O Fortress, Rock of my salvation, it is pleasant to praise you:
let my house of prayer be restored, and I will there offer thanksgivings
when you have prepared a slaughter of the barking foe,
I will complete with song and psalm the dedication of the altar.
The Greeks were gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans;
they broke down the walls of my towers, and defiled all the oils;
but from one of the last remaining flasks a miracle was wrought for the lilies
and their men of understanding appointed these eight days for song and praises.
(Translation by David Schwartz, www.sefaria.org.il)
מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי לְךָ נָאֶה לְשַׁבֵּחַ
תִּכּוֹן בֵּית תְּפִלָּתִי וְשָׁם תּוֹדָה נְזַבֵּחַ
לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ מִצָּר הַמְנַבֵּחַ
אָז אֶגְמֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
יְוָנִים נִקְבְּצוּ עָלַי אֲזַי בִּימֵי חַשְׁמַנִּים
וּפָרְצוּ חוֹמוֹת מִגְדָּלַי וְטִמְּאוּ כָּל הַשְּׁמָנִים
וּמִנּוֹתַר קַנְקַנִּים נַעֲשָׂה נֵס לַשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים
בְּנֵי בִינָה יְמֵי שְׁמוֹנָה קָבְעוּ שִׁיר וּרְנָנִים
Foundations for Planning
- How do challenges and struggles lead to growth?
- How can exploring the past impact our present?
- What can we learn from the different events in Jewish history?
- What has aided Jewish resilience?
- How do the traditions of Chanukah teach us about resilience?
- How can we develop resilience in the face of challenges in our lives?
The piyyut (prayer song) Maoz Tzur is one of the best-known piyyutim and is strongly associated with Chanukah. It is customary to sing this piyyut on each night of Chanukah, just after lighting the Chanukah candles. The piyyut is thought to have been written...
The piyyut (prayer song) Maoz Tzur is one of the best-known piyyutim and is strongly associated with Chanukah. It is customary to sing this piyyut on each night of Chanukah, just after lighting the Chanukah candles. The piyyut is thought to have been written in Germany around the 13th century. The piyyut was written to the tune of a German folk march that was popular at that time. Today, this tune is widely used in all communities, including communities from the Middle East and North Africa that were exposed to this piyyut only after the founding of the state of Israel.
The author’s name is thought to have been Mordechai, as that is the acrostic that appears when we look at the start of each of the five verses of the piyyut. The first letters of the three words that begin the last verse spell out the word חזק (chazak, meaning strong), which is a typical way of ending a piyyut that contains an acrostic.
The piyyut begins by praising God and with a prayer for the establishment of the Temple and its rededication, alongside a prayer for revenge over the nation’s enemies who seek its destruction. Four of the verses address different eras in Jewish history during which there was a threat to the continued existence of the Jewish people. Those eras are: the Egyptian exile, the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile, the Purim story in which the Jews were saved from the wicked Haman, and the Hasmonean war against the Hellenists and the miracle of the cruse of oil.
The last verse is addressed toward God and begs that the Jewish people be saved once again in this era, the Edomite exile during which the piyyut was written under Christian rule. We can assume that the piyyut was written following the Crusades, which occurred at that time and were accompanied by the murder of Jews and other atrocities. From this distress, the author asks that we look back on Jewish history and learn about the resistance of the Jewish people against earlier enemies. He prays and cries out from his distress for a miracle that will save the Jews, as well as for vengeance against the nations. The entire piyyut is centered on God’s power to save God’s people in every generation. This is a song of praise to God and a request that God continue to protect the Jewish people.
The phenomenon of hatred of Jews that is described in the piyyut is referred to today as anti-Semitism. Despite the lessons of the Holocaust, which was a result of European anti-Semitism, we can still find expressions of anti-Semitism around the world. At the same time, today, there is more condemnation of anti-Semitism and efforts are being made to draw attention to the problem of anti-Semitism. The piyyut teaches us about Jewish history in the shadow of hatred and reminds us of the importance of resilience and strength in the face of external enemies and the importance of maintaining our faith in what is good.
In this unit, we present two verses of the piyyut. You can find the entire piyyut on the Piyyut and Prayer website of the National Library of Israel.
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
- The song begins with praise for God who saves the Jewish people when they are in distress and facing tragedy. What times of distress have the Jewish people faced over their history? You can refer to different holidays and special days in the Jewish calendar. (If you are studying the whole piyyut, you can ask the students to answer this question in accordance with the different verses of the piyyut.) Hints you can give to students who are having trouble with this question: Purim, Tisha B’Av, Chanukah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Passover.
- Why do you think that the author chose to write a song that mentions the different times of danger experienced by the Jewish people over history? What messages did he want to convey? How does this list make you feel?
- The author draws a connection between the destruction of the enemy and the dedication of the altar in the Temple. How is this connection seen in the Chanukah story?
- Do you think that there is anyone who wants to harm the Jewish people today? If so, what do you think could help the Jewish people with this?
- According to the piyyut, what helped the Jewish people to survive the external enemies that tried to overpower them over the years? What do you think helped the Jewish people to survive in all of those situations?
- How can we explain the fate of the Jewish people that has had, time and time again, to deal with hatred and our enemies’ efforts to destroy us? Do you think that this is the situation that the Jewish people face today? Explain your answers.
- What does a nation need to develop resilience against threats? What does an individual need to develop such resilience?
- Do you think that challenges and struggles are necessary for the development of resilience, or can they also develop in the absence of an external enemy? What does this resilience give to a person and a nation? Are there also downsides to this? If so, what are they?
- Do you think this song is optimistic or pessimistic?
- Invite the students to write new verses to Maoz Tzur. Suggestions: Refer to additional events in Jewish history (such as the Holocaust); change particular lines in the song, in order to change the focus of the song to your own idea; write personal verses that describe challenges you’ve faced in your own life and how you coped with those challenges; or add a verse that describes the forces that you believe have strengthened the Jewish nation.
- Have the students interview adult Jews that they know and ask them about difficulties that they have faced because they are Jewish. If they have faced such difficulties, what helped them to cope with them?
- Learn about standing by our principles in the face of an external enemy, in the resource “Loyalty to Our Principles”.
- Learn other Chanukah songs. You can do this through this medley.
- What do heroism and resilience have in common? In what ways are they different? Learn more about these themes in a resource about heroism.
- There are many recordings of this song on the internet. Listen to one or more of them. For example, the one by this group.