Raise Up the Shepherd(s) – Maoz Tzur’s Eschatological Ending
After lighting the Chanukah menorah, many people sing the Maʿoz Tzur, a hymn from the 12th/13th century. As I noted in my “Maʿoz Tzur and the ‘End of Christianity’” (TheTorah, 2016), the immense popularity of the poem and its many gratifying melodies (the most famous of which is, essentially, a German choral) conceal the true story of the poem, which was written in response to the slaughter of dozens of Jewish communities—children, women and the elderly—by the Crusaders. Significant parts of the poem are violent, calling for divine revenge for the blood of tens of thousands of Jews who were murdered or forced to convert in the name of Christian love.
The initial letter of each of the poem’s first five stanzas spell out מרדכי Mordechai, the name of the author. The sixth stanza spells out חזק “strength” in the first three words, a standard way for the author of a poem to end his signature. Unlike the first five stanzas, which survey miraculous redemptions in Jewish history, the final stanza, reflecting the reality of the crusades, directly asks for oppression to end and redemption to arrive.
חֲשׂוֹף זרוֹע קָדְשֶׁךָ
וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה
Expose your holy arm,
And bring the end, the redemption
נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ
Avenge the abuse of your servants,
From the wicked nation (=Catholic Europe).
For the redemption has been long delayed,
And there is no end to the days of misery.
It concludes with an enigmatic request that comes in two variants:
דְּחֵה אַדְמוֹן בְּצֵל צַלְמוֹן
Reject Edom (=Christendom) in the shadow of the image (=crucifix),
הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעֶה שִׁבְעָה / רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה
Raise up for us the shepherd of the seven / the seven shepherds.
It is unclear which version is original. The more popular version nowadays is the second version, “seven shepherds.” An unsystematic survey of about three dozen siddurim and mahzorim of the past three centuries, however, shows that the רועה שבעה “shepherd of the seven” version is more frequent. Both versions are cryptic and point to different biblical verses.
The Shepherd of the Seven
“Shepherd of the seven” is the more enigmatic phrase, since no biblical or rabbinic text refers to a shepherd of the seven. The phrase may be a subtle reference to the most quoted expression of the Bible’s peaceful eschatology:
ישעיה יא:ו וְגָר זְאֵב עִם כֶּבֶשׂ וְנָמֵר עִם גְּדִי יִרְבָּץ וְעֵגֶל וּכְפִיר וּמְרִיא יַחְדָּו וְנַעַר קָטֹן נֹהֵג בָּם.
Isaiah 11:6 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.
The verse enumerates seven animals, and they are all led by a little child. Although the verse does not use the word “shepherd,” the child is envisioned as one, and therefore, the little child of Isaiah 11:6 may be “the shepherd of the seven” alluded to in the ending of Maʿoz Tzur.
If the author of Maʿoz Tzur’s intention was to allude to Isaiah 11:6, then the last stanza is a prayer for a peaceful end of days: Following the collapse of the “evil kingdom” (i.e., the European inheritors of Rome), he beseeches God for a world filled with universal love, peace, and human brotherhood, where even a young child can shepherd a wolf alongside a lamb, a leopard with a kid, and a lion with a calf.
The Seven Shepherds
The version that ends with “the seven shepherds” is taken from the book of Micah, which promises that if the king of Assyria invades Israel, God will “raise” (ק.ו.מ in the hiphʿil form) seven shepherds to save the people of Israel from him:
מיכה ה:ד …אַשּׁוּר כִּי יָבוֹא בְאַרְצֵנוּ
וְכִי יִדְרֹךְ בְּאַרְמְנֹתֵינוּ
וַהֲקֵמֹנוּ עָלָיו שִׁבְעָה רֹעִים
וּשְׁמֹנָה נְסִיכֵי אָדָם.
Mic 5:4/5 …Should Assyria invade our land
And tread upon our fortresses,
We will raise up over him seven shepherds,
Eight princes of men.
As noted by peshat commentators, the numbers are not meant to be specific, but to express abundance. This is clear from the fact that seven shepherds are parallel to eight princes of men. Thus, ibn Ezra writes:
שבעה – גם שמנה, כדרך (קהלת יא:ב): תן חלק לשבעה וגם לשמונה. והטעם כפול, כי נסיכים כמו רועים, והנה אינם חמשה עשר.
