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December 9, 2022 10:13 am

Hanukkah and the History of Antisemitism

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A temporary menorah is seen on the last night of Hanukkah in the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod, following an incident of suspected antisemitic vandalism. Photo: Facebook

As children at Hanukkah time, we would sing “Maoz Tzur Yeshuati” as we lit the candles. This translates as, “The strength of my Rock [referring to God, of course] who saves me.” It is an anonymous poem that celebrates our survival from the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrian Greeks, and Christians.

It was composed during the Crusades in Europe a thousand years ago. The first letters of the five verses make up Mordechai’s name in Hebrew. The controversial sixth verse, which starts with the letter Chet, may have been added later and does not appear in many versions. It could have been censored to avoid trouble with the Christian authorities, because it is aimed aggressively at Christianity.

This is not surprising if it was written during the Crusades and in response to other antisemitic acts in Northern Europe. It also explains why it was not accepted by the Sephardi world until much later, and even then, not as universally as by the Ashkenazis.

We normally think of Maoz Tzur as being directed at Pharaoh and Antiochus the Syrian Greek, but the text makes it clear that it is referring to all those who tried to destroy us.

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But in Central and Western Europe, most Jewish communities left out the sixth verse precisely because of its wording. In Europe, in general, Jews have always been highly sensitive to Christian sensibilities. And antisemites looked for any excuse in our liturgy to prove how dangerous or vengeful we were.

Here is a translation of the sixth verse:

Reveal Your strength and bring us salvation. Avenge Your servants’ blood from the wicked nation. For we have waited a long time for salvation. Our pain seems never-ending. Cast the Red One [Esau/Rome/Christianity] into the depths of darkness and bring us the Seven Shepherds [a Midrash that Adam, Seth, Methuselah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, will remove evil and oppression from the world].

Yes, it is particularly aggressive, and it’s hardly surprising that some thought it was going too far in an alien world. But there is another example in our liturgy that was also thought to be offensive — the Aleynu prayer, one of the oldest, that comes almost at the end of each synagogue service.

It is our obligation to praise the Master of all, to ascribe greatness to the Creator of the beginning. For He has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not given us a fate like theirs or the other families of the earth. For they prostrate themselves to vanity and nothingness and pray to a god that cannot deliver. Whereas we prostrate ourselves and bow down and thank the Supreme King of Kings… He is our God.

This wording about bowing down to vanity and emptiness does not mean to say that all other religions are false. It was directed specifically at pagan idolatry. It actually comes from The Book of  Isaiah (45:20), written some 900 years before the appearance of Christianity. But in some communities, it was removed in order to avoid offending Christians.

What these two liturgical pieces share, is that they were censored for fear of offending non-Jews in an oppressive Christian world. Many leaders of the more assimilated European communities were highly sensitive and thought this would make them more acceptable and civilized. Yet ironically, they too suffered at the hands of their enemies. And censoring did little good.

Antisemitism is now fully exposed and growing exponentially throughout the so-called civilized Western world. In the US, the past months and years have seen huge increases in antisemitic attacks. This is all the more reason to celebrate Hanukkah and sing Maoz Tzur at a time when we are much better able to defend ourselves and refuse to take anti-Judaism lying down. Those who refuse to recognize the reality today are repeating lessons they should have learned by now.

The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.

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