This year, the first Sunday in December marks the beginning of two special times in two different faith traditions. It is the first Sunday in Advent, the four week period of waiting before Christmas in the Christian calendar, which is also the start of a new liturgical year, and at sunset, the eight day Jewish festival of lights called Hanukkah begins. Accordingly, I have chosen a hymn that is sung frequently in both church and synagogue settings: Ma’oz Tzur, most often sung in English as “Rock of Ages.”
The Hebrew text is a medieval piyyut or sacred poem intended for chanting or singing, probably from around the 13th century. It was written during the Crusades by a poet named Mordechai who encoded his name (five letters in Hebrew) in the text as an acrostic; each of the first five verses begins with the next letter of his name. The narrative of the text is of the Jewish people being delivered from their enemies: Pharaoh in Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, Haman in Persia, and Antiochus in the Seleucid Empire. The first stanza in transliterated Hebrew follows with a literal English translation:
My Refuge, my Rock of Salvation, it is pleasant to sing Your praises.
Let our house of prayer be restored. And there we will offer unto You our thanks.
When You will have slaughtered the barking foe,
Then we will celebrate the dedication of the altar with song and psalm.
The English version is actually a double translation because it was done by the scholars Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil in the late 19th century from Leopold Stein’s German translation of the original Hebrew. As with any singing translation, a compromise has to be reached between literal meaning and syllabification so that it can be sung to the same music as the original language.
Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering.
And His courts surrounding, hear, in joy abounding,
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.
Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
The first appearance of the tune Ma’oz Tzur in a Christian hymnal seems to be 1932 printing of the Christian Science Hymnal, where it was given the text “Praise our great and gracious Lord” by Harriet Auber. The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church gives it the same text:
Praise our great and gracious Lord, call upon his holy Name;
Raising hymns in glad accord, all his mighty acts proclaim:
How he leads his chosen unto Canaan’s promised land,
How the word we have heard firm and changeless still shall stand.
God has given the cloud by day, given the moving fire by night;
Guides his Israel on their way from the darkness into light.
God it is who grants us sure retreat and refuge nigh;
Light of dawn leads us on: ’tis the Dayspring from on high.
Other texts were given to the tune include the Reverend John Moment’s “Men and children everywhere/With sweet music fill the air!” in both the Northern Baptist Convention hymnal (published 1941) and the Presbyterian hymnal (published 1950), where it was placed in the “Adoration” section. It appears in the Pilgrim Hymnal published by the United Church of Christ in 1958 with a version of Psalm 100 called “O be joyful in the Lord.”
As interfaith practices in some Christian denominations became more common, the New Century Hymnal of the United Church of Christ (published in 1995) printed the hymn in its original Hebrew and two verses of the English translation commonly used in synagogues. The Unitarian Universalist hymnal “Singing the Living Tradition” (published in 1993) uses just the three stanza English text.
Unrelated to the present tune, there is also a beautiful setting of the text “Ma’oz Tzur” by the Italian Renaissance composer Benedetto Marcello, who is usually known for his instrumental works and for his psalm settings.