by Rabbi Geoffrey L Shisler, New West End United Synagogue
In the same way that the melody for Adir Hu has become 'the' Pesach song, so has the melody to Maoz Tzur become associated with Chanukah, and although it is a very popular song, the true origins of both the words and the tune are not certain. Let us start with the words.
If you take the first letter of each stanza and put them together, they spell out the word ‘Mordechai.’ This is, of course someone’s name, and there are many examples in our liturgy of people weaving their names into their own compositions. The problem here, however, is that we cannot say with absolute certainty who this ‘Mordechai’ was. One suggestion is that he was Mordechai ben Yitzchak Halevi, and he lived before the year 1250.
The first stanza is an introduction to the theme of the next four, which is praise to God for having saved us from our enemies. In the second we speak of how He brought us out from the Egyptian slavery, and in the third of our return from the Babylonian exile. The fourth refers to our deliverance from the wicked Haman, and in the final verse we speak of the story of Chanukah itself.
In the new Siddur of the Chief Rabbi, there appears for the very first time in the Authorised version, an extra verse, and the heading to it says ‘Some add’ [this verse.]
It was undoubtedly added to Mordechai’s original hymn much later, and Seligman Baer, the editor of Siddur ‘Avodat Yisrael’ (‘The Service of Israel’), which is the Siddur on which the Rev Simeon Singer’s original Authorised Daily Prayer Book was based, does not include it. In his commentary he says that this verse is not found in any of the ancient Siddurim that he consulted.
This extra verse reads:
Bare your holy arm, and hasten the time of salvation.
Take retribution against the evil nation on behalf of Your servants.
For deliverance has been too long delayed, and there seems no end to the evil days.
Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death, and establish for us the seven shepherds.
(Translation taken from Chief Rabbi’s Siddur)
In his book, ‘Kitzur Shelah’ Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, (c.1565 - 1630) writes:
“I read in an ancient manuscript that, since the hymn [Maoz Tzur] contained references only to the empires of Babylonia, Media and Greece, but not to Edom and Ishmael, and none to our eventual redemption from the exile which these last two world powers imposed upon us, another few verses were added, which refer to this, our final deliverance, and which are to be sung to the same tune as the first five verses.”
So it would appear that there were even more than this single extra stanza written, although today we no longer have them. Rabbi Eli Munk, in ‘The World of Prayer’ says that extra stanzas were composed by Rabbi Moses Isserles, Rabbi Jeremiah of Wuerzburg, Rabbi Samuel, the author of a work called Nachalah Shivah, and others.
The last line of this sixth verse -Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death, and establish for us the seven shepherds - is difficult to understand.
The Hebrew for the first phrase is: D’chei Admon, B’tseil Tsalmon, which literally means: ‘Push away the red one into the shadows of darkness,’ and it is suggested that ‘the red one’ - Admon - is a reference to the kingdom of Rome which was responsible for the dispersal of the Jewish people in which we live to this day. (Esau is called Edom, and the original nation of Rome is considered to be made up from his descendants.)
As for ‘the seven shepherds,’ the prophet Micha tells us that when the enemy will come into the land, we shall raise against them ‘seven shepherds.’ The Talmud (Succah 52b) says that these seven shepherds are: David, Adam, Seth, Methuselah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses.
As with many of our ‘traditional’ melodies, the one that we generally utilise for Maoz Tzur is adapted from tunes that our predecessors heard, rather than being composed especially for those words.
One of the great experts on the melodies of the Synagogue, A.Z. Idelsohn, is of the view that it is a typical German melody. He demonstrates that some of the melodic phrases come from a chorale by Martin Luther called ‘Nun freut Euch Ihr lieben Christen.’ However, it was not Luther’s composition since he had, in turn, adopted the tune of an old German folk-song, So weiss ich eins was mich erfreut, das plumlein auff preyter hyde.
What we have today is a stylized arrangement by the famous British synagogue composer, Julius Mombach.
There is no absolute requirement to sing this melody, and many others have been composed. Since we sing Maoz Tzur eight times at home, (not to count the number of times we sing it in shul and in other places!) it is a nice idea to take another melody on some of those occasions, just for a change.
You can find a new setting from the book ‘Shiru Lo Shir Chadash’ at www.geoffreyshisler.com, sung by Cantor Gideon Zellermeyer.
If you would like to listen to renditions from various other communities, click here.