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March 28, 2013

By Rabbi Isaac Mann

Freedom From or Freedom To

The Pesah holiday is referred to in our liturgy as zman heruteinu, the time of our freedom. The reference is of course to our freedom from Egypt, our release from slavery. Interestingly, the word heruteinu or any form thereof does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. The standard Biblical word for freedom in its root form, especially freedom from slavery, is hofesh, as in Ex. 21:2, where the Torah instructs us that a slave shall work for six years and go out to freedom (yezei la-hofshi) in the seventh. We also find the word dror used in the general sense of freedom or liberty, as in Lev. 25:10, which is the source for the famous quote on the Liberty Bell – “Proclaim liberty (dror) throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The Biblical words hofesh and dror were ignored by the Rabbis who opted for a Mishnaic/Midrashic locution in reference to Passover, and the obvious question is why.

The word herut or its related term ben-horin, as a reference to an individual who is a freeman and not a slave, is fairly common in Rabbinic literature (see, e.g. Gittin 4:4, Bava Kamma 1:3, Gittin 42a, etc.). The word appears to be related to the Biblical term hor, which means “a hole.” In II Kings 12:10 the priest Jehoiada, we are told, bored a hole (hor) in a chest in the Temple. Just as a hole is free of any content, a slave who is now a ben-horin is free of obligation to his former master. The word herut, as a general term for freedom, is also etymologically related to the Hebrew word for a hole.

Apparently the Rabbis felt that the term herut more closely resembles their concept of what freedom means in connection with Passover than the more common Biblical terms. The latter convey a sense of physical freedom that references the past. The slave is no longer bound to his overlord – he is free from the enslavement of the past. The Rabbis wished to instill in their description of Passover not only the notion of freedom from the slavery of the past, but also the freedom to worship God in a manner that they had not been able to do heretofore. As in the Ten Commandments, the opening statement (or first commandment) declares that God took the Jewish people out from Egypt but only in order to lead to the other commandments, indeed freedom from that leads to freedom to.

That the word herut, coming from hor, conveys this notion may be related to the idea that a hole was usually made for a purpose. Whether it was done to allow entry into a space or for storage purposes, or for some other use, one made a hole to allow some future benefit. One didn’t create a hole to erase the past, but rather to secure something for the future. Similarly, our freedom from Egypt was granted to us not just to escape the bondage of Egypt but also and foremost to embrace the Torah of the Almighty, as God tells Moses (Exodus 3:12) – “…when you bring forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.”

This special connotation of “freedom,” is beautifully expressed in a rabbinic teaching ascribed to R. Joshua ben Levi as found in Avot (6:2). The Torah in describing the writing on the Tablets that Moses received at Sinai refers to it as engraved on the tablets and uses the term harut. The Rabbis (see also Eruvin 54a) suggest homiletically that the reading should be herut (freedom) instead of harut, implying, as R. Joshua ben Levi suggests, that one is free only if he is occupied in the study (and presumably observance) of the Law.

In contrast to the word herut, the Rabbis saw in the word hofesh or hofshi the opposite sense. Based on the juxtaposition of the latter word to the word for the dead (meitim) in Psalm 88:6, they coined the term hofshi min ha-mitzvot (free from observing the commandments) (Niddah 61b). Hofesh refers to freedom from, as the dead are free from observance. Similarly, in modern Hebrew, the term is used to refer to vacation or recess – freedom from work, freedom from school. Passover, however, celebrates for us freedom to – freedom to connect or reconnect with God and the Torah and raise ourselves spiritually as we remind ourselves and speak about the freedom that we received when we left Egypt at the time of the Exodus and embarked towards Sinai.

May you all be blessed with a happy zman heruteinu.

Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.