A Festive Song with an Unclear Message: Uncovering the Meaning of Maoz Tzur

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Yaakov Jaffe

Jews have sung the six verses of Maoz Tzur following the lighting of the Hanukkah candles for generations, its spirited melody, decisive meter, and complex rhyme scheme having become one of the major anthems of the holiday. Yet, despite the ubiquity of the song, many Jews might be unaware of what its words mean or what its central theme or argument is. This essay reviews two different approaches a Jew might take when singing Maoz Tzur, either focusing on the past salvation on the occasion of Hanukkah, or on the more present day struggle of the Jewish people living under Christian exile.

Structure: Rhyme and Meter
Before looking at the content of the song, a few observations on its unusual formal elements are in order. The song is six stanzas long, with one introductory stanza and five content stanzas. Each stanza consists of four rhyming lines; there is no repeating refrain. The rhyme scheme is non-typical, as the four lines of each stanza use three different rhyming sounds in an AB/AB/BB/CCB pattern.

Each half-line contains six syllables, with the first half of the last line broken into two two-word/three-syllable sub-sections. Each of the first five stanzas begin with a different letter of the name of the author, Mordechai, with the final stanza spelling HaZaK, as is typical in Ashkenazic piyyut. It is called a mizmor in the fourth line, but is not called a piyut or selihah, and as such it is not intended to be inserted into any specific section of the prayers, unlike other examples of Medieval Hebrew poetry.

Content: Daniel and the Four Kingdoms
A survey of the content of the song is also necessary before investigating the major themes. Maoz Tzur is built on the midrash of the four kingdoms, a reading of the book of Daniel which charts Jewish history in terms of a series of exiles and redemptions. The second chapter of Daniel describes the succession of four unnamed kingdoms which rule one after the other (Daniel 2:37-45). Later, the eighth chapter names some of those kingdoms, the Medes (Daniel 8:20) and the Greeks (Daniel 8:21), culminating in a brazen faced king who will rise at the end of days (Daniel 8:23).

Many midrashim expand upon this notion of the biblical four kingdoms; to give one example, Bereishit Rabbah 2:4 finds loose allusion to the Babylonians, the Medes, the Greeks, and “the evil kingdom” (mamlekhet ha-resha’ah) in the second verse of the Torah. Since these kingdoms exiled the Jews, ruled over the Jews, or destroyed their temple, they are referred to as “exiles.” Thus, Jewish history is broken into cycles, with periods of the Babylonian exile, the Median exile, the Greek exile, and the current exile.

Maoz Tzur gives one stanza to each of the exiles and its associated redemption. Before reviewing the four exiles of Daniel’s prophecy, however, the song first reviews the exile that preceded the days of Daniel, namely the exile in Egypt. Daniel’s vision did not include the Egyptian exile because it focused on his time period and the years that followed; since this song provides an overview of all of Jewish history and all of the exiles, Egypt is included. Thus, the first verse after the introductory stanza (the stanza beginning with the letter reish) discusses the first exile at the hands of the Egyptians. The song calls the Egyptians the calf-like kingdom (based on Yirmiyahu 46:20), and makes numerous references to the verses of the Egyptian exile and redemption: embittered lives (Shemot 1:14), great hand (14:31), treasured nation (19:5), and descending in the depths like a stone (15:5).[1]

The middle two verses of the song refer to the two major exiles of the late biblical period – Babylonia and the empire of Persia/Media. Verse three (beginning with the letter dalet) mentions the exile of the Jewish people at the hands of the Babylonians, culminating in the words “the end of Babylonia, [returning at the hands of] Zerubavel, after 70 years I was saved.”[2] The fourth verse (beginning with the letter kaf) discusses the time when the Jews lived under the control of the Persians/Medians, focusing on the story of Purim and the Book of Esther. It refers to the Agagite son of Hammedata [Haman] (Esther 3:11), the rise of the Benjaminite [Mordechai] (Esther 2:5),[3] the erasure of the name of the “enemy” (Esther 7:6) who descends from Amalek (Shemot 17:4), Haman’s many sons (Esther 5:11), and the hanging of the enemy on the tree (Esther 7:11).[4]

