THE CRUSADER castle of Crac des Chevaliers, in Homs province, Syria..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Inside the most popular song of Jews’ most nationalistic holiday are hidden memories of the days when Jews and Muslims were allies.
Mordechai Ben Yitzhak Halevy was a rabbi and writer of prayers who emigrated from Iraq to Mainz in Germany (yes, the ridiculous stories of two separate peoples, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, is only a figment of the 20th century’s racist imagination). There, hiding in the Jewish quarter with the rest of the Jewish community of Mainz, he witnessed the horror of the Crusades: families murdered, babies set on fire, aged scholars beheaded.
Who would not call out for vengeance against the incredibly cruel Crusades of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, a.k.a. Barbarossa? But Rabbi Mordechai, knowing Torah and history, comforted himself in a basement of his house in Mainz by writing a poem which remembered how the Jews survived all their enemies. That poem which he wrote became Maoz Tzur, one of the Jewish people’s most popular hymns, which spread among Jewish communities through Europe, Africa and Asia.
In those dark days there was one light of hope, the only force on Earth that seemed capable of stopping the Christians’ bloody massacres. That force was the army of Islam, led by the great Saladin, the Kurdish Islamic warrior who had just liberated Jerusalem from the Crusade’s clutches and allowed the Jews to return to the Holy City.
Thus all throughout the Jewish world, from Spain to Persia and from Cairo to Germany, Jews prayed for the success of their Islamic cousins, fellow monotheists and representatives of all that is good and civilized.
The Rambam was a doctor at Saladin’s camp, and Jews from all the Diaspora contributed to the Muslim armies, fought with them shoulder to shoulder, and dreamed of their success.
And so, after writing the first five verses of his poem, which described ancient history, Mordechai turned to the present and future. And in the last, sixth verse of his poem, he got to the point: his hatred of the Christian persecutors and murderers, the hope of defeating the Christians, and the wish for victory of our Muslim allies. In that sixth verse, we ask God to take vengeance on our spilled blood, and that the bloodthirsty Frederick I be defeated as he fought his way through Asia Minor, toward the town of Iconium, the modern Konya (Tzalmon in Hebrew). All that appears in the sixth verse, which we had to hide for centuries for fear of Christian reprisal.
(By the way – the Crusaders won the Battle of Iconium, but the Holy One, blessed be He, had other plans: Frederick thankfully met his demise when he drowned in the River Salf. And that is why we know exactly when Rabbi Mordechai wrote his liturgical poem: a short time before the fall of Iconium in 1190.) And how does the prayer end? The most nationalist Jewish song, on the most nationalist Jewish holiday, ends with the hope that God sends us “Seven Shepherds.”
The reference is dualistic, as much of the poem and most Jewish prayer-songs. The phrase comes from the Prophet Micah (Micah 5), but the historical context is something else: many recognize this as a call to victory of the Seven Generals of Saladin’s army, who had defeated the Crusaders in Jerusalem, and the wish that they unite once again to defeat the bloodthirsty Barbarossa.
And so the culmination of this so very Jewish song is a hymn in praise of Muslim armies and Generals, in the fervent hope that they defeat the Christian barbarians.
No wonder that the Church pressured the Jews not to print this verse! So there you have it. May the day come soon that the great Islamic armies of yesterday, of the Kurdish general, defeat all the bloodthirsty enemies of God, whether they be crusaders or Daesh. We, the Jewish people, must never forget out Islamic allies on this holiday of lights and freedom. The wheel of history turns in mysterious ways.