The piyut Maoz Tzur mentions both Purim and Chanukah. Why then was it chosen to be said on Chanukah and not Purim? I've tried researching the subject and asking scholars but have not received a satisfactory answer.
It isn't known who wrote Maoz Tsur, although some scholars think that it was a 13th century German-speaking Jew named Mordekhai (sorry - only a Wikipedia reference for that one). It makes reference to several stages of Israelite history, and more than one festival:
The second stanza references the slavery in Egypt, the redemption at the time of Moses (although Moses isn't himself mentioned) and the drowning of all of the Egyptians in the sea. This corresponds to Pesach.
The third stanza speaks of the erection of a temple in Jerusalem, and of the fact that even then the Israelites did not experience peace. Due to their having worshipped foreign gods, the temple is destroyed and they are exiled, but brought back to the land of Israel in the time of Zerubbabel. (No festival in this one, but the general theme of persecution => salvation.)
The fourth stanza references the plans of Haman ("the Agagite"), the elevation of Mordekhai ("the Benjaminite") and the hanging of Haman and his sons. This corresponds to Purim.
The fifth stanza makes reference to the festival of Hanukkah: the torments of the Seleucid Greeks, the ascension of the Hasmoneans, the battle over Jerusalem and the miracle of the oil.
Finally, the sixth stanza (in which the first three words serve as an acrostic for חזק) speaks of the messianic era. In doing so, it makes reference to God bringing back "the seven shepherds", which is a reference to Micah 5:4, but also a none-too-subtle allusion to the seven shepherds in Sukkah 52b, who are Seth, Enoch, Methusaleh, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David. In the Zohar (III:103a-104a), these are the seven visitors on the nights of Sukkot (the ushpizin). Whether the author of this text knew the Zohar or not, it's not unreasonable to suppose that this is a subtle reference to that particular festival too.
So, with references to Pesach, Hanukkah, Purim and Sukkot, why do we sing this on Hanukkah in particular? If there is an historical reason, I do not know it, and I am tempted to point out that if we were to sing it on Purim or Sukkot instead, we'd still be asking this question. (In other words, it may have no greater significance as a Hanukkah song than, say, Chad Gadya has as a Pesach song.)
But that said, consider the first stanza. There, the text explicitly mentions the dedication of the altar (חנכת המזבח), which gives us two references to Hanukkah instead of only one. Since the story of Hanukkah constitutes the latest event spoken of explicitly within the poem (notwithstanding the veiled allusion to crusaders in the final verse), and since it serves as a frame for this text, being mentioned both at its beginning and just before its end, it is therefore also able to function as the time at which the poem itself is set.
According to Dr. Yossi Baruchi, the key stanza is the last one:
חֲשׂוֹף זְרוֹעַ קָדְשֶׁךָ וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה
נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ מֵאֻמָּה הָרְשָׁעָה
כִּי אָרְכָה הַשָּׁעָה וְאֵין קֵץ לִימֵי הָרָעָה
דְּחֵה אַדְמוֹן בְּצֵל צַלְמוֹן הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה
This stanza alludes to the time of the writing to be circa the Crusades. חֲשׂוֹף זְרוֹעַ קָדְשֶׁךָ וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה alludes to Raavan's piyut "Elokim Be'ozneinu Sham'anu". נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ מֵאֻמָּה הָרְשָׁעָה alludes to Av Harachamim, which was composed around the time of the Crusades. כִּי אָרְכָה הַשָּׁעָה וְאֵין קֵץ לִימֵי הָרָעָה alludes also to Raavan's piyut.
The key verse in this key stanza is the last one:
דְּחֵה אַדְמוֹן בְּצֵל צַלְמוֹן הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה
On this verse, he brings a few explanations:
- אדמון - Admon - refers to Esav, who was born "admoni". Esav and Edom in the midrash are references to the Romans and when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, Esav, Edom and Se'ir became references to Christianity. The gemara in Brachot explains that צלמון - Tzalmon - means "tzalmavet" (the shadow of death), so according to this understanding, the verse is prayer to Hashem asking that He smite the Christians and redeem Am Yisrael.