The final two verses of the song discuss the time of Hanukkah and the lengthy, present-day exile, respectively. Though the Jews remained in Israel under Greek rule before the Hasmonean rebellion, it is considered an exile, as the Jews lived under foreign control and faced severe limitations on their religious expression. The words of the fifth verse (beginning with the letter yud) clearly describe Hanukkah. The song mentions the defiled oils and the miracle of the one remaining pitcher of oil (Shabbat 21b). The Greeks are mentioned by name in the first word of the stanza, as is their infamous act of making breaches in the walls of the Temple compound (m. Midot 2:3).[5] The Hasemoneans are referred to as the Hashmanim (based on Tehillim 68:32)[6] with a slightly different vocalization than the more common Hashmona’im, likely to rhyme with the later metaphoric description of the entire Jewish people, Shoshanim (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:1-2).[7]

The final verse calls for salvation from the present day exile; it is a prayer to be saved, not a song of praise and thanksgiving for past salvation. It references the final exile of Daniel by the nation dubbed by the Midrash as the umah ha-resha’ah, the wicked nation, here referred to as Admon, the nation of Edom (see Avodah Zarah 8b).  Though the Midrash is vague about who is referred to as the wicked nation, the author has a clear view to whom Daniel referred.  Edom is taken by the midrashic tradition to be a reference to progenitor of the Roman Empire which exiled the Jewish people (see Rashi Bereishit 36:43), and later to all of Christianity following the Empire’s adoption of Christianity; thus, the final nation is the one that destroyed the second Temple and the one that the author was living under at the moment he wrote the song.[8] Maoz Tzur prays that they be pushed into the underworld, Tzalmon,[9] and for the Jewish people instead to be led by the seven shepherds of the messianic vision of Michah 5:4.[10]

Theme: A Song for Hanukkah
Some authors and commentators take the first approach to the song, arguing that it is in truth a song focused on Hanukkah. In this view, the review of the earlier exiles serves as a dramatic table-setting for the climactic end of the song and its description of the Hanukkah story. This thematic reading requires an assumption about the content of the song; it believes that the last stanza (beginning with the letter het) is not actually a part of the song, and hence the song actually culminates in the theme of Hanukkah and not our present day exile and redemption.

Philip Birnbaum’s presentation of the song conveys this sense through a pair of editorial decisions which focuses the song around Hanukkah and not the other exiles: the final verse is not translated at all in the English and is referred to as a ‘comparatively late addition’ before it appears in the Hebrew.[11] By removing the last paragraph, or at the very least rendering it irrelevant when considering the intent of the original author, the song now concludes with the theme of Hanukkah and  ends with the Hanukkah story: “Men of Wisdom, eight days they decreed for hymns and prayers.”[12] Hanukkah is the thundering crescendo of this song, and not just one of four middle verses.

For this theory, the first stanza also focuses on Hanukkah, such that the first and last stanzas both convey the primary thematic focus, the days of Hanukkah. In evaluating this assumption, the entire first stanza appears translated below:

            Stronghold, Rock of my Salvation[13]                To you it is delightful[14] to praise.

            Establish the house of my prayer,                     And there we shall sacrifice a todah.

            At the time when you prepare a slaughter[15]    From the enemy[16] that is barking,

            Then I shall complete, with “shir mizmor”          The dedication of the altar.

Though Hanukkah is never mentioned here by name, there are three turns of phrase in the fourth line which suggest the poet had Hanukkah in mind. The fourth line begins with two rhyming phrases: “Az egmor, be-shir mizmor,” “Then I shall complete, with a song of a Psalm.” This makes reference to Arachin 10b, which indicates that there are eighteen days when the song of the Psalms of Hallel are completed and recited in full; eight of the eighteen are the days of Hanukkah.[17] This line ends with the words “be-shir mizmor hanukkat ha-mizbeiah.” This makes allusion to Psalm 30, “Mizmor shir hanukkat,” which is today recited on Hanukkah (Sofrim 18),[18] and to the “dedication of the Temple,” “hanukkat ha-mizbeiah,” from Bamidbar chapter 7, which is the Torah reading for the holiday of Hanukkah (Megillah 30b). Thus, the first stanza includes three liturgical aspects of Hanukkah: the recitation of the complete Hallel, the daily Torah reading, and the Psalm that concludes the prayer service.

