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The Philology of Freedom (Pesach)

Note: Earlier versions of this article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser: The Jewish Thought Magazine of Yeshiva University, and in the SOY-JSC Haggadah: A Collection of Divrei Torah from the Rabbis and Students of Yeshiva University.

Many speak of Pesach as the “festival of freedom.” But the idea of freedom is rather abstract. Like “love,” “happiness” and “goodness,” “freedom” is an axiologically-loaded word whose import we intuitively apprehend, yet whose precise meaning remains deceptively difficult to isolate. In common parlance, of course, heuristic definitions suffice. Since, however, the notion of freedom is intimately connected with the meaning of the holiday which we will soon celebrate, let us see if we can arrive at a clearer conception of the term, as it appears in our sources.

In Tanakh, the word for “free” is hofshi. Notable instances of its usage include:

(1)  Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom (l’hofshi) without charge.[i]

(2) And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who is coming up, for he is coming up to taunt Israel? And it will be, that the man who will kill him, the King will enrich him with great riches, and he will give him his daughter, and he will make his father’s house free (hofshi) in Israel.[ii]

(3)  Who sent the wild donkey free (hofshi), or who loosed the bands of the wild donkey?[iii]

All in all, the root h.f.sh is used in Tanakh over twenty times. In most of its occurrences it is used to describe the release of slaves (though, as demonstrated by the verses which we cited above, the root is also used in connection with animals and tax exemptions). Given this information, we would naturally expect to find h.f.sh employed with high frequency in the narrative of the Exodus. But in the fifteen chapters which recount the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and subsequent release from enslavement, the term does not show up even once.

The American Declaration of Independence

The American Declaration of Independence

To put this in context, the words “freedom” and “liberty,” and all conjugations thereof, appear in the Declaration of Independence five times. They appear in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen eight times. They appear in the Magna Carta twenty-eight times. And they appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights thirty-one times. The complete absence of these terms within the story of the Exodus, then, is indeed remarkable.

When we turn to our liturgy, meanwhile, the questions multiply. In the siddur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are referred to as zeman herutenu (“the time of ‘freedom”), zeman matan toratenu (“the time of the giving of the Torah”) and zeman simhatenu (“the time of joy”), respectively. Individually, these are all apt titles. One, however, seems quite unlike the others. Whereas simha and Torah both clearly stem from Biblical vernacular, herut never appears in Tanakh. From where does this final term originate?

In his Aramaic translation of the Torah, Onkelos routinely translates hofshi as “horin.[iv] Perhaps we could posit, on this basis, that herut is simply the Aramaic version of hofshiut. But if that is the case, then we would be forced to conclude that the sages composed the holiday liturgy inconsistently. In the shemoneh esrei and the birkat ha-mazon prayersthe formulaic insertions for Sukkot and Shavuot refer to those festivals with Hebrew terms which are sourced in scripture. Why, then, would Hazal deviate from this pattern when it comes to Pesach, by choosing to refer to this festival with an Aramaic term that has no scriptural source?

In fact, Hazal did no such thing. Granted, the word herut, per se, never appears in Tanakh. We do, however, find a related term quite commonly. For example:

(1)   And she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed [them] with his seal, and she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles (horim) who were in his city, who sat with Naboth.[v]

(2)   And the prefects did not know where I went and what I was doing, and the Jews, the priests, the nobles (horim), the prefects, and the remaining performers of the work I had not yet told.[vi]

(3)   Fortunate are you, O land, whose king is the son of nobles (ben horim), and your princes eat at the proper time, in might and not in drinking.[vii]