However, this explanation does not explain what Maoz Tzur has to do with Chanukah. Dr. Baruchi explains that the answer to that is hidden in the last verse. He first brings an older suggestion:
- "Admon" refers to the German emperor Frederick I, as his other name "Barbarossa" means "red-beard". He was one of the leaders of the Third Crusade. He travelled to the Holy Land through Anatolia and at one point conquered the city of Konya, known at the time as "Ikon", and that is "Tzalmon" - "icon" = "צלמית - tzelem" in Hebrew. Per this understanding, the end of the line is a prayer for the success of the Crusaders' enemy at the time, Saladin and his men - we have no way of knowing whether this was the case (as sources are sketchy on this), but it's possible that he had six generals with him leading his army, which would make seven.
This suggestion, however, is not without problems:
a. The Battle of Iconium was of little importance to the Jews at the time, and highly unlikely that the Jews at the time even heard about it.
b. A short time after the Battle of Iconium, Emperor Barbarossa drowned in the Saleph river and died. If Admon is Barbarossa, we must assume that the author of Maoz Tzur heard of the Battle at Ikon but still hadn't heard of the death of the emperor, which is unlikely, seeing as his death was such a short time afterwards.
c. At that time, there weren't pogroms in Germany. Moreover, according to Rabbi Efraim of Bonn who wrote about the Crusades, it was none other than Barbarossa himself who made sure that there wouldn't be pogroms in Germany.
Therefore, Dr. Baruchi offers his own explanation:
- The historical background of the verse is the Council of Clermont. The enthusiastic speeches at the time brought about the First Crusade, and on their way to the east, the Crusaders murdered thousands of Jews. What does this have to do with Chanukah? The Council of Clermont took place during Chanukah. Pope Urban II's infamous speech there was given on the 26th of Kislev, the second day of Chanukah. This may explain why Maoz Tzur was written specifically for Chanukah. Tzalmon likely hints towards Clermont (pronounced in French as Clarmohn): "Cler" means "clear" or "lit with a bright light" and the author of Maoz Tzur changed the "light" in the name to "shadow" (tzel), thus, from Clermon to Tzalmon. Similarly, in the piyut also written during the Crusades, "Elokai Ekra'acha Be'machashev" by Rabbi Shmuel ben Yehudah, it says: ועדו לקרן אפלה - this also refers to Clermont, as the "mont" means "mountain" and so does "קרן - keren", but instead of a mountain of light, it's a mountain of darkness. And also in Raavan's piyut there's a reference to Clermont: "טוב קיוינו והנה אופל ואשמנים...יחדיו נועצו השונאים גוי עז פנים..." - both "ofel" and "ashmanim" mean shadow, however, ashmanim is a very rare word which appears only once in Tanach. It seems that it was chosen because it includes the letters מנ which allude to "mont" from Clermont and the first shadow, the ofel, comes instead of the "Cler". Therefore, it seems that Admon is Pope Urban II, and he is described here as standing the shadow of the mountain of shadows. Furthermore, the word בצל, rearranged, is צלב, cross, so this may be another reference to the Crusades (מסעי הצלב in Hebrew).
If this is the correct understanding, then we can now find another hint to the Crusades in the first stanza:
לְעֵת תָּכִין מַטְבֵּחַ מִצָּר הַמְנַבֵּחַ.
אָז אֶגְמֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ:
The last line refers to the Ashkenazi customs of Chanukah - אז אגמור - saying Hallel, בשיר מזמור - saying Mizmor Shir Chanukat (Tehillim 30) and חנכת המזבח - reading the portions of the Torah that deal with the sacrifices of the Nessi'im during Chanukat Hamishkan.
The second-to-last line says "מצר המנבח" - the מנבח is a reference to Pope Urban II and the Christians, as durring the Middle Ages the root נבח was often used to refer to Christians (this same root appears in what Rabbi Efraim of Bonn wrote about Barbarossa).
Per this understanding, Dr. Baruchi suggests correcting these last two lines to read:
לְעֵת הֵכִין מַטְבֵּחַ צָּר הַמְנַבֵּחַ
אָז אֶגְמֹר בְּשִׁיר מִזְמוֹר חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
Meaning: At the time of the "barking" of the vile man (Pope Urban II), we celebrated and continue celebrating Chanukah, despite what he did.
The song seems to be written for Chanukah. It refers to Chanukas Hamizbeiach in the first line, and has a stanza about Chanukah. In between it also has stanzas about the Egyptian and Babylonian exiles, but those seem to be pointing to a historical pattern as context for the story of Chanukah.
It is interesting that much later, the Maharal used his work on Chanukah (Ner Mitzvah) to discuss all the exiles together.