In a similar vein, one notices that the third stanza about the exile to Babylonia ends with Zerubavel despite his relative insignificance in the story of the Jewish people. However, his name appears prominently at the conclusion of the haftarah for Shabbat Hanukkah (Megillah 31a), so he appears in Maoz Tzur as much to connect the song to Hanukkah as to relate to the redemption from Babylonia.  There are four liturgical changes made on Hanukkah: Hallel, the Torah reading, the haftarah, and a Psalm after prayers, and all four are alluded to in the song.

According to this view, the author had in mind to celebrate the miracle and holiday observances of Hanukkah, and he provides hints to this direction in the first four stanzas, before directly focusing on this theme in the final paragraph of the song. This view explains most clearly why the song was adopted as the anthem for Hanukkah, as this holiday is the true subject of the song.

Theme: A Polemic Against Medieval Christianity
Other authors argue that the song is not focused on the exiles of the past, but is instead focused on the current exile. The review of the redemption from four past exiles, from Egypt through Hanukkah, is important in that it provides proof of the concept that God redeems the Jewish people from each and every exile. But this review is not the focus or the theme of the song; it is the background for the song’s core argument and prayer in its final paragraph.

Many early printings of Maoz Tzur are missing the final paragraph (beginning with the letter het), although there are two theories which explain its absence. Some, like Birnbaum, argue that the absence of the paragraph from early printings is proof that it is a later addition to the song and not a part of its core message.[19] However, others disagree and claim that the last paragraph is original to the song, and its absence is merely a sign that its radical message could have upset the Christian book censors and so it was not printed in many early editions. Though it is hard to know for certain, most scholars prefer the second approach; it is simpler to argue that an offensive paragraph was removed because of its troublesome nature than it is to argue that a later author appended a single paragraph on the back of an already existing song with the exact same meter and rhyme.

Mitchell J. Orlian has argued for the polemical nature of the song, through a precise collection of the dozens of sources the poet would have used in composing Maoz Tzur. He suggests two references in the first stanza, translated above, that might refer to the Christians. Just as the first approach buttresses its argument by seeing its central theme in the first paragraph, Orlian supports his view by identifying criticisms of the Christians in the first paragraph. First is the second line, “Establish the house of my prayer, and then we shall sacrifice a todah (Thanksgiving offering).” At first glance, this line is innocuous, and if anything speaks generally to the Hanukkah themes of Thanksgiving and gratitude. However, it appears prominently in the polemical gemara of Sanhedrin 43a about the trial and punishment of the apostles, and so perhaps it is a hint to Christianity.[20] The second reference is in the second line, “At the time when you will prepare a slaughter, from the enemy that is barking.” The words are laden with emotion and immediacy which suggest a contemporary foe and not one in the past. Who is the enemy who barks? Dr. Orlian cites three sources (Bereishit Rabbah 22:6, Rashi to Bava Batra 9a, and Ramban to Bereishit 43a) which connect dogs or barking with the Romans or their successors, the Christians.[21] The first stanza is a plea for salvation from the current exile and a request for punishment and vengeance towards those who harm our people.

Avraham Frankel gives further evidence for the song’s polemical nature, this time from the historical context of its composition.[22] All of the many unusual formal elements of Maoz Tzur, detailed in the second and third paragraphs of this essay, are shared by one and only one other piece of Hebrew poetry, “Matzor Hayetah,”[23] an early 13th century song which details the salvation of the Jewish community of Worms in 1201, written between 1201 and 1203. Frankel convincingly argues that Maoz Tzur, a general song with a wide audience, is more likely to have influenced Matzor Hayetah, a specific song about one city, and this places the terminus ante quem for the composition of Maoz Tzur in the 1190s, before Matzor Hayetah was composed. Influence of Sephardic poetic style on the Ashkenazic Maoz Tzur song places the terminus ad quem in the 1160s, so Frankel is confident in identifying the historical era of the song’s original writing. The first crusade swept through Germany in the year 1096 and the second crusade in the 1140s. An author writing in the mid to late 12th century would have reason to compose an intense, emotional response to the end of the exile and oppression under Christianity, more than he would a song about Hanukkah.

