Should we leave out the sixth verse of Ma’oz Tzur?

December 23, 2008

Question: Recent editions of the Singer’s Siddur have restored the sixth verse of Ma’oz Tzur, which prays for the enemy to be thrust into ‘the darkness of death’. I teach in a cheder and I find it hard to accept that this is suitable to be sung by adults, never mind children. Should we leave it out?

Sixth verse of Ma’oz Tzur

“Bare your holy arm and hasten the time of salvation.
Take retribution against the evil nation on behalf of Your servants,
For deliverance has been too long delayed; there seems no end to the evil days.
Thrust the enemy into the darkness of death, and establish for us the seven Shepherds.”
From the Singer’s Siddur 2006

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is rabbi at Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue.

Ma’oz Tzur, written by a poet identified only as Mordechai, is dated to the 13th century when the Jewish community suffered terribly at the hands of the crusaders. The sixth stanza that you refer to was said to be added at some later point, possibly as much as 150 years later. In it the composer clearly articulates the sense of threat from Christian persecutors that most Jews would have felt at the time.

Ma’oz Tzur is not the only example in Jewish liturgy of a vengeful prayer. Av Harachamim, a prayer composed in the aftermath of the first crusade in the 11th century and recited by many congregations before the Musaph prayer of Shabbat, contains even stronger language: “May He exact retribution for the shed blood of his servants, wreak vengeance on His foes and make clean His people’s land.”

At the Passover Seder, when the door is opened for Elijah, the Hagadah instructs us to recite: “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You [….] For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation [….] pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of God.” This prayer was said to have been composed as a response to the blood libel — a much-dreaded and devastating annual occurrence for medieval Jewish communities.

Much more frequent than this is the blessing recited in the Amidah prayer: “May Your enemies swiftly be cut down. May You uproot, crush, cast down and humble the kingdom of arrogance swiftly in our days.”

My point is that whether we like it or not many of our prayers contain harsh terminology. As a responsible teacher you cannot hide this fact from your students. Instead, use these prayers as a springboard to discuss the turbulent nature of Jewish history. These are not speeches calling on faithful Jews to commit violence. They are desperate prayers to God asking Him to remove the threat of danger that hangs over our people.

Ma’oz Tzur in particular demonstrates that persecution is unfortunately a recurring theme in our history. Jews must never gloat when an enemy falls and vengeance for vengeance’s sake is distinctly un-Jewish. However, that does not mean we must shy away from asking God to eliminate our enemies. Nor for that matter should we hesitate to celebrate when that happens. That is, after all, the whole story of Chanucah.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

Why is it that if we see a passage to which we object in a daily newspaper, we decry it, whereas if it appears in the prayer book, we seek to justify it or re-interpret it?

Both pieces are written by ordinary individuals — yet because the liturgical one has been accepted by previous generations, we feel obliged to defend it. Instead we should be courageous enough to resist the tyranny of the unchallenged past and demand that it only be included if it matches the Jewish values to which we subscribe.

The prayer book is the manifesto of Judaism. It is said that the Bible is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and the prayer book is our gift back. It reflects what we believe and stand for. If we are to pray it, then we should mean it.

That is why Progressive prayer books have omitted traditional prayers calling for the restoration of animal sacrifices. We do not want sacrifices back, so why pray for them? Just because something is traditional does not mean it is right or still applicable.

Our siddur also does not oblige us to pray for an end to exile. We may have a spiritual connection with the Land of Israel, but we are not in exile. We can hop on an El Al plane anytime we wish and emigrate to Israel. We live here by choice and regard Britain as our home.

Nor do we have any blessings in which men thank God for not making them a woman. Commentators have tied themselves in knots trying to claim that this does not demean females, whereas it is better to admit that it reflects a bygone viewpoint and should no longer be included.

Ma’oz Tzur was written in the 13th century. The sixth verse is not pleasant and mirrors the bitter perspective of oppressed medieval Jews. It hardly reflects our understanding of the festival or the positive message of Jewish identity that we derive from it. Why keep it in?

After all, we ask others to remove passages that offend us — such as sections of Christian liturgy that insult Jews. It would be a very hypocritical if we are not prepared to edit our own difficult passages when appropriate.

We should be able to sing Ma’oz Tzur with gusto and without grimacing at the end. Religious values means ditching verse six.

Last updated: 6:43pm, March 11 2009