Both the Judaica Press and the Jerusalem Bible render horim as “nobles.” Perhaps the term is derived from the Biblical passages recording the genealogy of Esau, wherein the chieftains who inhabited the mountain range of Seir are identified as “Horites.”[viii] Alternatively, horim may be an Aramaic loanword, even when it appears in Tanakh.[ix] Yet while its exact linguistic development proves difficult to trace, the semantic connection between the Biblical horim and its Rabbinic relative, herut, is impossible to miss. Herut has to do with nobility and is therefore not synonymous with hofshiut, despite the fact that the two are colloquially interchangeable. Rather, each of these terms alludes to half of a larger, single concept. For indeed, there are two “freedoms” to speak of: a positive kind and a negative kind.[x]

imagesOf these two freedoms, we are probably more familiar with hofshiut. To fight for this freedom is to struggle for autonomy of person and conscience. More specifically, it is to battle against any conditions threatening that autonomy, be they political, social or economic. When we overcome tyranny, discrimination, poverty, or any other factor narrowing our options, imposing unnecessary limits on what we could be—then we are hofshi. A rough English analogue might be “liberty,” which derives from a Latin root implying lack of restraint.[xi] Thus, hofshi—like liberty—defines freedom negatively: to be “free,” these terms imply, is to rid oneself of restrictions.

Yet our tradition, through the sages, emphasizes a different form of freedom: herut. As the translation suggests, this freedom is closely related to the concept of “nobility,” from a Latin origin meaning “excellence” or “superiority.” There is a virtuous way, a noble way to be free, this term suggests. Freedom is not only something to be gained, but also something to be earned; it offers possibilities, but it also carries with it obligations. We mentioned earlier that the root h.f.sh. never appears in the story of the Exodus. What does appear in these chapters, however—sixty-seven times, in fact—is the root for “work” or “service”: a.b.d. No less than five times throughout the narrative, moreover, do we find that familiar refrain, “let the Israelites go, that they may serve God.”[xii] So freedom also includes a positive dimension. When one simply “is” free, one has achieved hofshiut. To be worthy of one’s freedom, one must become a ben horin.

Put another way, hofshiut establishes the framework for a meaningful life, whereas herut supplies its content. In the Haggadah, hofshiut is represented by the first two of the four redemption phrases, ve-hotseiti and ve-hitsalti: “and I took out,” “and I saved.” All that has been granted by this point are the beginnings of freedom. But the telos of freedom—the ve-lakahti, (“and I took”) the ve-ga’alti (“and I redeemed”)—these remain conspicuously lacking, until we reach herut. Both freedoms are necessary.

And yet, if we think about them carefully, we will realize that these two freedoms conflict.[xiii] Whereas hofshiut is all about opening opportunities, herut begins precisely when opportunities are relinquished. Whenever one declares “I will be this,” one also admits “I will not be that.” To marry, raise a family, pursue a certain career path or life goal—in short, to build anything meaningful—requires supreme courage, for it means turning one’s back on all the parallel paths which might have been ours but now never will. That, in a word, is the paradox of herut.

By itself, this is a powerful idea. Judaism amplifies it further by claiming that the obligation to make good on one’s freedom is pervasive. Not limited to life’s “big decisions,” our duty to be the best we can be translates itself into a complex normative rubric called Halakhah, which dictates the way we ought to speak, dress, eat, manage our finances and even attend to our personal hygiene.

With this background, perhaps we can understand the following enigmatic statement recorded in the Mishna:

And it says: ‘The Tablets are God’s handiwork and the script was God’s script ‘harut’ on the Tablets.’ Do not read harut (engraved) but herut (freedom), for you can have no freer man than one who engages in the study of Torah.[xiv]

Etymologically, the connection between harut and herut is rather tenuous. No matter, for the brilliance here is thematic. What is the act of engraving, after all, if not a conscious tampering with the proverbial “blank slate?” Does not the chiseler reveal the beauty hiding within the slab of stone before him precisely by removing all that peripheral potential concealing it? Could there be a more appropriate metaphor? How remarkable, indeed: The luhot ha-berit are not only a technical medium for transmitting God’s word to man; they are, too, a powerful symbol of the very process which God’s word is meant to initiate. This is the deeper message of freedom, as expounded by our sages. In the interface between potential and actuality; between fantasy and reality; between what I could be, in theory, and who I build myself to be, in practice—therein lies the transition from hofshiut to herut.