Frankel also proves that the last stanza is authentic and original to the song, because a similar stanza also appears in the later reworking of the song in 1201-1203. Thus, Birnbaum, Baer, Artscroll and others all erred in thinking that the song climaxes with the story of Hanukkah; it ends with the final verse that deals with the fourth exile, begun by the Romans but continuing through to Christian times.[24]

The intensity and venom of the final stanza fits perfectly with this understanding of its historical context. The call to avenge the spilled blood of the Jewish people, taken from Psalms 79:10, is typical for the period, and the same words find their way into the weekly Av Ha-Rachamim prayer,[25] the end of kinah 22, and the end of Yoel Ha-Levi’s selihah 54, all of which reply to the crusades. The author of Maoz Tzur witnessed many Jews perish al kiddush Ha-Shem, and this song serves as a cry for a response to their suffering.

One can never know with certainty, when a certain scriptural phrase is used, whether the author chose it to fit the content and rhyme of the song or whether the author is highlighting a specific message or major theme. But once one believes the song is a polemic, one can turn to other lines and allusions that may also be designed to echo this central argument that the Jew in exile pleads for salvation from their Christian oppressors.

  • The word keitz, end, appears four times in the song, twice in the third verse and twice in the sixth. Is the repeated use of the word coincidence? Does it merely hint to the eschatological prophecies found in Daniel 9:24-26? The word “keitz” also appears in Yeshayahu 9:6, a highly charged verse which Christians connected to their deity, who in their view would bring an era of everlasting peace, “peace with no keitz.”[26] Perhaps the song replies to the Christian argument by saying that instead of living at a time of peace, our era has “no keitz to the days of evil.”
  • The song begins with God establishing “beit tefilati,” “my house of prayer, which appears, among other places in Tanakh, in Yeshayahu 56:7. That section of prophecy has a universalistic message about the role of the Temple in the future, when all of the nations will visit and pray before God. Why did the poet choose to use these words? Were they chosen just to rhyme with the word for salvation, yeshu’ati? The final verse begins with “Hasof zero’a kodshecha,” (“Reveal your holy arm”), a near quote from Yeshayahu 52:10, another messianic prophecy. Was that verse chosen because the three words spell an acrostic for “hazak,” or to again signal this messianic theme? Perhaps the author uses these quotes to argue that the messianic era has not yet happened: the house of prayer still must be established and the holy arm still must be revealed, despite what the Christians might argue.
  • The word yeshu’ah, salvation, appears twice in the song in prominent positions. Maoz Tzur begins with God being the speaker’s “rock of my salvation,” and ends with the speaker asking God, in the final stanza, to “bring the end of the salvation,” a very odd grammatical construction.[27] Why is this word repeated in such a prominent position? Is it because the theme of the song is salvation in general, or is the author punning with the name of the Christian deity, suggesting that God is the true yeshu’ah, and that speedily, God should bring an end to the false Yeshu’ah?
  • The third verse attributes the cause of the Babylonian exile specifically to serving foreign gods, one of three reasons for the destruction according to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), but one underplayed in the prophets.[28] Is this a hint to another religion, and the worship of a foreign god? The line continues to speak of “pouring poison wine,” seemingly as a libation to a foreign god. The Bible never connects this specific crime to the destruction of the first Temple, but it would ring true to a Jew living in the Middle Ages.

Determining the Time of Year for a Prayer for Salvation
If one adopts the view that the primary theme of Maoz Tzur is praying for redemption from exile under Christendom, what would one make of all the references to Hanukkah in the first paragraph? The three references in the first four lines seem so blatantly related to Hanukkah, so why would they find their way into a song whose focus is the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and the experience under Christianity?

Jewish poetry often makes note of the time of year that a particular poem would be recited, even when the echoes of the time of year have no bearing on the content or message of the song. Frankel notes that the song about the salvation of the community of Worms makes allusion to the prayers of Purim because the salvation took place at the time of Purim, even though the story of Purim shows little direct connection to the salvation of the city. I have previously noted two poems of Yehudah Ha-Levi, one that makes allusion to Shir Ha-Shirim because it is designed to be read on Pesach, and another that makes allusion to the Torah reading of Nitzavim because it is designed to be read before Rosh Ha-Shanah. One wonders if a similar effect is at work in Maoz Tzur. The primary theme, or subject of the work, is rescue from the Christians, but the time of year for the singing of the song corresponds to  Hanukkah. Consequently, the core argument relates to redemption from our current exile, but a number of allusions connect to the prayers of the Festival of Lights because of the occasion of its being sung.

