The powerful story of the Chanukah Song Ma’oz Tzur
First a story of a man in an accident:
Shmuel had a bad car accident involving a large truck. Weeks later, in court, the trucking company’s fancy lawyer was questioning Shmuel.
“Didn’t you say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine,’?” asked the lawyer. Shmuel responded, “Vell, I’ll tell you vat happened. I just put my dog Moishele, into the…” “I didn’t ask for any details”, the lawyer interrupted. “Just answer the question.
Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine!’?” Shmuel said, “Vell, I just got Moishele into the car and vas driving down the road….”
The lawyer interrupted again and said, “Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this man told the Highway Patrolman on the scene that he was just fine. Now several weeks after the accident he is trying to sue my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.”
By this time, the Judge was fairly interested in Shmuel’s answer and said to the lawyer, “I’d like to hear what he has to say about his dog Moishele”.
Shmuel thanked the Judge and proceeded. “Vell, like I was saying, I just loaded Moishele, my lovely hundteleh (dog), into the car and vas driving him down the highway when this huge semi-truck and trailer ran the stop sign and smacked my truck right in the side. I was thrown into one ditch and Moishele vas thrown into the other. I was hurting, real bad and didn’t want to move.
However, I heard Moishele moaning and groaning. I knew he vas in terrible shape just by his groans. Den a Highway Patrolman came along. He could hear Moishele moaning and groaning so he vent over to him. After he looked at him, and saw vat terrible condition Moishele was in, he took out his gun and shoots him between the eyes.
Den the Patrolman comes across the road, gun still in hand, looks at me and says, “How you feeling?” “Nu, Judge, vat vould you say?
Ma’oz Tzur” (Hebrew: מָעוֹז צוּר Māʾōz Ṣūr) is a Jewish liturgical poem or In Hebrew a piyyut. It is sung on the holiday of Hanukah, after lighting the festival lights. The name is a reference to the Hasmonean stronghold of Beth Tzur. This Hebrew song is thought to have been written sometime in the 13th century. It was originally sung only in the home, but has been used in the synagogue since the nineteenth century or earlier.
While nearly Jew knows the song, because of the popularity of Chanukah, I was recently sent a story about the background of the song which may be true:
A Talmud Chacham in England, R’ Mordechai Ginsburg wrote a Kuntrus in honor of Chanukah Mordechai. In it he wrote something that is in unbelievable.
He wrote that in the year 1293 of the secular calendar, there was a terrible person named Frederick. He was part of the Crusades. The Crusades, of course was a group of individuals who formed an army, followed the mission of the holy church to take back the holy land of Israel from the Muslims. They went from town to town and butchered thousands of Jews. When they came to the town of Nirenberg, they were greeted by this Tzadik, R Mordechai Ben R’ Hillel Ashkenazi. Frederick spoke to him and said, “I want your village to accept upon themselves our religion”. R’ Mordechai said, “There is nothing to talk about”. He said, “I want you to know I will gather them in square tomorrow. Either they will convert or they will be put to death”.
The next day he asked “Will you accept our religion?”, and they all answered in one voice, Hear All Israel, the Lord our G-d is One (“Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad”). He proceeded to kill every single one of the 760 souls that gave up their lives for Kiddush Hashem. The gematria of the Hebrew, “Nikmas dam avadecha”, to avenge the blood of your servants that have been spilled is 760. R’ Mordechai told him, “You think you will break us. You will never break us. I am proud and joyous to be part of a nation that no matter what you do to our bodies, you will never destroy our souls”. That night, as he was sparred, he composed this Mizmor of Maoz Tzur.
Paragraph after paragraph in the song, we talk about a villain that tries to destroy the Jewish people and fails miserable because “The G-d of Israel is not false”.
The hymn is named for its Hebrew , which means “Stronghold of Rock” & is a name for G-d.
The above story may be true because “Ma’oz Tzur” is thought to have been written in the 13th century, during the Crusades. The first letters of the first five stanzas form an acrostic of the composer’s name, Mordechai (the five Hebrew letters מרדכי).
The poem recalls the many times when Jewish communities were saved from the people around them.