And this, ultimately, is the message of Pesach. Taken in context, Pesach does not commemorate the exodus as an isolated historical event. On Pesach we re-enact that process which began with our exit from Egypt but which culminated with the receiving of the Torah seven weeks later. The opportunity to become a “kingdom of priests,” a “holy nation”[xv] —that is what we celebrate on Pesach. It is the festival not only of a potential freedom, but of an actualized one as well.


[i] Exodus 21:2. Translations courtesy of the Judaica Press, available at: www.chabad.org

[ii] I Samuel 17:25

[iii] Job 39:5

[iv] See for instance Exodus 21:2, 5, 26, and 27, and Deuteronomy 15:12, 13 and 18. Throughout Tanakh, Targum Yonatan also translates hofshi as horin.

[v] I King 21:8. The underlined term has been changed from “officials” to “nobles” to keep it consistent with the translation for horim provided in the other verses cited.

[vi] Nehemiah 2:16

[vii] Ecclesiastes 10:17

[viii] See Genesis 14:6, Genesis 36:20 and Deuteronomy 2:12. I heard this suggestion from my teacher R. Daniel Eliav.

[ix] I heard this suggestion from my teacher R. Menachem Copperman.

[x] After writing this article I was directed to Isaiah Berlin’s well-known essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in which the author also speaks of “positive” and “negative” liberty. Though there are certainly overlaps between herut vs. hofshiut and Berlin’s positive vs. negative liberty, these categorizations should not be conflated or confused.

[xi] By contrast, “freedom,” which seems to have developed from the German and Celtic terms for “love” and probably first assumed its current connotation with reference to members of one’s family or clan, defines freedom in more positive terms. As such, it would find a closer analogue in herut.

[xii] Exodus 7:26; 8:16; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3.

[xiii] This paragraph is based on the discussion of freedom in Akiva Tatz, The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 1999)

[xiv] Avot 6:2

[xv] Exodus 19:6


  1. Alex, again a wonderful Devar! I concur with the distinction you delineate, linguistically — freedom from (slavery) and freedom for (service of God/Torah) — but I think both are implied in the meaning of “herut” as noble. For a “noble” person (ben horin or horim), in the Ancient Near Eastern world might simply have been one who was not a slave, as your references to the Aramaic and the other biblical citations suggest. This does not necessarily detract from your argument but I would not read the process sequentially. The Israelites needed to be freed from slavery (‘bd) in order to be freed to serve God as a noble people (bnei horim) simultaneously. The consciousness of being free entails, paradoxically, the embrace of free will and the acceptance of a higher yoke. This is perhaps what Levinas means by “difficult freedom” in his essay: “A Religion for Adults.” Perhaps that is what you are saying.

    משנה מסכת אבות פרק ו משנה ב

    והמכתב מכתב אלהים הוא חרות על הלוחות אל תקרא חרות אלא חירות שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה

    The traditional translation of the derash might read: “one is not truly a free person unless one engages in Torah study”
    But I’d prefer the translation: “Do not read “engraved” but “free” for only one who is truly free can engage in the study of Torah”.
    That is, freedom of thought with an open, inquisitive mind, is a prerequisite for the deep roaming that true Talmud Torah demands.
    The other way of formulating it just seems trite, or merely circular reasoning.

    Your reflections seem to rove around with that kind of freedom [i.e. herut] — nobility of mind for one who has shaken off the shackles of rote thought.
    Kol ha-kavod!

    • alexmaged says:

      Thank you Dr. Adelman! I very much appreciate your continued feedback and support.

      Herut certainly requires hofshiut. But I don’t know if hofshiut is sufficient as a criterion for herut, such that the two occur simultaneously—i.e. that the one (“freedom”) implies the other (“nobility”) by definition. It seems to me that one can in fact separate between the two, and in that way track a distinct evolution of sorts from eved, to hofshi, to ben horin.

