By Zanna Linskaia
Chanukah story of the victory by Judah Maccabee against Creek ruler Antiochus, returning Temple in Jerusalem to Jews and miracle of the lighting candles for 8 days instead of one, are well known. But the story of Maoz Tsur – the main hymn of Chanukah celebration is rarely mentioned. Maoz means fortes, and Tzur is a Rock, one of the Gods’ names. It was written in Germany in 13th century by Jewish poet and composer Mordecai ben Isaak, whose name was found in acrostic in five first stanzas. From that time hymn has been sung every night after lighting candles in synagogues and homes during Chanukah celebration.
Hymn begins by praising God – Rock of salvation and refers to 4 enemies of Israel – Egyptian pharaoh, Babylonian ruler, Persians and Greeks. The rest stanzas deal with rebuilding the Temple.
Today we sing only 5 stanzas of Maoz Tzur and popularity of it is spread, with poetic translation in English and other languages in Ashkenazi world. Together with different hymns in Jewish liturgy Maoz Tzur has common theme – they ask God to safe Jews who suffered and died at the hands of gentile rulers.
Later Christians borrow stanzas and melody of Maoz Tzur and created their own “Rock of Ages”. Also European composers like Bach used harmonies of this hymn in his opus #283 and Isaak Nathan wrote music to Byron’s “Hebrew melodies” using tune of Maoz Tzur.