The Intellectual Struggle Hidden in Hanukkah’s Best-Known Song

The Maccabean revolt wasn’t just about independence. It was a culture war between those who embraced “Greek wisdom” and those who believed in transcendent, divine knowledge.

A child on his father’s shoulders on the first night of Hanukkah. Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

A child on his father’s shoulders on the first night of Hanukkah. Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

Observation
Dec. 14 2017
About the author

Lewis H. Glinert, professor of Hebrew studies and linguistics at Dartmouth College, is the author of The Story of Hebrew, forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

What have they done to my song? The medieval Ashkenazi maestro who penned the poem we now call Maoz Tsur (in English, “Rock of Ages”) might well have asked this question. True, Mordechai—his name is encoded in the first five stanzas—is a mysterious figure; one can only surmise that he lived in Central Europe near the end of the 12th century. But the lyrics of his celebrated song should leave us in no doubt: were he transported to a modern-day menorah lighting, he would be dumbfounded to hear that we have made Maoz Tsur into a song for Hanukkah—and, to boot, one commonly sung to a German melody more suggestive of Rhenish good cheer than of his simultaneously witty and very serious sweep through Jewish history and destiny.

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More about: Hanukkah, History & Ideas, Religion & Holidays