“Rock of Ages” and the American Hanukkah

This year (2013) has seen an explosion of American Jewish enthusiasm surrounding the fact that the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving Day. It’s hardly obvious that this occurrence would be as significant to American Jews as it is, had Hanukkah been seen as primarily having such meanings as the resistance to assimilation (rejection of the mityavnim “Hellenizers”) or reestablishing the ancient Temple ritual. The story goes that the Maccabean revolt, after all, was sparked by an act of terror: killing the Judean who was prepared to sacrifice and eat pork, and Israeli narratives about Hanukkah more frequently refer to Hellenizers than American narratives—and the name of the festival and its most prominent symbol celebrate the rededication of the Temple with the concomitant reintroduction of the Priestly ritual, with its animal sacrifices. At least part of the re-fashioning of Hanukkah in America is reflected in “Rock of Ages,” the well-known singable English version of the Hanukkah hymn Maoz Tsur.

The Hanukkah hymn Maoz Tsur, is nearly universally sung after lighting the Hanukkah menorah. The Hebrew text probably dates to the 13th century, and the poem recounts the many times that undeserving Jewry was saved from those wishing the destruction of Jews or Judaism by Divine intervention, with hopes to celebrate the rededication (Hebrew: Hanukah) of the Temple and redemption of Israel.

Personal experience, confirmed by informal discussions with colleagues and friends (at least those roughly in my age cohort) attests to nearly universal familiarity among American Jews with the English version “Rock of Ages” ascribed to Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil (both died 1903), often said to be based on an earlier German restatement by Leopold Stein (1810-1882), a staple in the German Jewish tradition. (http://leopoldstein.net/html/stein_leopold_maoz.html has a scanned page from Lewandowski’s setting of Maoz Tzur with the full German text ascribed to Stein with further notes. The German text as given is a “singable translation” with five verses strictly paralleling those of the Hebrew hymn, far closer to the Hebrew of Maoz Tzur than is the Gottheil-Jastrow text.)

It’s not surprising that people know the first verse of “Rock of Ages,” but at a recent academic conference, I was impressed that a significant number of my colleagues could even reconstruct much of the final verse. “Rock of Ages” no doubt reflects late 19th-century Reform Judaism’s themes of universal brotherhood and de-emphasis of ritual, but I would suggest that it continues to affirm or even shape our understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah itself.

Consider, for a moment, what values would come to the fore in a poetic, singable version closer to the Hebrew. Maoz Tzur connects the lighting of the Hanukkah candles to the hope that God would speedily establish of the Temple—fair enough, although not high on the Reform agenda in those days. But it also envisions the Deity “preparing the slaughter of the barking foe,” and only after this is completed will Israel complete, with song, the rededication [hanuka] of the [Temple] altar.

Instead, we have “Rock of Ages.” The title is reminiscent of a Protestant hymn title—a title that is one of the “Great Four”–four hymns found in nearly every 19th century hymnal, at least according to the Rev. James King (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Four_Anglican_Hymns). The Hanukkah “Rock of Ages” text emphasizes the divine Word, not divine slaughter, and places the victory in the past. Most important, perhaps, the culmination of the hymn differs substantially from the traditional text. The final verse of Maoz Tzur envisions the defeat of Admon “the red one,” or the Edomite—a reference to Christianity, and to Tzel Tzalmon, which could possibly be understood as “shadow of the crucifix” although that is not how I translate it below. The final verse of the “Rock of Ages” starts with a reference to the Jewish people, “Children of the Martyr Race,” but ultimately, the Hope of Hanukkah is not particularist, but universal: “Which will see / All men free / tyrants disappearing.” Hanukkah is not merely the dedication of the ancient Temple after being saved from the enemy, but the liberation of all humanity from tyrants; not the rededication of the Temple and triumph over competing religious traditions, but universal freedom and harmony.

This powerful hymn has reinforced if not shaped the vision of Hanukkah most often presented in America.

Seth Ward


O Fortress, Rock of my salvation, to You it is fitting to give praise
Restore my house of prayer and there shall I offer you thanksgiving
When you have readied for the slaughter the blaspheming (“barking”) foe
Then will I complete with song and psalm the dedication of your altar.

Bare Your holy arm and hasten the End for salvation –
Avenge the vengeance of Your servants’ blood from the wicked nation.
For the triumph is too long delayed for us, and there is no end to days of evil,
Repel the Red One in the nethermost shadow and establish for us the seven shepherds.


Rock of Ages, let our song

Praise Thy saving power;

Thou, amidst the raging foes,

Wast our sheltering tower.

Furious they assailed us,

But Thine arm availed us,

And Thy Word

Broke their sword

When our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps,

Priests, approved in suffering,

Purified the nation’s shrine,

Brought to God their offering.

And His courts surrounding

Hear, in joy abounding,

Happy throngs,

Singing songs

With a mighty sounding.

Children of the martyr race,

Whether free or fettered,

Wake the echoes of the songs

Where ye may be scattered.

Yours the message cheering

That the time is nearing

Which will see

All men free,

Tyrants disappearing.

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