Gershon Hepner

How the Liberty Bell Grandfathered Rashi’s Interpretation of a Biblical Law   

Lev. 25:45 authorized the Israelites to enslave  the inhabitants of Canaan:
וְגַם מִבְּנֵי הַתּוֹשָׁבִים הַגָּרִים עִמָּכֶם, מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ, וּמִמִּשְׁפַּחְתָּם אֲשֶׁר עִמָּכֶם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִידוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶם; וְהָיוּ לָכֶם, לַאֲחֻזָּה.

The King James Version (KJV) translated this verse as follows:
Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession.
Lev. 25:46 states:

מו  וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּם אֹתָם לִבְנֵיכֶם אַחֲרֵיכֶם, לָרֶשֶׁת אֲחֻזָּה–לְעֹלָם, בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ; וּבְאַחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו, לֹא-תִרְדֶּה בוֹ בְּפָרֶךְ.  {ס} 46
This is how the KJV translates this verse:
And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen forever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.

Rabbi Aqiba, quoted in Sotah 3b,  interprets the phrase  לְעֹלָם, בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ as a commandment:

לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ רְשׁוּת דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר חוֹבָה
According to Rabbi Yishmael, the verse “Of them may you take your bondmen forever” (Leviticus 25:46), implies that we are permitted  to keep a Canaanite slave forever but not enjoined against emancipating him, whereas according to Rabbi Aqiba we are forever forbidden to emancipate  a Canaanite slave.

The KJV adopts Rabbi Aqiba’s  interpretation of  לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ, rejecting that of Rabbi Yishmael.

This commandment regarding the duration of enslavement of Canaanite slaves echoes the one in the Covenant Code which discusses the duration of  slavery of the Hebrew slave who has told his master that he loves him and therefore does not want to be emancipated.  Exod 21:5-6 states:

ה  וְאִם-אָמֹר יֹאמַר, הָעֶבֶד, אָהַבְתִּי אֶת-אֲדֹנִי, אֶת-אִשְׁתִּי וְאֶת-בָּנָי; לֹא אֵצֵא, חָפְשִׁי. 5 But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free;
וְהִישׁוֹ אֲדֹנָיו, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, וְהִגִּישׁוֹ אֶל-הַדֶּלֶת, אוֹ אֶל-הַמְּזוּזָה; וְרָצַע אֲדֹנָיו אֶת-אָזְנוֹ בַּמַּרְצֵעַ, וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם.  {ס} 6 גִּ  then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. {S}

The meaning of the word לְעֹלָם is subject to a dispute between medieval commentators, Rashi and his grandson, Rashbam.   Rashi suggests that that the word must not be taken literally as meaning “forever,” but should be interpreted as “until the Jubilee year,” limiting to the jubilee year the duration of slavery of the Hebrew slave who has volunteered to extend his slavery. Rashi writes:

וַעֲבָדוֹ לְעֹלָם. עַד הַיּוֹבֵל; אוֹ אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא לְעוֹלָם כְמַשְׁמָעוֹ? תַּ”לֹ וְאִישׁ אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשׁוּבוּ (ויקרא כ”ה), מַגִּיד שֶׁחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה קְרוּיִים עוֹלָם; וְלֹא שֶׁיְּהֵא עוֹבְדוֹ כָּל חֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, אֶלָּא עוֹבְדוֹ עַד הַיּוֹבֵל, בֵּין סָמוּךְ בֵּין מֻפְלָג (קידושין ט”ו):
ועבדו לעלם AND HE SHALL SERVE HIM FOR EVER — This means until the Jubilee. Or, perhaps this is not so, but לעולם means for ever as is its usual meaning? Scripture however, states (Leviticus 25:10): “[And ye shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof] and ye shall return every man unto his family”. A comparison of these two passages tells us that a period of fifty years is termed עולם. This does not, however, imply that he has to serve him a whole period of fifty years, but that he has to serve him until the year of the Jubilee (the fiftieth year) whether this be close at hand or far ahead (Kiddushin 15a; Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 21:6:6).

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, sharply disagreeing with his grandfather’s explanation of the word לְעֹלָם, writes:

לעולם – לפי הפשט: כל ימי חייו, כמו שנאמר בשמואל: וישב שם עד עולם.
לעולם. According to the plain meaning of the text, “for the rest of his life.” This is also the meaning of the word לעולם in 1 Samuel 1:22, when Hannah announced her intention of handing over her son Samuel forever to the High Priest Eli.

In 1751 the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly commissioned a bell from the London firm, (the Whitechapel Bell Foundry).  The Liberty Bell contains this inscription, which quotes part of Lev. 25:10 in the in the King James Version’s translation:

“Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.”

This is the complete Hebrew text of Lev. 25:10 and its translation in the King James Version:

י  וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ. 10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.
Although the Liberty Bell does not quote the portion of the Lev, 25:10 that mentions the jubilee, by quoting the first part of this verse the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly who commissioned it were implying that that it should be comparable to the shofar that Lev. 25:9 states should be blown before the jubilee year:

ט  וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר, לַחֹדֶשׁ; בְּיוֹם, הַכִּפֻּרִים, תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר, בְּכָל-אַרְצְכֶם. 9 Then shalt thou make proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement shall ye make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land.

This is how the Liberty Bell came to be commissioned, according to

The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Bell in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution. It speaks of the rights and freedoms valued by people the world over. Particularly forward thinking were Penn’s ideas on religious freedom, his liberal stance on Native American rights, and his inclusion of citizens in enacting laws.

The Liberty Bell gained iconic importance when abolitionists in their efforts to put an end to slavery throughout America adopted it as a symbol.

As the Bell was created to commemorate the golden anniversary of Penn’s Charter, the quotation “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” from Leviticus 25:10, was particularly apt. For the line in the Bible immediately preceding “proclaim liberty” is, “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year.” What better way to pay homage to Penn and hallow the 50th year than with a bell proclaiming liberty?

While the Founders did not abolish slavery in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, the Liberty Bell implied that its duration should be limited, as the website explains:

The Bell achieved its iconic status when abolitionists adopted the Bell as a symbol for the movement. It was first used in this association as a frontispiece to an 1837 edition of Liberty, published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society.
It was, in fact, the abolitionists who gave it the name “Liberty Bell,” in reference to its inscription. It was previously called simply the “State House Bell.”
In retrospect, it is a remarkably apt metaphor for a country literally cracked and freedom fissured for its black inhabitants. The line following “proclaim liberty” is, “It shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.” The Abolitionists understood this passage to mean that the Bible demanded all slaves and prisoners be freed every 50 years.

The interpretation that the Abolitionists ascribed to the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell implies that they regarded it as a shofar that abolished permanent enslavement of any of America’s inhabitants, implicitly refuting the interpretation that Rashbam provides to Exod. 21:6 while grandfathering that of Rashi.

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at
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