by Cantor Sherwood Goffin
MAOZ TZUR ORIGINS
Each year we sing Maoz Tzur on Chanukah, but have little idea of its origins. The words were written by the 13th Century German "paytan" (poet), Mordechai ben Yitzchak Halevi. It was not originally written for Chanukah. The poem is an historical overview, originally in five paragraphs (the sixth is a later addition), referring to Pesach, Exile, Purim, and only the last mentions Chanukah.
The melody, which became popular among German Jewry in the 16th Century, is written in the German chorale style of the 15th/16th Century. It is first recorded as an old German folk song, "So Weiss ich", and was used as Martin Luther's first Protestant hymn, "Nun Freut Euch" in 1523. This is the origin of the suspicion that this is a "Christian" song. The middle section is thought to come from one of two old German songs, the 1504 "Benzenauer", or an earlier "Narrenweise" melody. "So Weiss ich" was already known to the Jews in Germany in 1450 and, therefore, may even have been composed by a Jew! In any case, we are still singing it and Lutherans are not. So enjoy the melody with your children, as tens of generations have done before you!
[Note: I used to sing Adon Olam to Greensleeves on occasion, but there was one Lubavitcher in the old shul who used to complain that I shouldn't use "that Christmas song." Except, well, Greensleeves was a secular song written by King Henry VIII (who was something of a Talmud scholar). The Christmas words to the same old tune were written in the 1890s. So using it for Adon Olam is just as [il-]legitimate. -jjb]