The Jewish Idea of Freedom

“When the prisoner left his dungeon for freedom,

You had given them a proud banner while in the muck —

You strengthened them with the Sabbath, a degree of refreshment and rest,

To observe even before receiving the Torah that restores the soul.”

Yotzer le-Shabbat ha-Gadol[1]        

I.

In 1752, the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly commissioned the London metal-working firm Lester and Pack to manufacture a bell with a circumference of twelve feet at the lip and weighing over two thousand pounds. It was to be placed in the Pennsylvania State Hall, now known as Independence Hall, and cast with the words, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The citation is also provided on the bell’s surface: Lev. XXV. Vx.

II. The Meaning of Deror

The concept of freedom is not spoken of much in the Bible, and the verse that adorns the Liberty Bell might not properly describe freedom in the Western sense of the word. The context of the verse is discussing the Jubilee year, the end of a 50-year cycle when all debts are cancelled, Hebrew slaves receive manumission, and the lands sold in the previous half century revert to the families of their tribal inheritances. This is far from the common twenty-first century idea that “freedom” means the ability to make whatever choices one desires.

The verse “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10), which adorns the Liberty Bell, the Hebrew word used for “liberty” is deror. While the exact meaning is uncertain, Jacob Milgrom suggests three possibilities: (1) “release” (lxx, Josephus, Antiquities 12.3, Ibn Ezra); (2) “flow” as in mor deror, “free flowing myrrh” (Exod. 30:23; Cant. 5:5); and (3) “freedom” (Targumim, Betzah 24a, Rosh Hashanah 9b). Milgrom concludes, “One can easily see that the three meanings are related: whatever is released, flows and gains freedom. The first meaning, ‘release,’ would be primary, with ‘flow’ and ‘freedom’ as its natural but secondary extension.”[2]

It is also worth noting that a similar word and idea appear elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In Akkadian, the word andurāru, cognate of the Hebrew word deror, means “remission of (commercial) debts, manumission (of private slaves), cancelling of services (illegally imposed on free persons)” (CAD A/2, p. 115).

Onkelos translates deror as ḥerut. The Talmud concurs, teaching, ein deror ella ḥeirut, “deror means ‘freedom’” (Rosh Hashanah 9b). Rashi on this verse writes, “R. Judah says: What is meant by the term deror? It is like one who dwells in a dwelling place.[3] He lives wherever he pleases, and is not under the dominion of others” (quoting from Rosh Hashanah 9b). It seems according to R. Judah and Rashi, “freedom” is to be understood as physical freedom.

Rabbenu Bahya, based on Nahmanides, makes two observations. First, on the Jubilee, the land reverts to its original owners: “during that year each person will be brought back to the ancestral tract of land which some member of his family might have had to sell during the preceding forty-nine years.” Based on this, deror suggests the idea of return to the status quo ante—a reversion to the way things were half a century ago—rather than forward-looking freedom. Second, the Hebrew word yovel, normally translated as “Jubilee,” is interpreted by Nahmanides to mean deror, “a reminder of when man was free from sin.” This is a mystical way of saying that deror refers to a state when man is spiritually unburdened by sin, rather than physically unencumbered to reside in the neighborhood of one’s choice.

III. King Zedekiah

In the sixth century before the common era, the Babylonians besieged the walls of Jerusalem. The prophet Jeremiah exhorted the nation of Israel to repent, and King Zedekiah decided to liberate the slaves that remained under the control of the Jewish people. In the biblical passage that recounts these events, the Hebrew word deror is used four times (Jer. 34:8, 15, 17 [2x]), including the phrase likro deror, “to proclaim release,” so the reader gets the impression that the passage is specifically modeled on the verse in Leviticus.[4]

Despite the lexical similarity, there is a clear shift in meaning from the verses in Leviticus to the passage in Jeremiah. In Leviticus, the institution of slavery is not questioned; its laws are merely transmitted like any other set of statutes. In Jeremiah, the human element is palpable in the words of the prophet, “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to make a proclamation of liberty to them—that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery” (Jer. 34:8-9). It is probable that the Jews at that time failed to release the slaves at the onset of the Jubilee, but Jeremiah’s criticism penetrates further, and almost screams out to the reader, “Why were they owning slaves at all?” Leslie Allen, in his 2008-commentary on the book of Jeremiah, writes, “The announcement of disaster begins with a prose sermonic reprisal that is an ironic adaptation of the proclamation of liberty (vv. 8 and 15), so that the punishment fits the crime.”[5]

The punishment for holding slaves beyond the Jubilee, or at all, was the exile and enslavement at the hands of the Babylonians. Since the Jews at that time suffered from the moral failing of not releasing their slaves, the principle of measure for measure was applied against them, and they were exiled and forced into slavery.

