Ma’oz Tzur and the “End of Christianity”
A 12th/13th Century Ashkenazi Hymn
Ma’oz Tzur is the most popular of the Chanukah hymns. It was written in late twelfth- or early thirteenth-century Ashkenaz. The poem’s style attests to the influence of the literary devices and norms of the Sefardic Piyyut. Through the centuries the hymn was adopted by the vast majority of Jewish communities, and became the piece of liturgy most associated with the festival of Chanukah.
The poem is comprised of six stanzas. The acrostic formed from the first letters of the first five stanzas give us the name of the author: Mordechai [מרדכי], though little if anything is known about the identity of this Mordechai. Quite ironically, even though it has strong anti-Christian elements, its most famous mellow melody derives from a sixteenth-century Protestant Choral.
Six Stanzas – Two Units
The six stanzas of the poem are divided into two main units. The four middle stanzas narrate, in the past tense, the events of four persecutions of the Jews: the Egyptian exile, the Babylonian exile, the persecution of the Jews by Haman in the Persian Empire as narrated in the Book of Esther, and finally, the Greek attempt to enforce Hellenistic religion and culture during the Hasmonean period. (This, ostensibly, constitutes the official reason for the association of the hymn with the festival of Chanukah.)
The first and last stanzas 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 stanza begins with an appeal to God (“the rock of my salvation”), affirming that it is only He who should be the proper object of praise and adoration, with the second line perhaps referring to the practice of Jewish martyrs during the persecutions of the twelfth century to recite ״עלינו לשבח״ at the time of their execution.
מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי
לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּח
Refuge, Rock of my salvation
To You it is proper to offer praise.
Then the poem expresses a wish for the rebuilding of the Temple, and the renewal of thanksgiving offerings.
תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָּתִי,
וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ.
Prepare the house of my prayers
And there I will offer thanksgiving offerings.
The third line of the stanza is quite surprising, given the poem’s pretty traditional opening:
לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ
When you prepare a butchery
For the barking enemy
אָז אֶגְמוֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר
Then shall I conclude with a psalm song
For the inauguration of the altar
The butchery of the barking enemy is, in a sense, the very act of the inauguration of the altar, but the identity of the barking enemy was left undisclosed “officially”–at least until the early eighteenth century, when the last stanza of Ma’oz Tzur first appeared in print.
To the best of my knowledge, the sixth stanza first appeared in print in Amsterdam in 1702. The fact that the sixth stanza was only first printed hundreds of years after the hymn was written has led some scholars to suggest that it is not original but a later addition. Nevertheless, the intricate style of the sixth stanza is identical to that of the first five stanzas, and it complements almost perfectly the topic of the first stanza. Thus, the last stanza is not a later addition, but rather a unit intentionally repressed and passed by oral tradition for almost five centuries (!) due to its strong anti-Christian theme.
The first line begins by beseeching God to “expose his holy arm,” an expression referring to God’s violent redemption of the Hebrews from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm [ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה]” (Deut. 26:8).
חֲשׂוֹף זרוֹע קָדְשֶׁךָ
וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה
Expose your holy arm,
And bring the end of the redemption (yeshua)
Against whom is God meant to apply his mighty arm? The phrase which follows – “וקרב קץ הישועה” – may mean simply: “bring the end, the redemption.” But the text may have a surreptitious meaning as well: “bring the end of Jesusism.” In other words: “Bring the end of Christianity.” The intentional double meaning of ישועה (yeshua) as simply redemption, on one hand, and as a collective noun referring to the followers of ישוע (Yeshua, Jesus) on the other, allowed the medieval Jews to assert and conceal their hatred of Christianity at the same time.
The Wicked Nation
The succeeding line is a natural continuation of the hidden meaning of the opening line of the stanza:
נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ
Avenge the abuse of your servants
From the wicked nation.
For the redemption has been long delayed,
And there is no end to the days of misery.
