Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dealing with the problematic piyut Ma'oz Tzur in the 19th century.

One of the great siddurim of the 19th century is סדור הגיון לב (Koenigsberg 1845). It was published by Hirsch Edelmann who is probably most famous for his Ginze Oxford, jointly published with Leib Dukes, and also his גדולת שאול (London 1854), about Saul Wahl, alleged by legend to have been king of Poland for a day. This work includes approbations and letters from big names, like Rabbis Yaakov Meir Padua of Brisk, Zvi Hirsch Chajes of Zolkiew, Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg of Koenigsberg, Yisrael Lipschitz of Danzig, Michael Sachs, Samuel David Luzzatto, Isak Markus Jost, Leib Dukes, Eliezer Rosenthal and a lengthy letter from someone named Rubenstein, originally from Grodno but now writing from New Orleans (which he writes as "נוא אלינס"). I will get back to the siddur in a moment, but readers who are interested in knowing more about Saul Wahl can consult the following Olomeinu cartoon:

Although Edelmann was the publisher of the aforementioned siddur, and a scholar in his own right, the work is noted because of its excellent commentary מקור ברכה by Leser Landshuth, a great expert on the liturgy an its inclusion of the kuntres נועם מגדים by R. Yosef Teomim, the Pri Megadim (this fact led whomever catalogs at to erroneously list him as the author of this siddur).

Landshuth's commentary is the first comprehensive modern historical exploration of the daily prayers (in his introduction Landshuth mentions his predecessors, but points out that their comments are spread out over many writings).

For all it's good qualities, it is also a product of its time. Edelmann's General Introduction is a 2000 word essay about how the sources (from R. Y. Lampronti to R. Y. Emden to R. E. Fleckeles) support the statement that there is a difference between non-Jews in ancient times and today and anything which casts any aspersions on the former only applied to ancient times.

In some places, where a declaration to that effect was not enough, the text of the siddur is modified slightly. For example:

As you can see, in the Ma'oz Tzur piyut the familiar stanza Yevanim nikbetzu alay ("Greeks gathered to attack me") is changed to Yehirim nikbetzu alay ("Arrogant ones gathered to attack me"). The final Messianic stanza, Chashof zeroa qodshecha ("Bare your holy arms"), which contains the phrase "nekom nikmas avadecha mimalchus harshaah," ("Avenge your servant from the wicked ruler") is missing. Granted that it is unclear if this last stanza was added later, even though most think it was.

Many siddurim don't include the last stanza, just like this one. The Singer siddur didn't. Siddur Safar Verurah by Heidenheim also doesn't include it, and neither did R. Yaakov of Lissa's siddur, and many others. Artscroll notes that it was "subject to much censorship by Christian authorities," since it refers to Israel's foes. Now why would they think that? In fact it was also subject to much internal Jewish censorship, as you can see. Interestingly, in the Birnbaum siddur the last stanza is preceded by a note which says "The following stanza is a comparatively late addition" and it alone is not translated.

Speaking of untranslated phrases, recently I came across R. Eliyahu Touger's English translation of the Siddur Yaavetz. The introduction is an amazing back and forth about whether it's possible or desirable to translate everything, and how on the one hand R. Yaakov Emden was trying to produce a clear, user friendly siddur but somehow on the other hand it's very obscure. It was for regular people, but it was also talmide chachomim. Regular people need a translation, but talmide chachomim don't. On the one hand later editions messed up by adding new material and even changing the nusach. On the other hand, he decided that most people who will want to buy his translation will want it to be nussach sefard, so that's what it is. And so forth. It's an amazing introduction.

In R. Emden's introduction to the siddur itself I noticed that not everything is translated even though the Hebrew is right next to it. For example, there is a passage where R. Yaavetz discussed grammar and proper pronunciation. On the one hand, he writes, the Ashkenazim have a disadvantage in their pronunciation - they pronounce ס and ת the same, and this they should not do. However, in vowels the Ashkenazim pronounce them better than the Sefardim; one example he gives is that the Sefardim do not differentiate between seghol and tzere. He also says that the Ashkenazim have a better way of singing the trope. Everyone has an opinion. He then says מה נעים גורלנו בהבדילנו ביניהם. Admittedly I am not 100% sure what he intends here. Is he saying that the Ashkenazim are fortunate to be distinct from the Sefardim? Or is he referring to differentiating between the things which the Sefardim don't differentiate? At any rate, R. Emden continues to note that people should differentiate between the two types of sheva. I think that R. Touger at least took it to mean differentiating between the Ashkenazim and Sefardim, because he did not translate those words altogether. Yet they are printed in Hebrew right next to the translation. צ"ע.