Hanukkah often coincides with the Christian holiday which celebrates the nativity, and so perhaps the song is meant to be sung on Hanukkah, with the focus and energy on how the past redemption of Hanukkah prefigures a future one. While watching the candles burning, the Jew recounts the past redemptions, including the one typically marked in December, the story of Hanukkah. But the focus is not on the past; it is on how those past redemptions demonstrate that future redemptions, predicted by Daniel and Yeshayahu, will indeed happen one day, even if other religions believe the salvation, the yeshu’ah, has already taken place. The Jew prays and sings that it should happen speedily. Then the messianic vision of the seven shepherds replacing the barking dogs will be fulfilled, and the House of Prayer firmly reestablished.

[1] In the Song of the Sea, the Egyptian forces in general are said to sink like stone, but, in Maoz Tzur, Pharaoh, and surprisingly “all of his descendants,” also descend. As there is no evidence that any of Pharaoh’s children sank in the Red Sea, the song’s author probably had in mind the midrashic teaching (cited in Rashi to Bereishit 4:10) that when an individual perishes, their future descendants are also considered to have died. The rhyme and meter demands a pair of rhyming three syllable phrases, hence “heil Par’oh, ve-khol zar’o” fits the demands of the song, even if this description is not typical for the story of Egypt. Mekhilta to Shemot 14:28 cites two opinions about whether Pharaoh himself sank in the Red Sea or not.

[2] Zerubavel led the Jewish people back to Israel just after Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians following their 70 years of hegemony (Ezra 1). The return was short-lived, however, as an antisemitic libel letter stopped the rebuilding process shortly after it began (see the fourth chapter of Ezra). This verse also ends with a pair of rhyming three-syllable phrases. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a), the rhyming sound of “Bavel” and “Zerubavel” is not accidental, as the name of the person is derived from the fact that he was conceived and born in Babylonia.

[3] Mordechai is also referred to as “Berosh,” based on Megillah 10b’s reading of Yeshayahu 55:13, one of four allusions to this section of Yeshayahu in Maoz Tzur. The line also borrows language from Yeshayahu 37:24, although that verse is used not as an allusion to any specific event related to the Purim story; it only provides the flourish of language.

Similarly, the fall of Haman is referred to as a trap, pah u-mokeish, (see Tehillim 69:23), which the Talmud (Megillah 15b) applies to the story of Esther. The line also borrows language from Yehezkel 33:28, although that verse, too, is used not as an allusion to any specific event related to the Purim story; it only provides the flourish of language.

[4] The rhyme demands of this stanza again yield a pair of three-syllable phrases – “rov banav ve-kinyanav,“his many sons, and his possessions” – although it is challenging to find a source which indicates that Haman’s possessions also hung on the tree. Baer, Siddur Avodat Yisrael, (Rödelheim, 1868), 440, says that the word ‘kinyanav’ refers to his children, not his possessions, as he “greatly took splendor in them.”

[5] The compound is called “the wall of my tower,” which is an odd phrase, as the Temple is not exactly a tower, nor does it have a conventional wall. The general sense of the line is clear, but the exact phrase is not. See also Rashi to Shir Ha-Shirim 8:9-10, and Bava Batra 8a.

[6] The word appears in Psalms 68:32 and on no other occasion in Tanakh, describing the various non-Jewish nations bringing gifts to Jerusalem in the messianic era; it does not refer to any specific group of Jews, and possibly not to any group of people either. Indeed, Tanhuma to Devarim 20:10 takes the word to be a participle, meaning speedily, and not referring to any specific group. Numerous words in that psalm appear nowhere else in Tanakh and challenged even the Talmud and Midrash into unusual interpretations: aravot (Hagigah 12b), tzalmon (Berakhot 15b), kosharot (Mekhilta to Shemot 13:4), shinan (Avodah Zarah 3a), hashmanim (Tanhuma to Devarim 20:10), rigmatam (Sotah 37a), teratzdun (Megillah 29a), and gavnunim (Megillah 29a).

