of the human spirit.
Meanwhile, those readers who have difficulties with the invocation of God’s revenge and who would still like to keep the hymn and strengthen its ties to Chanukah have an easy and effective solution. They should restore the forgotten fifth stanza to prominence and sing it, using the traditional melody, in lieu of, or in addition to, the first. It’s quite beautiful and appropriate for this season of the year:
Greeks gathered against me
Then in Hasmonean days.
They breached the walls of my towers
and they defiled all the oils;
And from the one remnant of the flasks
a miracle was wrought for the roses.
Men of insight eight days
established for song and jubilation.
(Jonathan Groner writes “The Word” for JBooks.com, the book review site published by Jewish Family & Life! www.JewishFamily.com.)