Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Happy Hannukah - part 4

On this last day of Hannukah 5748, I thought I would reflect on the Hannukah song/prayer "Maoz Tzur"

Frankly most of my friends mumble the Hebrew words as they sing it. Particularly the third line. Good thing too. They would be aghast of they knew what it really means. Here is a, more or less, literal translation of the first verse (of five), from the web site of the Orthodox Union.
O mighty stronghold of my salvation,
to praise You is a delight.
Restore my House of Prayer
and there we will bring a thanksgiving offering.
When You will have prepared the slaughter
for the blaspheming foe,
Then I shall complete with a song of hymn
the dedication of the Altar.

Peace, love, tolerance, and religious freedom ?

Thank God, Maoz Tzur is a not the "official" interpretation of Hannukah's meaning, and in fact, while written in the 12th or 13th century, it was not used outside of home ceremonies until the 19th century. The lyrics call for vengeance was no doubt influenced by the 11th-13th century Crusades, and the massacres of Jews by Christians that they brought on. The original lyrics even had a reference to Friedrich Barbarossa, (Holy Roman Emperor) and call on God to save the Jews from his persecution.

In more recent times, English speaking Jews have taken to singing the song in English - using more poetic and non literal "translations". These shift the message from Hannukah from vengeance to freedom and peace. Two versions written right after World War II, eschew vengeance (despite the Holocaust) and tied Jewish liberation to universal freedom and justice.

This one from United Synagogue of America, 1947, is the better known.
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 Thy arm availed us,
And Thy word
Broke their sword
When our own strength failed us;

Children of the martyr-race,
Whether free of fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs
Where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering
That the time is nearing
Which will see
All men free,
Tyrants disappearing.

But I like this one better. From the Sabbath Prayer Book, Reconstructionist Press 1945, it more explicitly sees Jewish redemption as part of world redemption, and puts the universal message in the first rather than second verse.

Oh God, to Thee our praises ring
Thou Rock of our salvation
Accept the thanks our people bring
On this Feast of Dedication
When the force of hate is demolished,
And war at last abolished,
We then will greet with joy complete
Thine altar's consecration.

When the Maccabees to the Temple came,
Having saved their nation,
To light again the Menorah's flame,
With song and jubilation,
Of pure oil there was none,
Save one small flask alone;
Its holy light, shone pure and bright,
In eight-day celebration.


Anonymous A. H. Zoot said...

Maoz Tzur if you look at the further verses is not a Chanukah song. Only the first verse is. The melody is a high German Christmas carol.The term "Feast of Dedication" first occurs in the King James translation of the Gospel of John.So much for translation and appropriation.

2:19 pm  
Blogger Sydney Nestel said...

You are correct that Maoz Tzur is - as per its full original lyrics - NOT a hannukah song. The of those lyrics theme is that God repeatedly saves the Jews from evil/anti-semitic tyrants. But the reference to the "alter's dedication" in the first verse, plus the full verse dedicated to the Hasmonean revolt later in the song, plus the fact that Hannukah had little other mandated readings or songs (Purim has the Megillah, Passover the Seder - these events each have a verse in the original lyrics) probably caused the song to be "assigned" to Hannukah.

12:54 pm  

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