Updated: Nov 1, 2021
“Rock of Ages, let our song praise Thy saving power.
Thou amidst the raging foes wast our shelt’ring tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us.
And Thy word broke their sword when our own strength failed us.”
Back in Sunday school days, most of us learned this version of the Chanukah poem Maoz Tzur. Only later, did we find out that this was not exactly the translation of the original Hebrew. Here’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s translation from the Koren Siddur:
“Refuge, Rock of my salvation; to You it is a delight to give praise.
Restore my House of prayer, so that there I may offer You thanksgiving.
When You silence the loud-mouthed foe,
Then will I complete, with song and psalm, the altar’s dedication.”
I know, it doesn’t fit the tune very well and is not nearly as dramatic as the English version we were taught about “raging foes.” But hang on, there’s more. Maoz Tzur, it turns out is only the first verse of a six stanza poem that appears in many traditional siddurim and its final stanza is so dramatic that it may have been subject to the Medieval censor’s pen.
The poem goes back to 13th century Germany, according to the footnote in Koren, and the opening letters of its first five verses spell out the name “Mordecai.” Unfortunately, we have no idea who this otherwise anonymous poet was. After this opening prayer to restore the Temple, the poet Mordecai goes on to mention specifically four crises in Jewish history. First, he mentions the enslavement in Egypt, which he refers to as “Malchut Eglah,” the kingdom of the heifer, referring to Jeremiah 46:20, “Egypt is a lovely heifer…” From this bitter enslavement, God brought us out, we His treasured people, am segulah, with his great hand, while Pharaoh’s host sank into the depths of the sea.
Continuing into the third stanza, we are reminded of the Babylonian exile which came upon us after God had brought us to “His holy abode.” Because of our worship of foreign gods we were exiled and had to drink the “poisoned wine” of this tragedy. However, at the end of seventy years, Babylon fell and the Jewish leader under the new Persian rule, Zerubabel (who appears in the haftarah for Chanukah), led us back home.
Even under the Persians, as we recall, life was still perilous. The fourth stanza is devoted to remembering Haman, the Persian prime minister, who is called here “the Agagite, son of Hammedatha. He sought to cut us down, comparing us to a tree. However God raised up the Benjaminite, that is Mordecai, who is called “Ish yemini” a man of Benjamin. He blotted out Haman’s name, as is appropriate for an Amalekite. Then measure for measure, Haman and his many sons were hanged on a tree.
It is not until the fifth stanza that the Chanukah story is mentioned specifically. The poet tells us that “the Greeks gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans, (another name for the Maccabees).” They broke down the towers and defiled all the oils. “But (mi-notar kankanim) from the last remaining flask a miracle was wrought for Your beloved (literally “your roses or lilies”). Therefore the sages ordained these eight days for song and praise.”
The final verse does not appear in all of the early manuscripts thus leading to speculation that either it was a later addition or that if it was original, it might have been censored by non-Jewish authorities because of its radical description of Messianic hopes. It begins by calling on God to “bare His holy arm” and cause the final redemption to draw near, by wreaking vengeance upon the “evil nation” (unspecified, though apparently referring to whatever nation was currently oppressing the Jews). The poet goes on to say, “for the hour of deliverance has been too long delayed and there is no end to the evil days.” He closes with this somewhat cryptic line, “Thrust Admon into the darkness of death and establish for us the seven shepherds.” Admon, the Red One, we must assume is Edom, the name the Bible gives to the descendants of Esau and which the rabbis associate first with the Roman Empire and later with its successor kingdoms throughout Europe. As for the seven shepherds, they appear in chapter five of the Book of Micah, a chapter used by the Church as a prophecy about Jesus. Jewish tradition reads it as either speaking about the time of King Hezekiah, some 700 years earlier or, alternatively, referring to the Messianic era yet to come or both. This will be a time when a new ruler from the House of David will arise from Bethlehem, the Messianic king. Who are the seven shepherds? According to the medieval commentator Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, this refers to officers who will accompany the Messiah and will assist him in leading Israel. Of course, our rabbis want to identify these seven shepherds by name. They tell us that they are seven biblical figures, David in the center, Adam, Seth, and Methuselah on his right and Abraham, Jacob, and Moses on his left. Whether or not we actually identify these figures, they are a clear reference to times to come when the redemption seen in earlier times will be fulfilled with a total redemption of the world under the leadership of the anointed ruler, the Messiah, descendant of King David.
On reflection, I’m thinking, perhaps it was a good thing that many manuscripts omitted this final verse. Of course, we still have a dream of messianic redemption whether brought on by a righteous descendant of David or by the collective efforts of all people of good will. However, for many of us that vision is not one of God wreaking vengeance upon all of our enemies, but rather a pious hope for a day when all people will come together in peace and harmony and there will be no more enemies. This is the difference between the two traditions about lighting the menorah. The school of Shammai spoke of lighting fewer candles each day to represent the destruction of our enemies, while the School of Hillel added candles each day calling on us to ascend in holiness and add more light to the world day by day. The fact that we follow the students of Hillel is a clear message as to our real messianic dreams. In the words of Zechariah that we read on Shabbat Chanukah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord.” We hope for the day when Zechariah’s prophecy with which we conclude every service will be fulfilled and “the Lord will rule over all the world. On that day the Lord will be one and His name one.”