OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi “Who wrote Ma’oz Tzur?


Question. Who wrote Ma’oz Tzur?

Answer.  The initial letters of the first five stanzas yield the acrostic Mordechai, indicating an author named Mordechai who lived in Germany in the early 13th century.

Which Mordechai it was has not been established. There is a theory that he was Mordechai the son of Isaac, author of a Sabbath song called Mah Yafit.

The sixth stanza (“Chas of Zero’a Kod’sh’cha”), if it is authentic, begins with the three letters of “Chazak” (Be Strong!), following a style that often appears in medieval religious hymns to produce an acrostic that reads “Mordechai, may he be strong”

The melody imitates a medieval German folk tune deriving from Protestant sources in the 15th century. The hymn suggests the persecutions of the Crusades and the sixth verse cleverly Alludes to Christianity, one of very few Christian references in the Jewish prayer book.

In recent centuries a number of authors have drafted additional verses for Ma’oz Tzur, but none has become as widely accepted as the original five or six-stanza text. The existing sixth stanza, in common with the newer versions, culminates in a prayer for the messianic redemption.

One new verse composed by Morey Schwartz in Israel reads in translation:

“Two thousand years of memory/Never losing our hope in destiny/Age after age, in many a land/We raised our eyes to Zion’s sand/We are back in our ancient home/Our dispersed can come/State and people, we shall fulfil our dream”.


Question. Why did the sages have such a poor opinion of the Hasmoneans?

Answer.  They saw both their good and bad points. At the same time as praising their achievements, they criticized the Hasmonean egotism and power hunger, wanting both the spiritual and temporal crowns as high priests and kings at the same time (Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 3:2).

The commentator Nachmanides praised the Hasmoneans for their service to the Torah and said that without them the Torah might have been forgotten. Nonetheless he adds that they should not have brought the integrity of the priesthood into question by wanting to be kings at the same time (Ramban to Num. 18:7). Temporal rulers do not (and possibly cannot) base themselves solely on the rules of the Torah.

The Chatam Sofer even goes further by suggesting that because the Hasmoneans grabbed too much they risked losing the credit for what they did, which explains why the Talmud has no distinct tractate about Chanukah and the only Talmudic reference to the festival is rather fleeting (Shab. 21b, Bava Kamma 62b). In contrast, Purim has a whole Megillah of its own and a whole volume in the Talmud.


Question.   I have heard that Maimonides tells the story of Chanukah in his Code before he lists the laws of the festival, but he does not put in a history lesson first when enumerating other festival laws. Why the exception for Chanukah?

Answer.  Rav JB Soloveitchik explains that one reason is that the other festivals have Biblical accounts of their history whereas Chanukah does not.

The Rav adds that since the main theme of the festival is “pirsum ha-nes”, publicising the miracle, we have to know what miracle it is that we are called upon to publicise.


Question.Menorah or Chanukiyah – which is the right word?

Answer.  Popular usage has changed. Everyone used to speak of the menorah, but strictly speaking that was the 7-branched light stand in the Temple.

The Chanukah lamp originally avoided the tree-with-branches shape and of course it had 9 lights and not 7. In recent times the word chanukiyah has become common in order to denote the difference.


Question. Did Judah use the name Maccabee?

Answer.  The name is likely to have come later. He himself would probably not have used it, despite a statement in the 1st Book of Maccabees 2:4 that assumes that Judah had this name before his military exploits. It is more likely that he called himself simply Yehudah ben Matitiyahu, Judah the son of Mattathias the kohen.

Any additional name which he used would have been a reference to his descent from Chashmon, which, according to Josephus (“Antiquities of the Jews”, 12:263), is the name of his great-great-grandfather, though the sages sometimes regarded Chashmon or Chashmonai as the father of Mattathias and sometimes used the names Chashmon(ai) and Mattathias interchangeably.

An alternative view links Chashmon with the village of Cheshmon, mentioned in Joshua 15:27. The name Chashmon leads to the title Hasmonean. Hasmonean (but not Maccabee) is the name used in rabbinic sources, e.g. Middot 1:6 and Shabbat 21b, but not in the Books of Maccabees, which use the name Maccabee.

Judah himself is not mentioned by name in rabbinic sources, probably in order to prevent a Judah-cult arising. A similar reason is behind the omission of Moses from the Haggadah, apart from one incidental scriptural quotation.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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