The moral failing of Jeremiah 34 is modelled in terms of the Exodus from Egypt (v. 13). This means that according to the prophet, the failure to promptly release the slaves is a minimization or denial of that miraculous redemption. Had the Jews truly believed that God had intervened to save their ancestors from the Egyptians, they would not have been so unscrupulous to hold slaves themselves.

It is also described as a desecration of God’s name (v. 16), which Malbim understands as emerging from a violation of the covenant (berit). When God took the Jews out from Egypt, that is when the covenant was made on a national level, but as the Jews in the time of the Exodus shed their status as slaves, God expressed a deep concern that we might become as cruel as our oppressors had been to us; and indeed that is what had happened. This development is described as sacrilege and a breach of the covenant because it contradicted God’s role as Redeemer.

Finally, Joseph Breuer writes, “They had lost all feeling for their fellow Jew… whose welfare ought to be a prime concern.”[6] In rabbinic terminology, we would say that their sin was a violation of bein adam la-Makom and bein adam le-avero—between man and his Maker, and between man and his fellow. It is a sin between man and God because it was a denial of the Exodus, and a sin between man and man because they imposed undue hardships on their fellow Jews.

The thematic inversion is palpable in the following verse: “Therefore, so says the Lord: You have not hearkened to Me to proclaim freedom [deror], every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor; behold I proclaim freedom [deror] to you, says the Lord, to the sword, to the pestilence, and to the famine, and I will make you an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (v. 17). Lev. 25:10 commanded the Israelites to “proclaim deror throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” In Jeremiah, God says that since the Jews failed to observe the commandment of Jubilee, God proclaims liberty from the nation of Israel—meaning they will no longer find protection under His providence, and instead they will be left “free” and unguarded—subject to the sword, pestilence, and famine. In this passage “freedom” means the lack of protection.[7]

One can also see the discomfort that later authorities had with the possession of slaves. Malbim writes, “He [Zedekiah] spoke to the ears of the people that through this covenant [berit] they shall call themselves free, since until now none of them was certain that they wouldn’t become impoverished and sold into slavery [to work off the debt]. But by the means of this declaration, they would be free for the rest of their lives. And the king proclaimed this to the masses and not the ministers, since he worried that the ministers would not be pleased by this ordinance, since they were never fearful [of] becoming poor. It was only the general population that was pleased [by this decree].”

The truth is that even by talmudic times, the acceptability of slavery was already being questioned.[8] The Talmud says, “whoever acquires an Israelite slave acquires a master for himself” (Kiddushin 20a). This is in sharp contrast to Aristotle, who believed that there was a fundamental distinction of human types occurring in nature: slaves and non-slaves. Aristotle believed that it was unnatural to liberate slaves or to oppress non-slaves (see the beginning of the Politics(.

The Jerusalem Talmud ties the manumission of slaves to even before the Exodus occurred: “‘And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Israelites’ (Exod. 6:13). About what did He command them? Regarding the manumission of slaves” (JT Rosh Hashanah Ch. 3).[9] The Bi’ur of the Torah Temimah writes, “that matter which He commanded Pharaoh He also commanded the Jews” (on Exod. 6:13, note 11). The passage is picking up on a nuance of the text that even though the word tzivvah, “commanded,” is used, there is no apparent commandment given to Moses and Aaron. Hence, reasons the Talmud, just as God commanded Pharaoh to release the slaves from Egypt, He simultaneously commanded the Jews to periodically release their own slaves after seven years. Even before the Exodus happened, the Israelites were already commanded not to fall prey to the oppressive impulses that a master can exercise when his power is unfettered.

Returning to the passage in Jeremiah: Zedekiah’s motivations were questionable since he might have morally disdained the institution of slavery or he might have merely been seeking to stave off the exile. Nonetheless, there is a final point to be gleaned that relates to the idea of social contract. The word deror is used alongside the word berit, “covenant,” as it says, “after King Zedekiah sealed a covenant with all the people who were in Jerusalem, to proclaim freedom for them.” This proclamation of freedom, was modeled on Leviticus’ idea of deror, which is a divinely-commanded event.