Getting back to Yehirim/ Yevanim, the problem seems to be that in Russia "Greek" had the connotation of referring to the Russian Orthdox Church. In the Jewish Encylopedia article on Censorship it is claimed that the book יון מצולה, about the Chmielnitski persecutions, was illegal in the 18th century because of the name! I don't know if that's a joke (Yavan and Yeven are two different words, but they are written with the same consonants). More likely it was forbidden because of the content. But you can see elsewhere in the Edelmann/ Landhuth siddur that the word Yavan was changed to Antiochus:

Similarly, I found a derasha of R. Aryeh Leib Zinz, printed in Warsaw in 1902 which matter of factly refers to the stanza יהירים נקבצו עלי:

Here is the title page of that sefer:

I found a Dutch siddur which translates Yevanim as "Syrische Grieken," which is technically correct, but pretty wordy.

Finally, the second edition of the collected poems of the Chasam Sofer, , (Vienna/ Budapest 1902) includes many poems by his son R. Shimon Sofer, including this one, which is his reworked version of Ma'oz Tzur, with instruction to sing it to the same tune: "Shochen shamayim be-ezrasi . . ."


  1. I hope you still have what to post when Chanukah rolls around!

    Well, like Rabbi Yisroel Miller writes in his book What's Wrong with Being Happy?, "Although the message of the following essay is relevant throughout the year, much of the essay focuses on the festival of Chanukah. The reader might therefore prefer to read the essay only at Chanukah-time, or in the six months prior or subsequent to the festival."

    -- Phil

  2. I always try to post holiday related posts out of season. I don't know why, I just do.

    For example, I've had a post in the works for a long time about how Avraham ben Avraham Potocki definitely never existed, and it should have been posted for Shavuos, since if he did live he would have been executed on Shavuos. Oh, well.

    R. Yisroel Miller sounds like he has a good sense of humor. Is that allowed?

  3. I noticed that in הגיון לב it has the brocho שלא עשני עובד כוכבים, was that common in those days, or was it just along the lines of his introduction?

    Here is the page with the brocho:

  4. It's the same type of thing. There are other siddurim with it, but there are also others with Yehirim.

  5. The king of incomplete siddur translations was Morris Silverman, editor of the Conservative movement's "Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book" (1946). The Hebrew kept fairly close to the standard Ashkenazi text, but the English often skipped over passages that Silverman evidently felt were out of keeping with "modern" sensibilities. I'm sure he was well aware that most users of his siddur would never notice the discrepancies anyway.

  6. R' Leiman's last shiur of the season was about Potocki. He ended it not so sure he never existed.

  7. For those who are interested in variations on the birchos hashacahr, see Prof. Sperber's recent book on changes in the liturgy.

  8. ."Artscroll notes that it was "subject to much censorship by Christian authorities," since it refers to Israel's foes. Now why would they think that? In fact it was also subject to much internal Jewish censorship, as you can see".

    It amounts to the same thing. The chilling effect produced by outside censorship leads to self-censorship. Happens thousands of times every day, concerning anything that has to do with race or gender.

  9. Yeven Metzula is certainly a pun about Yovon and Cossacks.

  10. As an aside, I grew up w/ one of the descendents of King Shaul Vohl (I knew of the story, only b/c he told it to me, quite proud of it too...). Last name was americanized to Wohl...

  11. Perhaps that should be Selucidim nikbetzu olai.

    Is it possible that 'Yovon' was censored because of its similarity to Ivan which Jews in the Pale often used as shorthand for non-Jews?

    Are you aware of any censorship of the rather chilling first stanza of mo'oiz tzur, veshom toido nezabeiach le'eith tochin matbeiach mitzor hamenabeiach'?

  12. Fotheringay-Phipps12:44 PM, June 20, 2011

    On a related note, is there any indication that Maoz Tzur was originally written as a piyut about Chanukka specifically?

  13. Joe in Australia4:03 PM, June 20, 2011

    I'm pretty sure that the sixth stanza has some digs against Christianity in it. From the reference to "Admon" (Edom, i.e. Rome) we know it refers to the Holy Roman Empire, so the question is whether it's just a generic plea for salvation or if it's actually meaningful. I would argue the latter.

    The first and third lines refer to "ketz hayeshuah" and "ketz liymei hara". "Ketz" means "the end" and although in Rabbinic writings the word is used in isolation to refer to an end from exile, I can't think of the phrase "ketz hayeshuah" being used anywhere else - what would that be, an end to salvation? But if you consider that Jesus' Hebrew name was derived from the word "yeshua" and that in both German and contemporary Hebrew it was pronounced "Yesu" or "Yeshu" you can see that they're parallel - "an end to Jesus" matching "an end to the days of evil".

    The last line rhymes two obscure words: admon and tzalmon. Take away the rhyming letters and you have "adam" and "tzelem": "a man" and "a figure". The last word is a Yiddish euphemism for a crucifix, so the phrase is implicitly "adam betzelem" - "a man on a crucifix".

    I admit I have no good explanation for the "ro'im shiva", but I suspect that there's a solid, concrete reference hidden there, too.



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