Seven—and also eight, this functions the same as (Eccl 11:2) “Distribute portions to seven or even to eight.” And the point is doubled, since princes are the same as shepherds, and they do not add up to fifteen (i.e., 7 shepherds + 8 princes).
In context, the prophecy refers to events that will (or may) happen during the period of Assyrian dominance. Thus, Rid (Rabbi Isaiah di Tranni, ca. 1165–1250), an important Italian commentator on both the Talmud and the Bible, suggests in his commentary on Micah (ad loc.) that אילו הם שרי חזקיהו “these are the ministers of Hezekiah,” the very king who is miraculously saved from the conquest of the army of Sennacherib [סנחריב], the King of Assyria.
In this interpretation, Micah’s prophecy was already fulfilled in the time of the prophet Micah himself. In a way, Rid’s interpretation follows in the footsteps of Rabbi Hillel the Second (b. Sanhedrin 99a), the Talmudic sage who asserted that אין להם משיח לישראל שכבר אכלוהו בימי חזקיה “there is no Messiah to Israel, as it was already consumed at the time of Hezekiah.”
The Hasmonean Rebellion
Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi (1280–1355), the Provençal Averroist philosopher, locates the prophesied event in a later period, building on the work of Josippun, the Hebrew reworking of Josephus popular among medieval exegetes:
מבואר בארוכה בספר יוסיפון (פרק כ"ב) כי זה יעוד פשוט על מתתיהו ובניו, כי אלו היו הראשים. וגם אמרו והקמנו עליו – כלומר עמו, כי עם מתתיהו היה יהודה ויתר אחיו הגבורים שם, שהיו חמשה בנים למתתיהו ועמם זקנים וגבורים מישראל, שנתחברו עם אלה רבים. ולכן אמר שבעה ושמנה – כלומר רבים ורבים.
This is explained at length in Josippun (ch. 22), that the intended meaning is clearly Mattathias and his sons, for they were the leaders. And thus it says “and we will raise up upon him” meaning “with him,” for along with Mattathias were Judah and the rest of his brothers, the heroes there. Mattathias had five sons, and together with them were Jewish elders and warriors, for many joined them. This is why it says “seven and eight,” meaning, very many.
In Kaspi’s reading, the seven-shepherds prophecy was fulfilled well after Micah’s time, in the period of the Maccabees.
Both Kaspi and Rid agree that the prophecy here refers to a salvation that took place in the past and was led by living people from the time of the persecution. This veers far from the traditional rabbinic interpretation of the verse.
Figures from the Ancient Past: Rabbinic Interpretation
The Talmud (b. Sukkah 52b) suggests that the seven shepherds are important figures from Israel’s past:
מאן נינהו שבעה רועים? דוד באמצע, אדם שת ומתושלח מימינו. אברהם, יעקב ומשה משמאלו.
Who are the seven shepherds? David in the middle, Adam, Seth, and Methuselah to his right; Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, on his left.
ומאן נינהו שמנה נסיכי אדם? ישי ושאול ושמואל עמוס וצפניה (צדקיה) [חזקיה] אליהו ומשיח.
And who are the eight princes of man? Jesse, Saul, Samuel, Amos, Zephaniah, (Zedekiah) [Hezekiah], Elijah, and the messiah.
This is clearly an eschatological vision, with these ancient heroic figures appearing again on earth in order to save Israel from some future, final crisis, and it is this general idea of the seven shepherds that Maʿoz Tzur is referencing. (For a discussion of why the Talmud chooses these seven, see addendum.)
Seven Shepherds in Later Eschatological Literature
References to the seven shepherds in a messianic context abound in Jewish eschatological literature, especially of the past five centuries. For example, Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, in his Epistle of the Soul’s Ascent [אגרת עליית נשמה], describes him ascending to the heavenly castle of the Messiah where he encounters the Seven Shepherds.
ועליתי מדרגה אחר מדרגה, עד שנכנסתי להיכל משיח, ששם לומד משיח תורה עם כל התנאים והצדיקים וגם עם שבעה רועים, ושם ראיתי שמחה גדולה עד מאוד.
And I ascended step by step till I entered the palace of the Messiah where the Messiah studies Torah with all the Tannaim and the Righteous people, and also with the Seven Shepherds. And I witnessed there a great joy.
In short, the messianic understanding of the verse in Micah dominates in traditional interpretation. If “seven shepherds” is the original text of Maʿoz Tzur, he is envisioning the eschaton, in which the shepherds are the entourage of the Messiah.