[7] The line should thus be understood as “a miracle was done for the Jewish people.”  This takes a stand on the question of whether the Hanukkah miracle should be seen as being performed for the Hasmoneans or for the entire people.  It was done “in the days of the Hasmoneans,” but for the entire people.

[8] “Edom” is called “Admon” to fit the rhyme with “Tzalmon,” based on the description of Eisav in Bereishit 25:25. See also Rashi to Bereishit 30:22 for another example of where he is referred to as Admon in Jewish poetic literature.

[9] See footnote 6. The Talmud takes this word to refer to the underworld, even though its meaning in its original context in Psalms 68:15 is far from clear.

[10] That entire chapter of Michah is both messianic and also of major polemical importance. See especially Michah 5:1. I discuss the polemical nature of this chapter in Yaakov Jaffe, “Psalm 72 And Michah 5:1: The Primordial Messiah,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 48:2 (2020), 90-98. Sukkah 52b identifies who these shepherds are, although why these seven individuals are chosen is unclear (Rashi to Michah and to Sukkah). Ibn Ezra and Radak say that “seven” just means many and not exactly seven; Ibn Ezra and Rashi here reprise their debate from Vayikra Chapter 26.  For a further suggestion as to why the song ends with the seven shepherds, see note 21 below.

[11] Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949), 710-714.

[12] Yet again, the demands of finding a rhyming pair of three-syllable phrases yields a troubling line: “benei binah, yemei shemonah.” At first glance, it refers to the Hasmoneans as “men of wisdom,” a phrase that echoes Divrei Ha-Yamim 1:12:33, and is generally connected to the tribe of Issachar, who had been lost to exile at the time of the Hanukkah story. Baer says that the phrase refers to the Sanhedrin who established Hanukkah (see Shabbat 21b), who are referred to as Knowers of Wisdom (see Tanhuma, Naso 14), and not the Hasmoneans. This echoes the above observation in footnote 7.

[13] These words are an adaptation of Psalms 31:3.

[14] The word na’eh is common in rabbinic literature, although it never appears in the Bible. I discuss the meaning of this word in Yaakov Jaffe, “Friday Night’s Ribon Kol Ha-Olamim—the Second Half of Shalom Aleikhem,” Hakirah 34 (2023), n. 27.

[15] The odd construction “takhin matbei’ah” (“prepare a slaughter”) is probably chosen to conform to the difficult rhyme “menabei’ah” (“barking”) in the second half of the line. The words are borrowed from Yeshayahu 14:21, although that chapter addresses the Babylonians. Indeed, Vayikra Rabba 33:6 connects Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, with a barking dog, which is the focus of the second half of the line. The words also echo Bereishit 43:16, which is often, but not always, read on Hanukkah, so this may also have been the reason the phrase was chosen.

[16] The word for enemy, tzar, is a pun on the word rock, tzur, in the first line.

[17] “Completing” the Hallel is in contrast to the day before Pesach when the Hallel was not necessarily completed, depending on how many Jews visited the Temple (Pesahim 64a). It is not in contrast to the days when “half Hallel” is recited (Rabbeinu Gershom).

[18] This psalm has been part of the prayer service of Hanukkah for centuries, going back to Masekhet Sofrim. It was not recited in the times of the Temple. See “The Psalm of the Day in the Prayer Service of the Vilna Gaon,” [Hebrew], Beit Yitzchak 42 (2010), 103-109.

[19] This view is also offered by Baer in Siddur Avodat Yisrael, (Rödelheim, 1868), 440, who declines to print the final verse even in Hebrew and says in a note that it is a later addition. The Artscroll Siddur includes the final verse and translates it, but they too say it was written centuries after the original song. They attempt to evidence their position from the Kitzur Shelah in the Laws of Hanukkah, but Shelah has no first hand evidence that the verse is of late origin, only that people claim it to be of late origin. The Shelah quotes other replacements for the final stanza, but many of them do not match the formal elements of the song and clearly are not the work of the original author. More recently, some Jews replaced some of the lines of the final stanza with less combative alternatives than the original. Whatever Jews choose to sing today, however, the original text of the sixth stanza remains clear.

