Q. Did the Maccabees sing Ma’oz Tzur as they marched against the enemy?
The author of the song, whose name, Mordechai, is enshrined in the initial letters of the verses, lived no earlier than the 13th century. Some say he was Mordechai ben Yitzchak HaLevi, who lived in the early 14th century and wrote the Shabbat song, Mah Yafit.
But whichever Mordechai it was, the contents of Ma’oz Tzur show that its origins were much later than the Maccabean period.
The fifth verse reflects the decision of the b’nei vinah (the “men of understanding”, i.e. the sages) to ordain Chanukah as an eight-day festival, and the sixth verse (Chasof z’ro’a kod’sh’cha), which may or may not be Mordechai’s work, speaks of medieval persecutions of the Jews by the admon b’tzel tzalmon (“the Roman church in the shade of the cross”).
The standard melody is not Jewish in origin. It derived from a German folk song, also used by Martin Luther for a chorale, the opening and closing bars of which are the same as the melody that is so familiar to us. The middle section is from a battle song published in 1504.
According to AZ Idelsohn, the two German songs penetrated into the ghetto and were attached by a Jewish singer to the words of Ma’oz Tzur. In time it became the characteristic musical motif for the Ashkenazi Chanukah liturgy.
During World War I, the Jewish Battalion used it in their regimental march.