Based on this analysis, notion of liberty, to whatever extent it exists in the Bible, is not bestowed by a benevolent human regime, but by God Himself. Zedekiah was not the true liberator; he merely lived at a time when the authorities were not properly conforming to God’s demand that the slaves go free in the Jubilee year. The kingship, the government, does not bestow freedom; if the government was the origin of freedom, then any government could rescind freedom in whole or part with neither explanation nor justification. Rather the government assumes the responsibility of safeguarding the divinely installed notion of liberty. There is no President or Prime Minister, no Charter or Constitution, that has the ultimate power to bestow the blessings of liberty unto mankind. That comes from God alone: “The Lord releases the shackled” (Ps. 146:7), and for this we render a blessing every morning: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who sets free the encumbered.”

IV. The Great Benefit of Freedom

There is a rabbinic principle that “we may make beneficial acquisitions on someone’s behalf even if he is absent, but we cannot create a liability unless he is present” (e.g., Mishnah, Gittin 1:6). Based on this guiding principle, Rabbi Meir and the Sages discuss whether one is permitted to release a slave in absentia.

If being liberated is a merit, then the master can release a slave that is not in his presence, while if being liberated is a liability, then the slave can only be liberated when standing before his master.

In the talmudic discussion (Gittin 12b-13a), Rabbi Eliezer on behalf of the majority of Sages says it is a benefit. Rabbi Meir, dissenting, counters that if the master is a kohen (priest), then the slave may eat terumah, food normally reserved only for the priestly class; an emancipated slave is forbidden to consume terumah. A little later in the discourse, Rava, in defense of the Sages’ position, points out that the kohen can sell the slave to an ordinary Israelite, which would also prohibit the slave from eating terumah.

The Talmud seems unconvinced, and shifts the question to whether it is a benefit or liability for the slave of an Israelite (non-kohen) to be liberated. Rabbi Samuel the son of Rabbi Isaac, in line with Rabbi Meir, says it is a liability because he loses the right to marry a Gentile woman. This point is countered that if he is freed, he gains the right to marry a Jewish woman. In the actual talmudic analysis, it appears that Rabbi Meir’s opinion prevails—on technical grounds, it is a liability to be liberated, because he loses the right to terumah and the ability to marry a non-Jewish woman.

The “slave mentality” is for many people preferable, since someone merely needs to be instructed what to do, but does not have to concern himself with moral questions of right and wrong, or even basic questions of sustenance like where to find food or a place to sleep, or even a wife, since all of these necessities, under the Jewish system of slavery, are provided. These provisions may not be ideal, but they are sufficient enough to satisfy his barest of needs.

To borrow from the field of psychology, the slave is provided with the bottom two rungs of needs as posited by Abraham Maslow. The master is obligated to provide physiological needs such as food, water, clothing, shelter, and marriage. He is also obligated to provide safety; a master who injures a slave must set him free. At the same time, a slave will never be able to achieve the higher echelons of love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Rabbi Meir believed that these benefits—terumah and marriage—are so great that they outweigh the forbearance of the higher rungs of the Maslow’s pyramid.

Nonetheless, one gets the impression that the Sages who argued with Rabbi Meir were not definitively persuaded. Tosafot read into the Sages’ words a more profound desire, “The Sages agree [with R. Meir] that a life of licentiousness is desirable, but here, regarding a slave, it is not the case, because he is enslaved and the dominion of others is upon him, and the merit of freedom is more desirable than the option of licentiousness” (Gittin 13a s.v. avda).

At the end of his Hilkhot Avadim, Maimonides writes:

“… [T]he attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves…. Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive path of Job for which he was praised: ‘Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?’” (Avadim 9:8, quoting Job 31:13-15).

Maimonides is clearly troubled by the idea that one person could exercise dominion over another person: “Did not He who made me in the belly make him?” There is a commonality between slave and master that cannot be abrogated by legal status alone. This point is again in sharp contrast with Aristotle, who believed that some people were by nature born as slaves, and if such people are given freedom they would flounder. To take Maimonides’ reasoning one step further, everyone, even a slave, must be treated as a tzelem Elokim, someone created in the image of God Almighty. To account for this difficulty, Maimonides championed the idea that anyone who took possession of a slave should treat the slave with as much human dignity as possible.