      In terms of the historical reality in the ANE, I think the context in which we find the word “horim” used in the pesukim cited above—viz., along with priests, prefects and princes—indicates that the members of this class were not merely “freemen” but that they in fact enjoyed an elevated social (and probably legal) status vis-à-vis that of the commoners. In terms of one’s inner psychological state, meanwhile, it is certainly possible to attain the “freedom from”’ associated with hofshiut without laying claim to the “freedom for”’ associated with herut. And in that sense, Levinas’s concept of “difficult freedom” seems most germane indeed. Thank you for referring me to his article; I hope to look at it further bli neder!

      I really like your interpretation of the passage in Pirke Avot! It’s a wonderful “derash on a derash” with an important message underlying it. I plan to share it at my seder iy”h 🙂

      Thank you once again for your feedback, and warm wishes for a chag kasher v’sameach!

  2. Anonymous says:

    i had a de ja vu when I read this one. thanks for the credit. pesach kasher vesameach

  3. Mike Shriqui says:

    Excellent essay Alex, Chag Sameach!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting! Reminded me of something I read from Warren Zev Harvey, “On Professor Shlomo Pines and His Approach to Jewish Thought”:

    The history of Jewish thought is thus inextricably connected, in Pines’ view, with the history of human thought in general. If, in his opinion, understanding Jewish thought requires understanding of universal human thought, then understanding human thought requires, in his opinion, understanding of Jewish thought. An interesting example of the complex mutual interrelations between Jewish thought and general thought appears in the history of the concept “freedom,” as described in a number of studies Pines wrote in his later years.

    Pines notes that the concept of “freedom” or “liberty,” in the political or religious sense of an ideal towards which one ought to strive, is not found in the Bible (the words hofshi and deror appear there only in the juridical context of freeing a slave), but began to be used at the end of the first century BCE or the beginning of the first century CE among the Jews in Palestine as a very important political and religious slogan, during their struggle against the Romans “for the sake of freedom,” when the Exodus from Egypt is portrayed by the Sages in the Passover Haggadah as taking the people out “from slavery to freedom” (m. Pesahim 10.5). Pines argues that the concept was assimilated among the Jews from the Greco-Roman culture, in which it had been widespread as an important political value; but he notes that among the Greeks and Romans the concept served to indicate an existing situation of an individual or a nation; that is to say, freedom is understood as a quality already present in free people. Pines explains that the concept changed during the course of its transition from the Greco-Roman framework to the Jewish one, as at the time the Jews were an enslaved people, for whom freedom was not an existing situation but could only be a longing, a desire for liberation and to throw off the yoke. In Pines’ view, the assimilation of the concept of freedom among the Jews at that time and in that form, that is to say, as a demand for national liberation, was “one of the most fateful events to occur in Jewish history… [with] significant implications for general history as well”; for by this the Jews became, according to Pines, “the first people… who in a state of political subjugation created an ideology of liberation, in relation to the slogan freedom.’”

    In Paul, Pines continues, the Jewish concept of freedom, meaning the people’s liberation from the yoke of political subjugation, became internalized and was translated into the freedom of the individual from the yoke of Torah. In modern secular European thought, he notes that freedom as liberation, whether political or internal, has become accepted as an important, and at times as the supreme value. He arrives at the conclusion that the historical source of this value was Jewish Palestine at the end of the Second Temple period. “Freedom as the slogan of uprising of the oppressed against their oppressors,” Pines summarizes, “is part of the Jewish legacy to the world.”
    Pines noted the great role played by Spinoza in developing the idea of freedom as liberation in modern Europe. Spinoza’s original contribution, according to Pines, derived from his unifying the Pauline concept of freedom with Maimonides’ concept of truth. Paul and Spinoza exemplify a phenomenon which, according to Pines, is characteristic of the history of Jewish thought: namely, its influence upon the non-Jewish world “by means of certain Jews, who created a deep gap between themselves and their people.”

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