Chanukah’s history-poem

December 7, 2020 by J-Wire
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Ma’oz Tzur is part of the tug of war between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Both groups started off with Psalm 30, “Mizmor Shir Chanukat HaBayit”, as the Chanukah song (Sof’rim 18:2). Then at some point in the Middle Ages a person named Mordechai wrote a history-poem that began with the words Ma’oz Tzur, “Rock of Your stronghold”, which come from Isaiah 17:10.

To make sure the order of verses was maintained he started each of the first five verses with the letters that made up his name.

Eventually, the Sephardim adopted the Ashkenazi song, though at the same time they kept Psalm 30.

Where did the poet get his version of history?

He knew what general themes he wanted, ranging from Pharaonic Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, the Persian rabbi Mordechai and his King Ahasuerus, Antiochus and the Greeks, and even the learned rabbis (“b’nei vinah”, “men of understanding”) who ordained the singing of Hallel on Chanukah.

The poem utilised phrases and allusions from the Bible, Talmud and Midrash. “Malchut Eglah”, the kingdom of the calf, comes from Jeremiah 46:20, and refers to Egypt. “Shoshanim” – lilies – is the Jewish people (Shir HaShirim 2:2).

How did the famous Ma’oz Tzur melody come in?

It too was an Ashkenazi tune, though it began as a German folk tune that the Jews picked up from their European environment and turned into the musical motif of Chanukah – not just the Ashkenazim but the Sephardim too.

The sixth verse has a whole range of hints that clearly imply Christianity but are not spelled out because the Jews feared Church censorship. It says, “Thrust away Admon in the shadow of Tzalmon” – “Admon”, red, is a hint of Rome; “Tzalmon”, originally a hill near Shechem, refers to Christianity because “tzelem” is a cross.

The verse ends with a rather puzzling phrase about seven shepherds at the end of days. The phrase originates in Micah 5:4 and tells us that in messianic times there will be a sevenfold (i.e. complete) team of Divine agents that protect and preserve Jewry and the Holy Land.


The sages in the Talmud (Shab. 21b) connected Chanukah with the miracle of the little flask of Temple oil that continued to burn for a total of eight days.

The Apocryphal Books of Maccabees (I Macc. 4:36-59) linked it with Judah’s military victory that led to the Temple being reconquered.

The sages emphasised the spiritual and metaphysical aspect; the authors of the Apocrypha stressed the military and political side of the episode.

The sages were not unaware of the military victory but did not mention it. Their idea was that events only have significance if they can be seen as part of God’s design for history. In celebrating such events there had to be a spiritual focus.

Their principle ought to guide us when we consider how to assess and celebrate the State of Israel.

If it is judged and marked in terms of aeroplanes and weaponry its message is obscured. Only if it is seen as the finger of God in human history does it assume a real cosmic significance.


No-one could have predicted the festival of Chanukah.

After all, King Antiochus was a pagan, and paganism is by nature tolerant; it deems one person’s god as good as another’s.

Why then did Antiochus try so hard to eradicate Judaism, and in the process create a need for Chanukah?

Because an “anything goes” philosophy is not as democratic as it seems. It is democracy gone mad.

If one god is as good as another, then all are nothing. Likewise, if one ethic is as good as another and good and evil are matters of personal opinion, or every lifestyle – holiness or hedonism – is equally legitimate, or every idea is as acceptable as every other.

That is why Matitiyahu had no choice but to raise the banner of revolt against Antiochus. By proclaiming, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side, come with me!”, Matitiyahu was saying that there can only be one true God, one valid ethic, one sanctified lifestyle, one set of reasonable ideas.

This probably made him unpopular among the Hellenists, and he was considered a spoilsport. But principle is principle. A person who believes in a principle has no choice but to defend it, though this must be done with “derech eretz” and dignity.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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