Maoz Tzur: Prayer to End Antisemitism

Maoz Tzur: Prayer to End Antisemitism

Maoz Tzur. Your favourite Chanukah song—or not. But likely the one you know best.

What do the lyrics to Maoz Tzur mean?

The Original Maoz Tzur: Evil Empires

The original Hebrew Maoz Tzur is a piyyut, a formal liturgical poem. It was published in the 14th century, and written in a 13th century style. Thus, it uses regular meter and complex rhyme. It speaks in biblical references. Finally, it tells us its author’s name. Take the first letter of each stanza, and you spell it: Mordehai.

The poet Mordehai riffs on the biblical book of Daniel (chapters 4 and 7). Daniel prophesies that four empires will rise and fall. This Mordehai imagines himself in the time of the Maccabees. How delighted they must have been to see the fourth empire fall! So, Mordehai tells their story in five stanzas.

(1) God, you like praise through song. Slaughter our meat, slaughter our enemies, and we will be ready to sing.

(2) In Egypt, we groaned under the weight of our slave-labour. God, you sunk our enemies in the sea, like a stone.

(3) In our land, we had a temple. But we worshipped foreign Gods. So, Babylonia exiled us for 70 years. But you, God, appointed King Zerubavel to end our domination.

(4) Haman came to power in the Persian court. But he tripped over his own pride. So, you, God raised up the Benjaminite leader Mordehai. And Haman was hanged.

(5) Greek armies gathered against us in Hasmonean times. They broke our towers and tainted our oils. But you, God, worked a miracle. So our sages set eight days for song and praise.

The Missing Stanza: Christian Empire

But something is not quite right. The poet Mordehai begins by asking God to defeat his people’s enemies. As you read, you expect him to present his case to God. “You saved us four times. Now, please do it again.” But master poet Mordehai never completes the thought. So, it looks like a stanza is missing.

What might that stanza say? Something too controversial to publish, perhaps?

Apparently, YES.

By 1700, three versions of the missing stanza were found. But only one ended up widely published. And it was published anonymously.

It says something like this:

(6) Now, God, bare your holy arm! Take revenge! The days of evil seem to never end. So, push out the evil empire that rules under the cross. Raise up our leader!

This stanza completes Mordehai’s line of thinkingIt names the enemy still at large. Christian antisemitism. The stanza also fits Mordehai’s time. Riots, blood libels, and expulsions marked Jewish life in medieval Europe.

But publishing this 6th stanza would have been a risk. Until the 1700s, when ideals of religious equality became popular in Europe. And that’s when the missing stanza was “found.”

Rock of Ages: An American Maoz Tzur 

Fast forward to the USA of the 1880s: a Christian-majority country that accepts Jewish immigrants fleeing Europe.

Had the evil days ended? And had the fifth empire Daniel hints at been born? The one that would rise but never fall? That no one could defeat? Because its leaders would be armed with, as Isaiah hints, justice, equity, and powerful words?

Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil thought so. Both of these two German-born rabbis came to America as adults. They wished to pledge allegiance to their new home. So, they wrote this song—a mix of biblical and American motifs.

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 biblical motifs are obvious. God, the rock, saves us with a mighty hand an an outstretched arm. The American motifs are obvious, too, once you see them. They allude to a then-popular patriotic American song, The Star Spangled Banner: O’er the ramparts we watched…/And the rockets red glare /the bombs bursting in air…

Today, we sing this Jewish American version at Chanukah. Even though many of us do not share Jastrow and Gottheil’s optimism.

Still, Chanukah is a holiday for envisioning improbable victories. So, as we work to strengthen our communities, let’s keep on singing Maoz Tzur. All six verses and Rock of Ages, too. Let’s honestly name our past and present challenges. And let’s name our hope, too.


This post was originally written in 2019, and updated in 2023. It is an original integration and interpretation based on the following sources. Rabbi Adam Stein (sermon at Congregation Beth Israel), Rabbi Dr. Yosef Wosk (conversation), Chancellor Ismar Schorsch (article “A Meditation on Maoz Tzur), Professor Yitzhak Y. Melamed (blog post, “Maoz Tzur and the ‘End of Christianity'”), Annette Boeckler (article, “Rock of Ages in Changing Times. A History of Jewish Identity in Chanukkah Songs”), A. Katz (article, “The Last Stanza of Ma’oz Tzur,” Catherine Bell (discussion of rituals of American identity in the book Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice). Thank you all.

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