Exploring Babylon 11.1

Episode 10 of #ExploringBabylon began discussing foreign powers associated with Chanukah — Egypt, Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire, Babylon, Persia, and Rome — looking briefly at three of the five. Before the holiday is too distant a memory, let’s look at the remaining powers, Persia and Rome, and the holiday piyyut [liturgical poem] that includes them all.

Ma’oz Tzur [Rock of Refuge]” includes a stanza about restoration and re-dedication of the Temple followed by stanzas reflecting on rescue from each of the five foreign powers. It was composed in Hebrew in 13th Century Germany and credited to “Moredechai,” based on his acrostic “signature.”

The 19th Century song “Rock of Ages” — often confusingly called a “translation” of “Ma’oz Tzur” — adapts the piyyut’s themes of kindling lights and rescue while focusing only on the Chanukah story. The English is credited to two European-born, U.S. rabbis important in the Reform movement, based on an earlier German piece.

For the purposes of #ExploringBabylon, it’s important to note differences between the 13th and 19th Century lyrics in terms of agency, tense, and ultimate aim.

Rock of Refuge, Ages

“Rock of Ages” omits any call for restoration of the Temple, of course, and there is no sense that Jews (some of whom may be “fettered”) are more in need of rescue than any other people. The 19th Century Reform song thanks God for “saving power” (past tense) and then calls on Jews (present, future) to wake and sound their message of universal freedom and an end to tyranny:

“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.
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…

“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.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.”
— Marcus Jastrow & Gustav Gottheil

The 13th Century lyrics, on the other hand, use past tense for stanzas about Egypt, Babylon, Chanukah, and Purim, but open and close with the need for God’s future rescue. The poet ascribes deliverance, past and future, to God alone and continues to beg for help for the beleaguered Jewish community:

Ma’oz tzur yeshu’ati
O Fortress,​ Rock of my salvation​​,
lecha na’eh leshabei’ach,

unto thee it is becoming to give praise:
Tikon beit tefilati
let my house of prayer be restored,​
vesham todah nezabei’ach
and I will there offer thee thanksgiv​ings
Le’eit tachin matbei’ach
when thou shalt have prepared a slaughter​
mitzar hamenabei’ach,
of the blasphemi​ng foe,
Az egmor beshir mizmor
I will complete with song and psalm
chanukat hamizbei’ach
the dedicatio​n of the altar.*

Chasof zero’a kadshecha
vekareiv keitz hayeshu’ah,

Expos​e your holy arm
and bring the end of the redemptio​n.

Nekom nikmat dam avadecha
mei’uma haresha’ah,

Aveng​e the blood of your servants
from the evil nation.

Ki archa lanu hayeshu’ah
ve’ein kaitz leyimei hara’ah,

Becau​se the salvation​​ has been a long time coming
and there is no end to the days of evil.

Dechei admon betzeil tzalmmon
hakeim lanu ro’im shiv’ah.

Push Edom into the shadows
(Others: Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death)
and bring the seven shepherds.”***
Zemirot Database
*translation from Authorize​​​d Daily Prayer Book (1890)
***Zemirot Database contributor translation

NOTE: “seven shepherds” from Micah 5:4 (more, eventually, on this verse)

Zemirot Database provides Hebrew and a public domain translation of all six stanzas of “Ma’oz Tzur.” The Milken Archives offers lyrics, without the last stanza, and a little history. Wikipedia presents lots of useful background plus Hebrew and English for both “Ma’oz Tzur” and “Rock of Ages,” and — serious kudos for this important clarification — identifies the latter as a “non-literal” translation of the former….

Rescue from the Powers

Stanzas 2-5 of “Ma’oz Tzur” thank God for rescue (past tense):

  • God “brought forth the treasured people” and Pharaoh’s army “sunk like a stone”
  • The oppressor “came and led me captive” but “through Zerubbabel I was saved after seventy years”
  • “The head of the Benjamite​ thou didst exalt, but the enemy’s name thou Midst blot out”
  • “The Grecians were gathered against me in the days of the Hasmoneans,” towers were broken and oil defiled, “but from one of the last remaining​ flasks a miracle was wrought for thy beloved”

The final verse, quoted above, returns to the present tense; we’ll leave its call for relief from Edom (Rome) — which was missing from prayerbooks for hundreds of years and is still omitted from many versions — for another day.

We’ve previously touched on other powers described above, but we’ve yet to focus in on Persia.

Persia, Purim, and the Temple

As is common in re-tellings of the Purim story, the stress in “Ma’oz Tzur” is on the evil that Haman intended toward the Jews and the violent end he and his sons met instead; the carnage in the final chapters of Esther, when “Jews smote their enemies” (9:5), is not mentioned. And, as in other stanzas of the piyyut, the only real actor in the Purim stanza is God.

The Purim story is set sometime after the far the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 BCE), when Judeans who had been exiled were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Many Jews remained behind in what had been Babylonia, however. And, meanwhile, according to Ezra 4:6ff, permission to re-construct the Temple was rescinded “in the reign of Ahasuerus.”

