Maoz Tzur

I wrote this back in 2007 back on my old livejournal (don’t laugh, you whippersnappers), but I want to bring it forward and preserve it, and it’s timely for Thanksgivikuh this year.

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My all-time-favorite Jewish song is Ma’oz Tzur (no, not Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages”). The song chronicles God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from a series of oppressive regimes in chronological order.

In prior years, I noticed something interesting in the fifth verse, the one about the salvation from the Selucids (translation from Wikipedia):

יוונים נקבצו עלי ‏‏אזי בימי חשמנים,‏
ופרצו חומות מגדלי ‏‏וטמאו כל השמנים,‏
ומנותר קנקנים ‏‏נעשה נס לשושנים,‏
בני בינה ימי שמונה קבעו שיר ורננים.‏

Greeks gathered against me then in Hasmonean days.
They breached the walls of my towers and they defiled all the oils;
And from the one remnant of the flasks a miracle was wrought for the roses.
Men of insight – eight days established for song and jubilation

The third line there is pronounced “u-minotar kankanim, na’aseh nes lashoshanim,” and as it’s spelled out in English letters, the pun becomes clear – “u-minotar kankanim” doesn’t just mean “and out from the flasks,” it also can mean “and the Minotaur is yoked to ploughs” (Jastrow helpfully provided confirmation of the uncommon usage of kankana as a plough)

I checked the assorted Siddurim (prayerbooks) around the house (Sacks, Birnbaum, Metsudah, Artscroll, Koren), and none of them mention the secondary meaning at all, so I asked RBF about it. His response was that he didn’t remember reading anyone talking about it, but that it’s obviously there. He said that the commentators would have eschewed pointing it out because that would imply that they knew something about Greek culture (!) and this was looked at as a gateway to heresy.

I think that the liturgical poets were pretty clever in their use of multilingual puns.

A suprising miss in the Wiki article is associating “Admon” (lit. “the red one”) with a specific ruler rather than with “Edom” (Esau) = Rome = the Roman Catholic Church, who were clearly the opressors of the Jews at the time of its composition – this association seems strikingly obvious to me…

Anyway, I was pleased to have caught something not much discussed.

About thegameiam
I'm a network engineer, musician, and Orthodox Jew who opines on things which cross my path.

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