A Thought About Maoz Tzur

(Updated again for 2009, 2013 and now in 2016.)

One line in Ma’oz Tzur I particularly love.

The 5th verse of Ma’oz Tzur describes the Chanukah story. One phrase in this verse is “ufortzu chomos migdalai“, which would be literally translated “and burst open the walls of my citadel”. Mentally, I used to picture breaking down the walls of the Beis haMiqdosh, or perhaps a fortress. However, I found the following mishnah in Middos. The second chapter describes the Beis haMiqdosh as it would appear to someone walking in from outside the Temple Mount to the Altar. This mishna picks up right after you walk through the gate and onto the Temple Mount.

לפנים ממנו, סורג גבוה עשרה טפחים. ושלש עשרה פרצות היו שם שפרצום מלכי יון. חזרו וגדרום, וגזרו כנגדם שלש עשרה השתחויות.

לפנים ממנו, החיל עשר אמות….

Within that [the general Temple Mount area] is the soreg, 10 tefachim [appx 2’6″] high. It had thirteen burst openings (peratzos) there, that the Hellenist kings partzum (broke open). They returned and closed them off, and legislated corresponding to them 13 prostrations.

Within that is the cheil…

– Middos 2:2 (in the Yachin uBo’az edition, 2:3 in Kahati’s edition, which splits the prior mishnah 1 into 2 parts)

To help you picture what a soreg is, the root \סרג\ means woven. The Bartenura describes the soreg as a mechitzah woven out of thin wooden slats running at diagonals. The Bartenura compares it to the part of the bed used to support the mattress, something that has a lot of open space inside the weave.

He goes on to say that the Hellenists opened up holes in the soreg opposite each of the gates in the outer wall to let anyone see in. Note the shoresh used — \פרצ\, the same as in the piyut. The soreg was a mechitzah that marked the limit for gentiles, they were not allowed in beyond that point. To the Hellenist mind, this havdalah bein Yisrael la’Amim, separation between the Jews and the other nations, was repugnant. It ran against their assimilationist efforts.

Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchaq, Chanukah 1:5) explains that emphasizing this division is why the mishnah has no mention of Chanukah. It is the Oral Torah which separates the Jews from non-Jews. Anyone can pick up a text and study it. But it’s the fact that the majority of the Torah is “written” on the hearts of the Jewish People, that halakhah is dynamic, not written ink-on-parchment, but a creative partnership between Hashem and the Jewish People, that makes it uniquely ours. This is why there is a prohibition against teaching Oral Torah to non-Jews, a prohibitions our sages debate is a kind of theft, or akin to marital infidelity. Therefore, there was special resistance against codifying the laws of Chanukah in particular, a desire by Rav Yehudah haNasi to keep them oral.

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel, were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

As we read (rarely, but including 5777) in the regular haftorah for Vayeishev:

שִׁמְע֞וּ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֧ר ה֛’ עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל עַ֚ל כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֶעֱלֵ֛יתִי מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃ רַ֚ק אֶתְכֶ֣ם יָדַ֔עְתִּי מִכֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּח֣וֹת הָאֲדָמָ֑ה עַל־כֵּן֙ אֶפְקֹ֣ד עֲלֵיכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת כָּל־עֲוֺנֹֽתֵיכֶֽם׃

Hear this word, which Hashem has spoken to you, Benei Yisrael, about the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying: You alone did I know from all the families of the earth; which is why I will call you to account for all your sins.

Amos 2:16-3:1

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

This is an important facet of R’ SR Hirsch’s concept of “Torah im Derekh Eretz“. Yes, it does mean that we are to import derekh eretz, the ennobling elements of our surrounding culture and its sciences. But it also means that we are are to be the world’s moral voice, to contribute to the nobility of that society.

In the centuries of passion and scorn our mission was but imperfectly attainable but the ages of mildness and justice now begun beckon us to that glorious goal that every Jew and every Jewess should be in his or her own life a modest and unassuming priest or priestess of God and true humanity When such an ideal and such a mission await us can we still my Benjamin lament our fate?

