We do not know who authored this prayer or precisely when it was authored. But the author did inscribe his name in an acrostic in the first five stanzas, מרדכי. There is also a sixth stanza that begins “chasof zeroa kadshecha,” generating the acrostic חזק.
There had been a debate about whether the sixth stanza of Maoz Tzur was a later addition. But in recent times, a siddur collecting the prayers of R. Eliezer b. Nathan of Mainz (c. 1090-1170) has been published, based on several manuscripts. The sixth stanza is found there (with an unusual variant, to be discussed below). Probably, it was omitted thereafter due to Jewish self-censorship. Scholars have also pointed out that it would be very unusual for a stanza that has a חזק acrostic to be a later addition. (Also, that the חזק acrostic is within one stanza, and not spread over three, is consistent with a German origin for the prayer, and not a Sephardic origin.)
Both the first and sixth stanzas attack Christianity. This fits the period of 12th-century Germany, as Jewish communities in Germany were devastated by the First Crusade (1096) and the Second Crusade (1147). A recent scholarly article on the prayer suggests it was composed in Germany between 1160 and 1190. See the article by Avraham Frankel in Ha-Maayan 208 (2014). (Frankel did not seem to know of the evidence from R. Eliezer b. Nathan. Another important article is at thetorah.com, “Ma’oz Tzur and the ‘End of Christianity’.”)
The prayer was not part of the Sephardic ritual until recent times.
The four middle stanzas narrate, in the past tense, events of four persecutions of the Jews: by the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks (=Syrian Greeks). Regarding the first and last stanzas, to quote one scholar, they “are both written in the present tense and complement each other, and thus express the mindset and wishes of the poet at the time of the composition of the hymn.”
The earliest reference to the prayer in a work of halacha is in the Leket Yosher, who was a student of R. Israel Isserlein. The latter was the author of Trumat Ha-Deshen and lived in Germany and Austria in the 14th century. Leket Yosher writes that his teacher, after reciting “Ha-Nerot Halalu,” would sing “Maoz Tzur Yeshuati.” He adds that sometimes it would be recited ‘בדילוג. This means that his teacher would skip certain parts. (Perhaps he meant the sixth stanza.)
(Maoz Tzur is not mentioned by either R. Caro or R. Isserles in the Shulchan Aruch.)
In the first stanza, we have the following: “Prepare the house of my prayers and there I will offer a thanksgiving offering. When you have prepared the slaughter for the barking (מנבח) enemy, then I will conclude with a psalm song for the dedication of the altar.” The root נבח only appears one time in Tanach, at Isa. 56:10. It is referred to as something that dogs do, so it is translated as “barking.” “Prepared the slaughter for the barking enemy”? This is not mild language! We know from the writings of R. Ephraim of Bonn (12th century) that references to an enemy who is נבח are references to Christianity. See Frankel, pp. 18-19. There may be an allusion to Jewish-Christian debates here as well. “Prepare the slaughter” is based on Isa. 14:21.
The last stanza has the phrase “deche Admon”= push away the red one. Esau is called “Admoni” at Gen. 25:25. In rabbinic literature, Esau symbolized Rome and Christianity. The precise term “Admon” was used for Esau by R. Eleazar Ha-Kallir (c. 600 C.E.) in several piyyutim. (One is cited by Rashi to Gen. 30:22.)
There are those who argue that “Admon” referred to the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa who ruled from 1152-1190. He was nicknamed “Redbeard.” It is possible that “Admon” alludes to both Edom (=Rome/Christianity) and Barbarossa.
An issue is whether the song was even written for Chanukah. It could very easily have been composed as a general song that provided an overview of Jewish history and was then borrowed into the Chanukah ritual due to its one relevant stanza. (When “Yevanim” was viewed as the last stanza, one could look at the song as building up to this stanza. But now that we realize that the sixth stanza was original, this gives us a new perspective on the prayer.)
Even though the first and last stanzas are strongly anti-Christian, it is ironic that its present-day melody derives from a 15th- or 16th-century German Protestant tune!
Finally, a zemer recited on Friday night, “Mah Yafit,” has the acrostic: Mordechai Bar Yitzchak חזק. Some want to equate the author of this zemer with the author of Maoz Tzur. (But we know nothing about this Mordechai either!)
A few insights on the phrases in the prayer:
Malchut eglah: This phrase is based on Jer. 46:20: “Mitzrayim is a very fair eglah.” Most take the view that “eglah” symbolizes beauty. Perhaps the reference in this verse is to the beauty of the land or its produce. Daat Mikra cites Judges 14:18 where Samson referred to his wife with this idiom. It is also interesting to note Rashi’s comment at 2 Sam. 3:5. There the verse refers to a wife of David named “Eglah.” Rashi writes that this is a reference to Michal who was beloved to David. (Also, many see in the name רבקה a connection with מרבק, a word associated with cattle.)
An alternative approach to the verse in Jeremiah is that of Malbim who points out that Egyptians used to worship the bull. The Targum, cited at Yoma 32b and followed by Rashi, views the “eglah” as symbolizing מלכות.
Kim’at she’avarti: This could be interpreted in two different ways: 1) “just as I passed into this area” (= a short time) or 2) “I had almost perished.” The phrase comes from Song of Songs 3:4. It has the first of these meanings there.
Ve-karev ketz ha-yeshuah: On a literal level this means: Bring close the end of time with its salvation. But I have seen the suggestion that it also alludes to the meaning: Bring close the end of the “Jesus-people.”
Mei-umah ha-resha’ah: This is what we recite today: “Take revenge…from the evil nation.” Based on the “Admon” reference in the stanza, the implication is that we are asking for revenge on the Christians. But our earliest text of Maoz Tzur, the Siddur of R. Eliezer b. Nathan, has the revenge being taken on “malchut Yavan ha-resha’ah”! (Perhaps we changed our text here to avoid Christian censorship.)***
We are all used to thinking that Chanukah represents a struggle between the Jews and the Greeks. (Of course, we are overly influenced by the term “Yevanim” used in the liturgy and in the rabbinic sources. I remember as a youth imagining battles at sea between the Greeks and the Maccabees!) The truth is that the struggle was only with the “Seleucid Greeks” in Syria. After the death of Matityahu and Judah, leadership of the Jews in Israel passed to Judah’s brother Jonathan. My friend Efraim Palvanov reminds me that I Maccabees 12:10 refers to Jonathan’s offer to renew ties of “brotherhood and friendship” with the Spartans, who were from mainland Greece! It is always important that we understand precisely who were our friends and who were our enemies!
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He would like to thank Rabbi Mordy Friedman for his assistance.