The term אומה הרשעה (Wicked Nation) is a standard rabbinic reference to Rome and Christianity, and the historical context of hymn, being written in the era of the massacres perpetrated by the crusaders explains the desire for revenge and the urgent request for redemption expressed in the third line.
Rejecting Christianity as the Precursor to World Redemption
The final line of the stanza opens with a plea to God to reject Christianity and its dominion.
In the shadow of tzalmon
The opening phrase, ״דחה אדמון״, is a plea for God to reject Edom/Esau, who is commonly associated with Rome and Christianity in rabbinic literature.
The next phrase: בצל צלמון is polysemic. In the Bible, the term צלם (tzelem) can mean either an image or idol, but in medieval and early modern Rabbinic Hebrew, it acquired a much more specific meaning since Tzelem, the base of the word, is an unequivocal reference to the cross.
Thus, for example, the Jews of Hungary called the town of Deutschkreutz [German: German Cross] Zelem (and the local Rabbi was commonly called: “The Zelem Ruv]”). Thus, the phrase דחה אדמון בצל צלמון seems to be a clear reference to Christianity, asking God to reject Christianity (as if reproaching God for standing on the side of the crusaders during the massacres!), yielding something like, “Reject Esau that stands in the shadow of the cross-idol.”
The Seven Shepherds and the Shepherd of Seven
The hymn concludes with the enigmatic request, הקם לנו רועה שבעה – “bring us the shepherd of the seven,” or as in a variant reading: “bring us the seven shepherds.”
הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעֶה (או: רוֹעִים) שִׁבְעָה
Bring us the shepherd of the seven (or “seven shepherds”).
Commonly, the last phrase is interpreted as a reference to Micah 5:4, which promises that if the king of Assyria invades Israel, God will raise seven shepherds to save the people of Israel.
…אַשּׁוּר כִּי יָבוֹא בְאַרְצֵנוּ
וְכִי יִדְרֹךְ בְּאַרְמְנֹתֵינוּ
וַהֲקֵמֹנוּ עָלָיו שִׁבְעָה רֹעִים
וּשְׁמֹנָה נְסִיכֵי אָדָם.
…Should Assyria invade our land
And tread upon our fortresses,
We will set up over it seven shepherds,
Eight princes of men.
This is, I think, a reasonable reading, though it does not really fit the theme of the entire hymn, nor does it fit the likely original text “the shepherd of seven.” I speculate, therefore, that the phrase has an alternative, or possibly additional, meaning.
Isaiah 11 is one of the major texts of Jewish eschatology, especially that version of Jewish eschatology that preaches universal peace and brotherhood. Isaiah 11:6 might be the most quoted expression of this peaceful eschatology:
וְגָר זְאֵב עִם כֶּבֶשׂ וְנָמֵר עִם גְּדִי יִרְבָּץ וְעֵגֶל וּכְפִיר וּמְרִיא יַחְדָּו וְנַעַר קָטֹן נֹהֵג בָּם.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
If we count the number of animals led by the little child, we have seven. Is the little child of Isaiah 11:6 “the shepherd of the seven”? If this was the intention of the author of Ma’oz Tzur, we have a very unusual yet specific vision of the end of days: universal love, peace, and human brotherhood would come only after קץ הישועה.
The depth of animosity between Christians and Jews toward the end of the middle ages had no close parallel in the relation between contemporary Jews and Muslims. For the most part, Jews felt theologically closer to Islam (due to its uncompromised monotheism), and for the most part the conditions of Jews living under the rule of Islam were less harsh than those of their brethren in Christendom.
Times, however, have changed as has the relationship between contemporary Jews and Christians. To choose just one example, Pope Francis, the current leader of Catholic Christianity, is also one of the most significant advocates of religious and racial inclusiveness, and of global social justice and equality. Let us hope and strive for a similar turn of events in the relationship between Jews and Muslims, seeking the day when “the land shall be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”
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December 21, 2016
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Prof. Yitzhak Y. Melamed is the Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and Member of the Steering Committee of the Stulman Jewish studies Program. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University and an MA in philosophy and the history of science and logic from Tel Aviv University. Melamed is the author of Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought.
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