It seems that Maimonides and Tosafot argue about whether slavery is objectionable inherently, or only on a practical level. Is slavery to be rejected because it quickly leads to other abuses, or is slavery inherently repugnant, even if the master is benevolent? Maimonides seems to object to the institution of slavery because, as is all too well known, a slave-owner can quickly become a wicked and brutal taskmaster. Hence Maimonides gives a practical exhortation that a slave-owner should not succumb to his baser desires. However, the Tosafot give a more philosophical answer: it doesn’t matter whether the slave-owner acts with benevolence or cruelty. In all cases there is a zekhut shel shiḥrur, a great merit in being free.

V. Freedom & The Value of Dissent

In 1859, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill published his treatise On Liberty. For Mill, “freedom” meant not free will, but political freedom, the idea that the state should intervene as little as possible in the mortal affairs of man. In Part II of that work, Mill presents four reasons why society should not legislate questions of belief or speech—political, religious, or otherwise:

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

“Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

“Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”

In other words, Mill’s reasons for not regulating free speech are: (1) we might silence an opinion that turns out to be right, (2) an incorrect opinion often has some truth to it, (3) even a completely true opinion profits from being defended against criticisms, (4) a truth that is not challenged will not be as vital.

While these arguments may seem foreign to the religionist, in the fifteen century, the great Rabbi Joseph Albo raised the question, “Is a person who professes a given religion permitted, or obliged, to investigate the principles of his religion in order to see whether they are true and in agreement with what we have laid down concerning the principles of divine law or not? And assuming that he is permitted to do this, has he the right to choose that religion which seems to him the truer or not?” (Ikkarim 1:24). Much like Mill, he seems to argue—at least initially—that individuals should be granted the freedom to explore their own beliefs. Albo ultimately concludes that such an endeavor is unsatisfying, because it would cause each person to be in constant doubt about his own

Albo does two remarkable things in that chapter. First, he makes the room for tremendous freedom of inquiry, asking whether one should be granted the intellectual and religious freedom to make such investigation about the truthfulness of one’s own religion.

At the same time, he makes a second point that, at some point, freedom of inquiry will be unfulfilling: “For if, having compared the principles of his religion with those of the other and found the latter truer than his own, he has exchanged his religion for the other, it is still impossible for him to be firm in the belief of the other religion which he has chosen, because it is possible that after another investigation and a comparison between the second religion and a third, he may find the principles of the latter more satisfactory, and will have to change the second for the third, and in the same way the third for the fourth and the fourth for the fifth, and so on indefinitely. The result will be that no man will be firm in his belief until he has completed his investigation of all the religions in the world and chosen one in preference to all the rest. But there is the possibility that there is a religion at the extreme end of the inhabited world which is unknown to him, and which is truer than all the rest.”

Thus both Albo and Mill would permit the freedom of speech on even the most consequential religious and political questions, but both—Albo more so than Mill—believe that even where freedom of discourse is vouchsafed as inviolable, there still can be a right answer. Just as the rightness of one’s opinion does not sanction the suppression of dissenting viewpoints, inversely the blessing of free speech does not mean that everything that is said should be afforded equal weight. Albo, though opening the door for questioning one’s own faith, also believed that the answers he was giving were correct, and was willing to critique Plato, Aristotle, and even Maimonides.[10] Similarly, Mill—who argued vociferously in defense of the right of free speech—published equally impassioned treatises on his own views on philosophical and political matters.

Therefore it should be clear that one can be an unswerving champion in defense of free speech while simultaneously holding strong beliefs for which they will advocate.

And here is where the risks of living in a free society come to the fore. Tilting too far in the direction of censorship runs afoul of Mill’s warnings that even if one possesses the right answer he will suffer for lack of refinement. Tilting too far in the direction of parity means abandoning one’s own beliefs. I have even heard Richard Joel, former President of Yeshiva University, say on multiple occasions, “The Enlightenment contains the seeds of its own destruction.”[11]

President Joel’s critique of the Enlightenment is summed up in the rabbinic dictum ein ben ḥorin ella mi she-osek ba-Torah, “none is free save he who toils in Torah” (Avot 6:2). It is for this reason that the Rabbis teach, “it is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but neither are you free to excuse yourself from it” (Avot 2:19, emphasis added). The Jewish idea of freedom does not mean exemption from responsibility.

The Torah teaches, “For to Me the people of Israel are servants; they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 25:55), which the Talmud understands as, “they are ‘My servants’ and not servants to servants” (Bava Kamma 116b, Bava Metzi’a 10a).

