Maoz Tzur


In the original SNL sketch, Adam Sandler joked that the only Hanukkah song he ever heard was the Dreidel Song, which is why he wrote his Hanukkah song in solidarity with everyone else searching for better Hanukkah songs. The liturgy and Israeli folk tradition have a number of Hebrew Hanukkah songs, and a number of additional English songs have a strong connection to the themes and prayers of Hanukkah. Among these, one song stands out: Maoz Tzur. It is traditional to sing this song once all the lights of the Menorah are burning. The full version has five (or six) stanzas, which discuss the different periods of history when the Jewish people were saved from destruction.

Many people will only sing the first stanza since it is most familiar:

מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי, לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּחַ

תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָּתִי, וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ

לְעֵת תָּ­‏שְׁבִּית מַטְבֵּחַ וְצָּר הַמְנַבֵּחַ

אָז אֶגְמוֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ

Ma’oz tzur yeshuati, lekha na’eh leshabe’ach/Tikon beit tefilati, vesham todah nezabe’ach/le’eit tashbit matbe’ach vetzar hamnabe’ach/az egmor beshir mizmor chanukat hamizbe’ach

My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation! ‘Tis pleasant to sing Your praises.
Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer You our thanks.
When you will end all slaughter and barking foe,
Then we will celebrate with song and psalm the altar’s dedication.

Though it is not a literal translation, the common English version by Gustav Gottheil and Marcus Jastrow should be familiar.

Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

The melody, which is a mix of a few different German folk songs, does not sound especially Jewish, but it has become the sound of Hanukkah. During the first Hanukkah in which I had a smart phone, I found an app that would light the correct number of digital candles for that night while playing the melody of Maoz Tzur. The TV show, the OC, included a version by folk singer Ben Kweller on their holiday mix, and my family also had a singing statue voiced by Jerry Stiller who used the melody to sing about Latkes.

Scholars have found similarities to a number of German folk songs from the 14th century, and, in a strange twist of irony, Martin Luther used the same opening phrase for one of his chorales. Tracing musical traditions requires much speculation because it is nearly impossible to trace things like direct influence and copying, but it seems most likely that both Luther and the Jewish communities drew upon the same, earlier folk tradition. The Israeli musicologist Hanoch Avenary found comfort in realizing that the Jews many not have taken the melody from Luther’s chorale, but the afterlife of the melody shows how it remained squarely at the center of the Jewish musical tradition spreading even to a few Sephardic communities.

Despite the murky history of the melody, it became the clear, traditional song of Hanukkah, and many communities will use the melody throughout services as we will do this week.

A note about the last paragraph:

The final paragraph of Maoz Tzur describes the Hanukkah story:

יְוָנִים נִקְבְּצוּ עָלַי, אֲזַי בִּימֵי חַשְׁמַנִּים
וּפָרְצוּ חוֹמוֹת מִגְדָּלַי, וְטִמְּאוּ כָּל הַשְּׁמָנִים
וּמִנּוֹתַר קַנְקַנִּים נַעֲשָׂה נֵס לַשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים
בְּנֵי בִינָה יְמֵי שְׁמוֹנָה קָבְעוּ שִׁיר וּרְנָנִים ‎

The Greeks gathered against me, in days of the Hasmoneans.

They broke down the walls of my towers, and defiled all the oils.

But from the last remaining flask a miracle was wrought for the Jews.

Therefore, the sages of the day ordained these eight days for songs of praise.

Despite the militaristic tone of the entire song, the short description of the Maccabees focuses on the miracle of oil. The different descriptions of the Hanukkah story and their respective focus on the battles and the miracle or oil are a discussion for a different day, but it is a nice balance that an explicitly militaristic song also highlights the spiritual victory of the holiday.