– R’ SR Hirsch, “The Nineteen Letters”, 9th letter, tr. R’ Dr Bernard Drachman, pg 86

For this future which is promised us in the glorious predictions of the inspired prophets whom God raised up for our ancestors we hope and pray but actively to accelerate its coming were sin and is prohibited to us while the entire purpose of the Messianic age is that we may in prosperity exhibit to mankind a better example of Israel than did our ancestors the first time while hand in hand with us the entire race will be joined in universal brotherhood through the recognition of God the All One On account of this purely spiritual nature of the national character of Israel it is capable  of the most intimate union with states with perhaps this difference that while others seek in the state only the material benefits which it secures considering possession and enjoyment as the highest good Israel can only regard it as a means of fulfilling the mission of humanity Summon up I pray you before your mental vision the picture of such an Israel dwelling in freedom in the midst of the nations and striving to attain unto its ideal every son of Israel a respected and influential exemplar priest of righteousness and love disseminating among the nations not specific Judaism for proselytism is interdicted but pure humanity…

– Ibid. pp 162-163

Noach blessed two of his sons, “Yaft E-lokim leYefes, veyishkon beohalei Sheim — G-d gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” To Rav Hirsch, this is a description of a partnership, Yefes’s mastery of derekh eretz and Sheim’s spiritual gifts.

When David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York, he called the city’s diversity a “glorious mosaic”. Not the melting pot metaphor that my grandfather encountered when they came to the U.S., the idea that convinced so many others of that generation that being a “real American” meant to assimilate. Being part of the whole and contributing to the whole by maintaining and celebrating our nation’s unique identity and perspective.

We are forced to find some kind of balance: we are supposed to both be a “unique nation in the land” and also contributors of religion, spirituality and ethics to the general society. I think this same tension informs the dispute among American halachic decisors over the appropriateness of celebrating Thanksgiving. Very indirectly, Thanksgiving is derived from Judaism. It commemorates a meal the Pilgrims ate in an intentional imitation of Sukkos in worship of the Creator that we taught the world about. The very name Jew derives from that of the dominant surviving sheivet, Yehudah, who was named by his mother “for this time odeh es Hashem — I shall thank G-d”. The entire concept of Thanksgiving would not exist without us. On the other hand, it was enacted by people who thought of the trinitarian god of Christianity, and the tradition itself comes from them, not us. Does this practice belong “behind the soreg” or within it? Are we advancing the cause of our national priesthood, or are we tearing down the walls of the citadel necessary to preserve its existence?

This too underlies the tefillah of Aleinu. The first paragraph is all about the uniqueness of the Jew. “It is up to us to praise the Master of Everything… For He did not make us like the nations of the world, and didn’t position us like the nations of the land… For they bow to vanity and emptiness… and we bow, prostrate and acknowledge before the King, King of Kings…” And then, the second paragraph switches to a universalist theme. “… That we soon see the Splendor of your Might… to repair the world into a kingdom of Shad-dai, and all children of flesh will bow to Your Name, to turn to you all the heads of the land…” And what’s the connector between these themes? “Al kein nekaveh — therefore we are expectant.” Because we are Hashem’s unique people with the unique role He entrusted to us, we await the day that all of mankind come together, and “they will recognize and know, all the dwellers of the globe, that to You all knee bows, and every tongue swears allegiance.”

Unfortunately, by building up the fortress walls, we miss many opportunities to act as a priesthood. It is a shame that it’s not the most observant Jews who are most vocal about Darfur, global hunger, or the ease of reducing the loss of life to malaria. If we accuse the world for their silence during the Holocaust, then people who feel that the events in Darfur do qualify as genocide can not stand by when it happens to someone else. How much more so if we recognize ourselves as kohanim to the world! The Union for Reform Judaism raises money for the Nothing but Nets program, an initiative to distribute mosquito netting in malaria ridden parts of Africa. (Communities in which they have distributed $10 nets show a 90% decline of incidents of malaria.) Sadly we have no similar initiatives in by Orthodox organizational institutions.

