Hanukkah revelers joyfully standing beside the menorah’s glow, knuckles cracking in anticipation of unwrapping presents, aren’t necessarily primed for pondering a medieval liturgical poem. Which is why few if any pause to consider what is unquestionably the most head-scratching lyric in “Maoz Tzur”: “Repel the Red One in the nethermost shadow.”
Everyone’s favorite Hanukkah song (which has more verses than you probably realize) reads like a CliffsNotes summary of Jewish history. Its opening bit—“Rock of Ages … Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer You our thanks”—expresses the long-standing longing for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. Makes sense for a holiday whose central ritual is lighting the menorah. After all, the original one, a tad grander than your kid’s school project currently sitting on your windowsill, lit up the sanctuary 2,000 years ago.
The second stanza rewinds the tape.
… They embittered my life with hardship, when enslaved under the rule of Egypt.
But God with His mighty power brought out His treasured people;
While Pharaoh’s host and followers sank like a stone into the deep.
Harking back to the Passover story, we reference God’s leading the Jews through the Exodus, and the defeat of Pharaoh and his dastardly troops at the Red Sea.
Zipping from desert wanderings to the entry into Israel through the Davidic monarchy, we then skip to the end of Jewish political autonomy, first edition. But before you can catch your breath, there’s the Return of the King.
He brought me to His holy abode. Even there, I found no rest.
The oppressor came and exiled me, Because I served strange gods,
and drank poisonous wine. Yet scarcely had I gone into exile, When Babylon fell and Zerubbabel took charge; Within 70 years I was saved.
Referencing the idol worship that led to God allowing the Babylonians to destroy the First Temple, the stanza then fast-forwards right through 586-516 BCE’s 70 years of exile, and shoutouts Zerubbabel. A Jewish governor who was a descendant of David, he led the Jews back from captivity in Babylon and laid the foundation for the Second Temple.
Jumping from Jerusalem to Persia, the scene then cuts to the court of Ahasuerus.
The Agagite, son of Hammedatha, plotted to cut down the lofty fir;
But it proved a snare to him, and his insolence was silenced …
Recapping Purim, the song summarizes how Haman the Agagite plotted to impale Mordechai the Jew on gallows he built out of the trees in his backyard. Only, Haman ended up on the wrong end of the wood in Mordechai’s stead.
We then land back where we stand, Hanukkah’s origin story deep into the Second Temple period.
The Greeks gathered against me, in the days of the Hasmoneans.
They broke down the walls of my towers, and defiled all the oils.
But from the last remaining flask a miracle was wrought for the Jews.
Therefore the sages of the day ordained these eight for songs of praise.
But wait, there’s somehow more. One last stanza. And here’s where things get really confusing.
O bare Your holy arm and bring the end [of] salvation.
Wreak vengeance upon the (blood of the) wicked nation, on behalf of your faithful servants.
For deliverance has too long been delayed; and the evil days are endless.
Repel the Red One (admon) in the nethermost shadow (tzel tzalmon), and set up for us the seven shepherds.
A call for God to defeat Israel’s oppressors, these last lines seem straight out of the dark days of medieval Europe, which they are, where blood libels, crusades and pogroms were as inevitable as taxes. We are now a millennium after the Second Temple was destroyed, around the midpoint of a 2,000-year exile dominated by anti-Jewish discrimination and defeat.
The poet wants God to stretch out His strong arm, a motif in Exodus’ Ten Plagues, and rain down revenge once more on His people’s oppressors. Invoking the merit of the seven forefathers whose spirit shepherded the Jewish people through generations: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David (whom you might recognize as the ushpizin we welcome into our sukkah on Sukkot), the author asks God to deliver the Jewish people once more to political autonomy in Israel.
Composed somewhere between the late 11th or early 13th centuries in Germany, “Maoz Tzur” was written by an otherwise unknown author named Mordecai. The first five stanzas spell out his name. We know little about his life and even less about the redhead he clearly didn’t like.
Scholars have suggested three possibilities for this mysterious scarlet antagonist.
The first is Christianity writ large. To the ancient rabbis, Esau equaled Rome equaled the religion claiming to have superseded Judaism. In the Bible, that hairy brother of Jacob had swapped the birthright for a bowl of red (adom in Hebrew) soup, earning the nickname Edom, the Red One. The Talmud saw in this sibling rivalry the birth of Israel’s eventual conqueror, Rome. As a midrash states: “Two orphans were left to [Esau], namely Remus and Romulus ... and afterward they arose and built … Rome.” When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Esau/Edom became its forebear. As the medieval sage Nahmanides phrased it:
The Edomites [the descendants of Esau] were the first to mistakenly follow after the man who claimed that he was the Messiah. They also ascribed godliness to him. When they came to the land of Italy, their error spread to the nearby city of Rome. There in the days of Constantine who ruled over Rome … the council under the authority of the bishop [of the city] of Rome determined their belief in him and established it [as the religion of the empire].
