The Holiday of Passover, when the Jewish People were emancipated from slavery in Egypt, is described in our liturgy as Zman Cheiruteinu, “the Time of our Freedom.” However, as we shall see in the coming lines, the word cheirut is not the only Hebrew word for “freedom”. When the Bible refers to freeing slaves, it uses two other words for “freedom”: chofesh and dror. An additional, conceptually-related word is hefker (“ownerless”) which is also related to freedom. We will seek to understand the differences between these four words and what lies at the roots of those words.
We begin with the words dror and chofesh. The word dror first appears in the Bible when discussing the freeing of slaves in the Jubilee Year (Lev. 25:10). Rashi, based on Rosh HaShanah 9b, explains that the word dror is related to the word dar (“dwells”) and refers to one who dwells within his own domain, and does not fall under others’ control.
Dror is also a type of bird whose very essence expresses this notion. Ibn Ezra explains that the Dror Bird happily sings when free to its own devices, but if captured and stuck in man’s domain, it refuses to eat until it dies. Sefer HaAruch also tells that the Dror Bird is suicidal when it loses its freedom. Radak in Sefer HaShorashim explains that a Dror Bird is called so because it builds nests inside people’s homes without fear of being captured, as if it was completely free from the possibility of capture (see also Beitzah 24a). In this way, dror denotes being “free as a bird.”
When the Torah calls for “pure myrrh” to be used in the anointing oil (Exodus 30:23), the word dror is used for “pure”. R. Yonah Ibn Janach and Nachmanides explain that this is because the Torah requires they use myrrh that is free from outside impurities and forgeries. Interestingly, the word dror can sometimes be abbreviated as dar like in Esther 1:6 when it refers to Achashverosh granting merchants a special tax exemption (see Megillah 12a).
The word chofesh also appears in the Bible in the context of freeing slaves (most notably in Ex. 21, Deut. 15, and Jer. 34), although it means “vacation” in Modern Hebrew. In terms of their mutual association with the concept of “freedom”, R. Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) explains that dror and chofesh do not refer to the exact same phenomenon. Chofshi refers to freedom from an obligation to work, while dror refers to the freedom from subjugation to a specific person who lords over him.
The word cheirut does not appear in the Bible in the context of freedom. Nonetheless, it is the standard word for freeing a slave in rabbinic parlance. In the Birkat HaChodesh prayer which we say on the Sabbath before Rosh Chodesh, we beseech G-d to redeem us from avdut (“servitude”) to cheirut (“freedom”). Moreover, the Mishnaic term shichrur is a cognate of cheirut that refers to the formal act of freeing a slave, and the Mishnaic phrase eved she’nishtachrar refers to a freed slave. On the Passover Night, we strive to act like Bnei Chorin—“free men”.
Although the Bible itself never uses the word cheirut in the context of freedom, Rabbinic tradition (Avot 6:2) finds a Scriptural allusion to such a meaning. The Bible describes the Tablets which Moshe brought from Mount Sinai, as “the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved [charut] on the tablets” (Ex. 32:16). The root for the Hebrew word which means “engraved” is generally spelled CHET-REISH-TET, however, in this context a variant spelling is used replacing the ultimate TET with a TAV. Because of this slight deviance from the norm, the Rabbis found something deeper alluded to in this verse: “Do not read not charut (‘engraved’) but cheirut (‘freedom’), for the only person who is truly free is one who occupies himself with Torah study.” It seems fairly clear that if the ultimate purpose of the Exodus was to give the Jewish People the Torah at Mount Sinai, then the word for freedom resulting from the Exodus should appropriately be cheirut—and the holiday which celebrates that freedom should be termed Zman Cheiruteinu.
Nevertheless, our understanding of cheirut does not address its meaning vis-à-vis the other words for “freedom.” Why did the Rabbis decide to use the word cheirut for “freedom” instead of the words found in the Bible?
The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997) famously differentiated between two distinct types of freedom: “negative liberty” and “positive liberty.” Based on this philosophical distinction, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Kingdom), offers a deeper understanding as to the difference between chofesh and cheirut. He explains that the adjective chofshi denotes to what a slave becomes when he goes free. It means that he can do whatever his heart desires. The word chofesh is related to chafetz (desire) and chapess (search out). Rabbi Sacks, philosopher par exellance, identifies this type of freedom with “negative liberty” because it simply denotes the lack of coercion. When the Talmud (Niddah 61b) says that once a person dies he becomes chofshi from the commandments, this means that once he is dead, he is completely free from any rules or obligations. In similar discussion, contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton so poignantly writes, “Freedom and obedience are one and the same.”
Negative liberty may be worthwhile on an individual level, but on a society level, there must be some form of rules, one cannot simply do whatever one pleases. On the other hand, law and order must not be imposed in a coercive manner, because then the masses will resent and resist said law. Instead, the law must be presented and taught in a way that everyone willingly accepts it of their own volition. When this happens, the law becomes a part of them—engrained in their very essence—for the greater good. To that effect, the Rabbis coined a new term cheirut which denotes a sort of freedom that comes to society where people not only know the law, but study it constantly until it is engraved on their hearts (so charut and cheirut become one). On the surface, this “positive liberty” seems restrictive, but actually it proves quite liberating.
Truth be told, the cheirut-cognate chorim actually does appear in the Bible—just not in the context of freedom, per se. Chorim appears thirteen times in the Bible in reference to noblemen and other dignitaries (see Rashi to Jer. 27:20). Rashi (to Sotah 49a) explains that chorin are people of lineage. The illustrious Wurzberger Rav, R. Yitzchok Dov Bamberger (1807–1878), explains that chorim is related to the Aramaic words whose root is CHET-VAV-REISH which means “white”. He explains that dignitaries are called “white” because their reputation must be untarnished and because only important people were allowed to wear white clothes in the ancient world. [R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) associates cheirut with the Hebrew root chor (“hole”), which uses those exact letters, but we will not delve into his approach here.]
That said, it seems to me that the Rabbis chose to use the word cheirut and various conjugations thereof in order to convey the idea of freedom for a very important reason. They wished to stress that newly-freed slaves begin their new lives with a clean slate, and they have the potential to become important people in their own right. On Passover, we recognize and celebrate this potential for greatness. This optimistic, yet challenging look at a freedman’s bright future warranted the Rabbis’ adoption of a new word for “freedom”, even though the Bible already has two words for that concept.
Finally, we may now turn our attention to the post-Biblical word hefker. Different theories have been floated by scholars as to the etymology of the word. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) theorizes that the word hefker is of Greek origin and is related to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE), who touted the hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure as a way of life. In doing so, Epicurus rejected the concept of a higher purpose of living, and so the word hefker also denotes a form of rejection—specifically in terms of monetary ownership. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) writes that the word hefker is related to the word bakar (cattle) and originally referred to ownerless pasture where cattle would graze. Nonetheless, Professor Shamma Friedman (a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language) finds these theories too farfetched. He argues that the origin of hefker is Akkadian, where it refers to relinquishing or transferring ownership. (He also writes that the etymology of hefker is separate from similar words like afkaruta which are derived from the Syriac/Babylonian Aramaic word pakar that refers to unbridled wildness, especially of a lascivious nature).