[20] I discuss this verse and the talmudic conversation in more detail in Yaakov Jaffe, “Who Was the First Jewish Commentator to Connect Psalm 50 With Christianity?” JBQ 51.3 (2023), 191-198.

[21] Avraham Frankel observes that 12th century Ephraim of Bonn used the verb n-b-h to refer to Christians numerous times as well, possibly because it echoes one of the names of the Christian Scriptures, “Nova Testamentum.” See Avraham Frankel, “The Poem for the Salvation of Worms and the Time of the Composition of Maoz Tzur,” [Hebrew], Ha-Maayan 208 (2014), 19.

The verb to bark, n-b-h, appears only once in Tanakh, in Yeshayahu 56:10-11, so the choice of the phrase likely had special meaning for the author, although in Yeshayahu the dogs who are unable to bark are leaders of the Jewish people, not the Romans or Christians. This chapter of Yeshayahu is central to the logic of the song. 56:7 is also referenced in the first stanza, and the final verse of chapter 55 is referenced in the fourth stanza.

These dogs of Yeshayahu 56:10-11 are described as having “brazen souls” (azei nefesh), which may also be taken as an oblique allusion to the Romans, who are called “brazen faces” (az panim) in the midrashic reading of Devarim 28:50 (Hizkuni loc. cit., based on Daniel 8:23, the fourth kingdom noted above), and possibly in the Yaakov/Eisav dichotomy in Avot 5:22.

Yeshayahu 56:11 continues to describe clueless shepherds and unsatiated dogs, which reads “sovah ve-heimah ro’im,” a homograph (in Hebrew) to the last two words of Maoz Tzur, “ro’im shivah.” The word “save’ah” also appears in the start of the second verse, and so the homograph of sovah/shivah is even present in the song Maoz Tzur itself.

Use of the minor prophecy of Yeshayahu 56:10-11 in such a prominent position in the first verse (beit tefilati and the root n-b-h) and the last one (ro’im shivah) of a short song suggests that its role in the song is particularly important. It seems that the poet wished for the words themselves to perform the transformation that is core to the song. Just as the words reverse themselves from failed shepherds focused on physical satiation into the seven righteous shepherds, so too the experience of the Jews in exile should reverse from tragedy to salvation.

[22] Frankel, pp. 9-21.

[23] Besides the pun in the titles between Maoz Tzur and Matzor, the first line of this other song also features an echo of the root “to bark,” n-b-h, using the verb n-b-kh, as it appears in Esther 3:15.

[24] Frankel gives three other proofs to the authenticity of the final verse: (a) It is unusual for a later hand to add a verse beginning “hazak” to an earlier poem, (b) It is rare for the rhyming and meter of later additions to perfectly match the rest of the song, and (c) Since the author had the four exiles in mind, it is unlikely that in composing the song he would have skipped the fourth exile of Daniel and stopped with Hanukkah.

[25] Av Ha-Rahamim also quotes Psalm 9:13, a chapter about the punishment of the other nations who serve false gods. Maoz Tzur also already quoted this Psalm (9:6) earlier in the fourth verse: “you erased their name for evermore.”

Some versions which include the last stanza remove these words, see for example Siddur Beit Yaakov (Lemberg, 1904), 369.

[26] For more on this verse and its polemical implications, see Yaakov Jaffe, Isaiah and his Contemporaries (Kodesh Press, 2023), 133-138.

[27] Some versions of the song include the word a third time in the penultimate line, “for the salvation (yeshu’ah) has grown long for us.” However, the verb to “grow long” generally requires a count noun as its direct object (see, for example, Bereishit 26:8), and so other versions replace the word “salvation”  with the word “hour” (sha’ah). In general, this verb usually takes a unit of time as its direct object.

[28] The exact words are a quote from Yirmiyahu 5:19. Yirmiyahu did prophesy before the destruction of the first Temple, although idolatry is not the one central theme of his book, and the prophecy of his fifth chapter may be given to the Northern lost tribes and not his contemporaries in Judah (see Yirmiyahu 3:12).

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.