Following 1492’s expulsion of the Jews from Christian Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Isaac Abrabanel, who had served in the royal court, lamented, “It is a tradition we possess that Esau’s soul incarnated in Jesus the Christian.” The earlier medieval Jewish scholar Rashbam noted the resemblance between Christian pilgrims’ hair-lined cloaks, uncomfortable coats worn for the purpose of penance, and the hair of ruddy Esau.
Another theory as to the identity of the Red One posits a specific Christian as the lyric’s referent. Frederick I (1122-90) was the Holy Roman emperor during the Third Crusade. Known as Frederick Barbarossa, his nickname means “redbeard” in Italian. The Germans called him Kaiser Rotbart, “Emperor Redbeard.”
A more recent suggestion by Israeli scholar Yossi Baruchi is that the Red One was Pope Urban II. The leader of Edom/Rome/Christianity, his enthusiastic sermon given on the second day of Hanukkah at the Council of Clermont in 1095 encouraged the violence of the First Crusade, which claimed thousands of Jewish lives. “Cler” in Old French means “clear.” The author of “Maoz Tzur” swapped out “Clear-mont,” “Clear Mountain” for tzel tzalmon, “nethermost shadow,” an allusion to the darkness of death that emerged from a place named for light.
As Yitzhak Melamed has recently argued, the sixth stanza of “Maoz Tzur” was likely sung for hundreds of years but never written down, lest printers bear the wrath of angry Christian overlords. It first appeared in print in Amsterdam in 1702. Unsurprisingly, even in later years, Jew-haters saw it as troublesome. A 19th-century Russian censor didn’t like the last line, “karev keitz ha-yeshua,” “bring the end, the redemption,” words that can also be read as a call to “bring the end of Jesus-ness,” Yeshua being Jesus’ name in Hebrew. His “updated and improved” version read “karev yom ha-yeshua,” which Jews would take to mean “bring the day of redemption,” while Christians could be satisfied that their neighbors would now be praying for the “day of Jesus.” Even the song’s instantly recognizable tune somehow emerged from a 16th-century Protestant choral.
Those joyously singing “Maoz Tzur” this year, then, have much to celebrate besides understanding the fraught and frightful background of its last lines.
Even with the war in Israel and correlated antisemitic incidents worldwide, the Jewish people’s ability to defend itself is stronger than it’s been in 3,000 years. The IDF’s comprehensive war against Israel’s enemies, bolstered by the United States’ military supplies and moral support, is a phenomenon Jewish families huddled in a darkened corner of their cramped apartment in Worms, Germany, could never have imagined in their wildest dreams as they secretly lit a small menorah hoping the soldiers stalking the streets on the way to Jerusalem wouldn’t notice the tiny flame. To “Maoz Tzur” author Mordecai, deliverance had been too long delayed. To Israelis and their cousins in America, deliverance’s bounties have been reaped for 75 years.
Secondly, like the Passover Haggadah’s wish that God pour out His wrath on our enemies, the song’s call for God’s vengeance reflects Judaism’s preference for prayers over high-powered weapons. Centuries of being on the wrong side of brutal persecution trained us to privilege a day when swords are beaten into plowshares over crusading wars of aggression. Even the name Israel Defense Forces makes it clear that military might is meant to be flexed only when we are attacked.
Lastly, the Christian and Islamic maelstrom that was the Crusades, with Jews being the loser no matter who else was winning, has been transformed. Interfaith collaborations and Abrahamic treaties abound. Many Christians now stand in support of Jewish hate crime victims. Others are studying Jewish texts at Yeshiva University. Jewish studies conferences have been held in Dubai and student exchanges in Morocco, each covered positively by the Arab media. While the latest Hamas-Israel war undoubtedly darkened the sense of optimism in these efforts, the flames continue to burn among the children of Abraham who believe in a brighter future.
That morose last bit of “Maoz Tzur” and its looming Red One? The light of today’s modern miracles are thankfully outshining it.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern is Senior Adviser to the Provost of Yeshiva University and Deputy Director of Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. His books include The Promise of Liberty: A Passover Haggada, which examines the Exodus story’s impact on the United States, Esther in America, Gleanings: Reflections on Ruth and Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land: The Hebrew Bible in the United States.