Rock of Ages
“Rock of Ages let our song / Praise thy saving power / Thou amidst the raging foes / Wast our sheltering tower….” This is the first verse of Maoz Tzur as translated, loosely from the original Hebrew, by Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil in the late 1800s. And while tzur may mean rock, the rest of the verse actually means:
Refuge, Rock of my salvation/ to You is a delight to give praise
Restore my House of prayer/so that there I may offer You thanksgiving
When You silence the loud-mouthed foe/
Then will I complete, with song and psalm, the altar’s dedication.
Maoz Tzur is one of the best known Hebrew piyyutim (religious songs/poems). Most people, however, are only familiar with this first verse (there are 5 more verses–click here to read the entire song). Thought to have been written in the 13th century, it has become a near universal custom to sing Maoz Tzur after lighting the Chanukah candles.
Maoz Tzur is a song of redemption. Its paragraphs refer to the many different exiles the Jews have endured, but also reflect the fact that God is always present in Jewish history as our Savior. The exiles are treated in chronological order:
Verse 2 – “…when I was enslaved under Egyptian rule”
Verse 3 – “…Then Babylon fell, Zerubbabel came: within seventy years I was saved”
Verse 4 – “The Agagite, son of Hammedatha (Haman)…”
Verse 5 – “Then the Greeks gathered against me…”
Verse 6 – “…Thrust the enemy into the darkness…(word admon refers to Roman exile)”
The author of Maoz Tzur, a man known only as Mordechai (the letters of his name serve as an acrostic of the first letters of the first five stanzas), focused on each exile in order to acknowledge the redemption that God has brought the Jewish people in the past and to pray for a speedy redemption in our own day.
*Translation reproduced with permission from The Koren Sacks Siddur, © Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd.
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