The End of Days in Maʿoz Tzur
The two versions of the text suggest very different backgrounds. While the “shepherd of the seven” points us to the peaceful imagery from Isaiah, of the young lad harmoniously leading animals who were formerly predators and prey, the “seven shepherds” imagery conjures up the final battle of the eschaton, on par with the great Judean wars against Assyrian and the Seleucid Greeks.
The exact meaning of the final phrase remains elusive, but an enigmatic image is not necessarily less powerful, especially in a poetic context. And perhaps it is precisely the enigmatic and paradoxical nature of this image which has made it so powerful and enchanting.
Why David, Adam, Seth, Methuselah Abraham, Jacob, and Moses?
It is easy to understand why the Talmud (b. Sukkah 52b) would include David as the middle shepherd, David: He is the ancestor of the Messiah—who appears in the Talmud’s next list—and he was a warrior who can be easily pictured as returning to life to fight Israel’s wars one last time along with his long-awaited descendent. The two sets of pairs, however, that make up the rest of the list are more difficult to understand.
The first three figures come from the primeval history in Genesis, including the first human being (Adam), his righteous son (Seth), and the human that lived the longest (Methuselah).
Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040–1105), the canonical rabbinic commentator on both the Talmud and the Bible, explains the first two (b. Sukkah 52b):
מן הצדיקים שקודם המבול, שלא חטאו עד דור אנוש.
Those were among the righteous before the (generation of the) flood whose sinning began only by the generation of Enosh.
This is based on the rabbinic interpretation of אָז הוּחַל לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְ־הוָה “then they began to call the name of YHWH” (Gen 4:26). According to the rabbis, this means that people in the generation of Enosh son of Seth named their children with God’s name, i.e., they called them YHWH, thereby reducing YHWH’s significance.
Rashi then continues by noting that מתושלח צדיק גמור “Methuselah was a completely righteous person.” This too is based on rabbinic exegesis, which claims that the seven days Noah is given before the flood was to start were in honor of the seven days of mourning for Methuselah who had just died (b. Sanhedrin 108b).
Where is Isaac?
The second set of three shepherds includes two of the patriarchs, Abraham and Jacob, and the great prophet and lawgiver, Moses, but the third patriarch, Isaac, is inexplicably absent. Here too, Rashi (ad loc.) tries to make sense of the list:
ויצחק להיכן אזל להציל בניו מדינה של גהינם.
As for Isaac, where did he go? [He went] to save his descendants from the judgment of Gehenna.
Rashi is culling from rabbinic tradition, which has a midrashic understanding of a verse in Isaiah:
ישעיה סג:טז כִּי אַתָּה אָבִינוּ כִּי אַבְרָהָם לֹא יְדָעָנוּ וְיִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יַכִּירָנוּ אַתָּה יְ־הוָה אָבִינוּ...
Isa 63:16 Surely you are our Father, though Abraham regard us not, and Israel recognize us not, You, YHWH, are our Father…
“You are our father” appears twice. The rabbis (Kallah Rabbati 7:4)—who interpret every repetition as meaningful and not merely rhetorical style—note that Isaac is the one patriarch missing, and suggest that the first “you are our father” is aimed at him who, unlike Abraham and Jacob/Israel, cared enough about his wayward descendants to enter Gehenna on their behalf to protect them.
Indeed, the problem of Isaac’s absence so bothered medieval exegetes, that two different Talmudic manuscripts (Oxford 366 and Vatican 134) and a genizah fragment (T-S NS 329.714–715) actually include the Isaac-is-busy explanation in the text itself! Even more surprising, MS Munich 95 simply deletes Moses and adds Isaac into his “rightful” place!
Despite his utilization of all these midrashic tropes, Rashi is still at a loss to explain how the rabbis came to decide that these seven individuals are the seven shepherds who will protect Israel from the Assyrian king:
לא ידעתי בהם טעם. כמדומה לי דאמרינן בעלמא.
I do not know a reason for these. Presumably, it is a colloquial saying.
Rashi makes the same observation in his commentary on Micah (ad loc.):
רבותינו פרשו שמותיהן במסכת סוכה ואיני יודע מהיכן למדו
Our Rabbis spelled out their names [i.e., of the seven shepherds] in Tractate Sukkah, though I do not know where they learned them [i.e., the names] from.
Thus, while the rabbinic tradition is clearly messianic and eschatological, the actual figure(s) included feels a bit ad hoc. If there is a clear method behind the choice, even Rashi could not uncover it.
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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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