Similarly, helping out at the local soup kitchen. Earlier today I received an invitation from a synagogue to serve meals there. I was disappointed, although not surprised, to see that the synagogue was not Orthodox. Yes, we need to worry about Jewish causes; there are far more people out there to see to the general need. But I was once proud of my local Young Israel, who used to staff a similar kitchen on days like the upcoming Thursday (Dec 25th), when non-Jewish volunteers tend to have family obligations.

This year Syria is burning, refugees gunned down fleeing Alleppo. (By a common enemy, the Assad regime, no less!) For years now, ISIS is kidnapping women into sex slavery. Human beings are being torched alive. Where are our voices? How is the mamlekhes kohanim, the kingdom of priests, expressing that priesthood?

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting all this as a nice Shabbos-morning style derashah on the concept of a woven 2-1/2′ mechitzah as “the walls of my citadel”. I believe this is the actual meaning of the serug, which was sufficient as a reminder, and yet allowed Jew and non-Jew to serve the same G-d at the same Temple. “For My ‘home’ shall be called for all the people ‘a house for prayer’.”

Antiochus breached the soreg in an attempt to unify his empire as a melting pot, everyone Hellenized. This would have destroyed our goy qadosh, our nations unique voice in the world. However, the ideal soreg defines a distinction, not forces a separation. Once the tile that is the Jewish people, our role as teachers, moral guides and a conduit of sanctity, is protected and intact, then it can and must be part of Hashem’s glorious mosaic we commit ourselves to every time we say Aleinu. Only by having a serug can we balance integrity and priesthood.

The word migdalai not only means “my towers” or “my citadels”, it can also be read “those things that make me great.” Only by having both separation and contact of a soreg can the walls of our miqdashei me’at, our synagogues and batei medrash, truly be chomos migdalai.

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  1. itatruta says:

    I agree, but achieveing this sort of balance can be difficult.

    We need strong leaders to help us know when to turn outward and when to turn inward.

  2. micha says:

    This is part of a greater question… Given a lack of strong leadership in many (most?) areas, what do we do with what we have? Not just knowing how to balance particularism and universalism, but in many many issues.


  3. yishar koahh! your explanation of the significance of the structure of the soreig is a very important point; as i heard r’ menachem leibtag make a similiar point, (paraphrased) the point of a kohein is *obviously* to help out the non-kohein, the zar; if there were no zarim, or they had no significance in the greater scheme of things, there would be no point for the kohanim.

    your hhanuka post is much more meaningful than my own hhanuka offerings this year 😛

  4. Jacob Farkas says:


    The purpose of the Kohanim of the Avodah in the Beis HaMiqdash are different from the purpose of Mamlekhes Kohanim veGoy Qadosh mentioned in Parashas Yisro.

    The Kohanim bnei Aharon were Sheluhei D’rahamana, and performed ritual services that Zarim were unable to perform (see Qedushin 23b – Yisrael la shaykhi b’Toras Qorbanos K’lal…)

    The message of Mamlekhes Qohanim veGoy Qadosh is to lead by example while pursuing a higher calling, as a nation. Much emphasis is on the Goy Qadosh, but little is done for Mamlekhes Kohanim. I have heard from many people, that our task is very specific, and that the portion of Mamlekhes Kohanim will happen m’meila, as if it were an effect of our behavior of Goy Qadosh. If so, the request of “Ve’atem Tihu Li Mamlekhes Kohanim” would be superfluous.

    I find this insight on separation without segregation to be extremely meaningful as well.

  5. I believe it was R. Y.D. Soloveitchik who maintained that the mechitza in a shul must only be 10 tefachim. What is the significance of 10 tef.? It is a halachik wall and it marks off separate r’shuyot. I believe this connects nicely to your point (i.e. we must be in a separate reshut from the amim not completely detached or unrelated).

  6. since the time of the original version of this post, i’ve read Sharansky’s new book “Defending Identity”, which makes the point that a mosaic society is healthier for the individual pieces and for the society as a whole than an assimilationist society.

  7. barzilai says:

    Thank you for the post. I never knew the connection to the Mishnah in Middos. I also quote you in a post of my own on the topic. Yasher Kochacha.

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