The pleasure of Chanukah is enhanced by its colourful traditions and customs. Lighting the menorah is only the beginning of the way we celebrate the festival. There are also Chanukah gelt, potato latkes, games with dreidels, and the popular Chanukah songs.
According to Talmudic tradition, the main song should be Psalm 30, Mizmor Shir Chanukat HaBayit. But for most Jews, even Sephardim, the medieval Ashkenazi hymn, Ma’oz Tzur, is the musical piece de resistance.
Its title is from Isaiah 17:10. The acrostic in the initial letters of the verses supplies the name Mordechai – probably a 13th-century poet, perhaps Mordechai ben Yitzchak, author of the Shabbat song, Mah Yafit.
Ma’oz Tzur retells Jewish history in poetic form and celebrates our deliverance from four ancient enemies, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman and Antiochus. Like much of our liturgical poetry, it is full of allusions to Biblical literature and rabbinic interpretation. Thus, malchut eglah denotes Egypt (Jeremiah 46:2); noges is Nebuchadnezzar; y’mini is Mordechai Esther 2:5); y’vanim is Antiochus; shoshanim is the Jewish people (Shir HaShirim 2:2); b’nei vinah are the rabbinic sages; and shir refers to the Hallel psalms.
Those brought up on the old Singer Siddur have always known there were five verses and have sung them with gusto all their lives, never imagining that once there was a sixth verse that somehow got suppressed. But that verse, reproduced at the end of this paragraph, has found its way back into more recent editions of the siddur.
The 6th Verse:
חֲשׂוֹף זְרוֹעַ קָדְשֶׁךָ וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה
נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ מֵאֻמָּה הָרְשָׁעָה
כִּי אָרְכָה הַשָּׁעָה וְאֵין קֵץ לִימֵי הָרָעָה
דְּחֵה אַדְמוֹן בְּצֵל צַלְמוֹן הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה
Make bare Thy holy arm, and bring near
the final salvation:
Take vengeance for Thy servants from the
For the time has been prolonged, and there
is no end to the evil days.
Thrust away Admon in the shadow of Tzalmon.
Raise up seven shepherds.
It begins chasof z’ro’a kodshecha, “make bare Thy holy arm”, a plea to God to bestir Himself, throw off the yoke of Rome and the church, and bring about the messianic redemption.
Not every scholar accepts that this verse was part of the original Ma’oz Tzur. Some believe it is a later addition. But at least three reasons support the authenticity of the verse:
1. A medieval poet is highly likely to have referred to contemporary persecutions;
2. Poems of this kind usually end with a reference to the coming of Mashiach;
3. The first three words produce the acrostic chazak (“be strong!”), common in such poems.
Writing during the Middle Ages, when Christian persecution of Jews was so fierce, a Hebrew poet would have instinctively voiced his yearning for the yoke to be lifted. But any reference to the church would invite censorship, and this is probably why chasof z’ro’a was suppressed.
Mention of the church comes in the last line, not directly but by allusion, in the first four words, “Thrust away Admon in the shadow of Tzalmon“. Admon is from Edom (literally “red”), by which name the rabbis used to refer to Rome; Tzalmon, originally a hill near Shechem, is a reference to Christianity (tzelem is the Hebrew for “cross”). This is probably the only case in the siddur of a clear negative reference to Christianity.
The final phrase, “Raise up seven shepherds”, appears puzzling. However, Micah 5:4 indicates that in messianic times seven shepherds (seven denotes completeness or perfection) will overcome any adversary who attacks the Divine flock of Israel.
For more expositions and insights on Chanukah by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, visit the OzTorah Chanukah page.