Rebuilding had stalled during Zechariah’s prophesy. We left off our previous discussion, with the haftarah for Chanukah (Zech 2:14-4:7), as the twin leadership of Zerubbabel — also mentioned in the Babylonian stanza of “Ma’oz Tzur” above — and Joshua ben Jehozadak attempted to rally support for the restoration. Zechariah’s prophesy is specifically dated to 520-518 BCE; it is less clear how we are to understand “in the days of Ahasuerus” (Esther 1:1).

The Book of Esther is set far from Jerusalem, and the text does not mention the Temple. Midrash does, however. For example: Mordechai had been part of a delegation asking the king to allow rebuilding (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer). Ahasuerus rejoices at the Temple’s delay, according to Midrash Rabbah. The king calculated that the Judeans’ exile was exceeding the period prophesied by Jeremiah, and so “brought vessels of the Temple and used them” (BT Megillah 11b).

Persia and Babylon

The vessels used in the king’s feast (1:5) and Queen Vashti’s (1:9) link these festivities to earlier revelry in Babylon, when Belshazzar used the vessels the night of the “writing on the wall” (Dan 5). In this and many other ways, Midrash Rabbah accuses Ahasuerus of prolonging, and sometimes enjoying, Jews’ separation from the Temple begun with Babylonian Captivity. However, the ancient rabbis’ understanding of Babylon as God’s instrument extends to Persia.

Throughout Midrash Rabbah, God is a regular, explicit actor in the Purim story, even though God is not mentioned — except, perhaps, for Mordechai’s comment about help coming “from another place [מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר]” — in the actual text of Megillat Esther.

Early on in Midrash Rabbah, for example, the apparently superfluous “in those days” of Esther 1:2 is explained by an exchange between God and the angels. The angels complain to God, “Master of the universe! The Temple is destroyed, and this wicked person sits and engages in revelry?!” God responds by saying Redemption had been delayed due to Judeans’ failure to observe the Sabbath:

“Place days opposite days,” thus it is written: In those days I observed in Judah [people] treading on winepresses on the Sabbath (Neh 13:15)
— Esther Rabbah 1:10 (Artscroll, 2011)

Jewish thought over the centuries includes many other views of exile and oppression, but the concept of Redemption coming when God determined it was deserved, so apparent in Midrash Rabbah for Esther, seems to be shared by the writer of “Ma’oz Tzur.” This yields a further blurring of “foreign powers” — beyond Babylon, and its successor, Persia — into a sort of non-specific enemy to be defeated in God’s time. And, while “Rock of Ages” does not hint at oppression as deserved (or list as many previous oppressors), it ultimately points to a similar non-specific tyranny as enemy.

…and that leads, eventually, to the concept of “empire” in Christian commentary. (To take just one example, see Come Out My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, by Wes Howard-Brook. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010). More on this, with some Christian and interfaith input, to come….

But there is still “Rome” and far more work, just in clearing up the last bits of Chanukah’s wax, for #ExploringBabylon.


NOTE 1:
A number of sources, including the Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah (2007), and the Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah (1994), publish the 13th Century Hebrew side-by-side with the “Rock of Ages” text, calling it a “translation.” It is unsurprising, therefore, that many other educational and music sites follow suit. See, e.g., Teaching Songs, Hebrew Songs), and sadly: My Jewish Learning. “Rock of Ages” is based on an earlier German version and so, in that sense, a translation — just not of the Hebrew.

Some sources, obviously copying Wikipedia — which has enough contributors monitoring Jewish learning pages to pick at any sloppiness — now call “Rock of Ages” a “non-literal translation” of the Hebrew piyyut. A 2010 Reform presentation uses quotation marks: “an English ‘translation.'”

EDITORIALIZING NOTE: Wikipedia is very useful and, as this example indicates, very influential. Many of us make use of it without giving it much consideration, though. ‘Tis the season, however, so please consider saving on 2018 taxes by donating now to this and the other internet resources, Jewish and more general, on which we all rely.
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NOTE 2:
This reflects closely the discussion in B. Talmud Shabbat 21b, which begins with “What is Chanukah?” and goes on to discuss order of candle-lighting and reciting of Hallel, with the briefest mention of the Temple being defiled. In contrast with Books 1 and 2 of Maccabees, which discuss the stories, including military views, of the conflict with the Hasmoneans.
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NOTE 3:
Some contemporary scholars call the Book of Esther a “novella” not linked with specific historical figures; others identify Ahasuerus with Persia’s Xerxes I and its setting to 483-473 BCE (Cf My Jewish Learning) and Jewish Encyclopedia). For the purposes of this discussion, the book’s historicity is not of prime importance.
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Posted by vspatz

Virginia blogs on Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day" and manages the Education Town Hall and #WeLuvBooks sites. More at Vspatz.wordpress.com

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