By Cantor Lorna Wallach
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that my favorite Hanukkah tradition is to sing through as many different Hanukkah songs as possible with my family over the eight days, including songs in Yiddish, English and Ladino, in addition to Hebrew. Unlike the lights of the Hanukkiah, which get brighter and brighter with each night, my family’s enthusiasm for singing so many Hanukkah songs diminishes with each night but, no matter what, we sing Maoz Tzur every night!
Maoz Tzur was written by a 13th or 14th century Ashkenazic poet named Mordechai, whose name appears in an acrostic in the first letter of the five original verses. After the opening verse, four succinct paragraphs illustrate God’s constant involvement in our people’s destiny: In Egypt, in Babylonia and during the crises that are commemorated by Purim and Hanukkah. A sixth stanza, apparently written during a similar crisis, was added sometime in the 15th century. It asks God to avenge the persecutions of the current evil regime. Considering all the holidays that are mentioned, it is interesting that these verses would be used only on Hanukkah. Indeed, some scholars think that the poem started out as a hymn for the festival of Shavuot. The later association with Hanukkah may have been due to the word hanukkat, “dedication,” in the first paragraph.
Maoz Tzur, like many other medieval liturgical hymns, incorporates Biblical imagery and other ancient Jewish symbolic phraseology, so even the “strict Hebrew meaning” is not always entirely clear. However, there is no doubt that the commonly sung English version is a clear departure from the original text. The words “Rock of Ages” also unfortunately have misleading associations with a famous Christian hymn by that name.
The melody most widely used can be traced to two or three different German folktunes of the 16th century which were pieced together. Long before Maoz Tzur was set to the present tune, this hymn was sung by the Italian Jews to a tune composed by Benedetto Marcello in the 15th century and is still sung by many in Israel today (two versions are provided here).
Maoz Tzur – Zamir Chorale (2001)
Maoz Tzur – Makela Jewish A Cappella (2014)
Through the songs of our Jewish musical heritage, may we continue to keep alive the spirit of the Maccabees and the light of the Hanukkah candles. I also hope you are enjoying your own family’s special Hanukkah traditions!