An Israelite should be enslaved for not more than six years. The Israelite slave works off his debt for a fixed amount of six years, and in this regard, the concept of Israelite slavery is inextricably linked to the remission of debts on the sabbatical year.[12] Philosophically, the master does not acquire the guf ha-eved, the physical body of an Israelite slave, but the perot ha-avodah, so to speak, the fruits of his labor. The Israelite slave still retains dominion over his own destiny, even if it is temporarily restrained; but upon his release, his fate will return to his own hands, as the Talmud says, “whoever acquires an Israelite slave acquires a master for himself.” Legally, this imposes certain obligations on the master. Philosophically, it teaches something more: the slave is to go free within several years, at which point he will once again control his own destiny and be able to seek out the higher layers of Maslow’s pyramid, and pursue his own self-actualization.

VI. Freedom Initial and Achieved

Rabbinic literature juxtaposes the idea of “freedom” and “law.” We have already seen ein ben ḥorin ella mi she-osek ba-Torah “none is free save he who toils in Torah.” An earlier part of that passage reads, “‘and the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved upon the tablets’ (Exod. 32:16). Do not read ḥarut [engraved] but ḥerut [liberty], for none is free save he who toils in Torah” (Avot 6:

A variant reading is found in the Midrash: “What is ḥerut? [There is a debate between] Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah. R. Judah says ‘free from exile.’ R. Nehemiah says, ‘free from the angel of death’” (Exodus Rabbah 32:1). In this regard, R. Judah seems remarkably consistent. The Talmud records R. Judah as understanding deror as license for one to live wherever one wishes (Rosh Hashanah 9b, seen above), and here he understands ḥerut as freedom from foreign dominion. This we might consider initial freedom—the freedom to live where one pleases, the freedom from coercion and outside pressure. All of the options are set before the individual and there are no restraints for someone who wishes to exercise his freedom of choice.

However, R. Bahya in interpreting Nahmanides, said that deror refers to freedom from sin, which is another way of saying that one will inherit the world to come with all its blessings. That might be what R. Nehemiah means, that “freedom” means freedom from the angel of death. If one properly obeys what is ḥarut al ha-luḥot, “engraved on the tablets,” that person will achieve ḥerut mi-malakh ha-mavet, “freedom from the angel of death.” For R. Judah, followed by Rashi, freedom refers to the existence of free choice. For R. Nehemiah, as well as Nahmanides and R. Bachya, freedom is not the mere existence of free will, but its proper implementation. This freedom is not a political idea but a religio-transcendental one. We could call this achieved freedom.

VII. Passover an Freedom

The Rabbis refer to Passover as zeman ḥerutenu, the season of our freedom. From does this idea derive? — After Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt, they encamped at a place called Pi Ha-hirot (Exod. 14:2). According to Rashi, this is the same place as Pithom, one of the cities that the Jews for forced to build for the Egyptians, the other being Raamses (Exod. 1:11). Rashi, based on the Mekhilta, wonders why the name would be changed from Pithom to Pi Ha-hirot, and concludes that the name pi ha-ḥirot is related to ḥerut, and that is the place they first became bnei ḥorin — free people. The city the Jews were forced to build involuntarily becomes the site where they gained their liberty. From a historical perspective, Passover is indeed the season of our freedom.

Nonetheless, the Torah says, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me” (Exod. 8:1). We appear to run into a blatant theological contradiction. Are we free people or servants of God?

On Passover we are liberated from the bondage of Egypt, but, unlike Cain, we are not fugitives and wanderers throughout the earth (cf. Gen. 4:12). We are not merely liberated from Egypt, but we take on a new, kinder, and more benevolent Master, but a Master nonetheless who has extensive requirements and expectations for us. We are not to indulge our passions or our desires

Jewish mystical teaching says that the leaven in the bread represents the evil inclination: “The evil inclination operates in man and grows in him like leaven in dough; it enters him and slowly extends its influence until his whole body is permeated by it” (Zohar 2:182a). We might grow haughty in our festival of freedom and submit to the modern notion that freedom means all choices are morally equivalent. However by abstaining from leaven, which symbolically represents the soul being “puffed up,” we make a visible sign that ha laḥma, “this bread,” symbolizes that we do not believe all choices are equiponderant. On all other nights, we eat bread or matzah, but on this, the night of our liberation, we eat only matzah, to demonstrate that our freedom requires us to endlessly combat our evil inclination.

If this analysis is correct, then the holiday of Passover simultaneously represents our freedom from bondage and our rejection of sin. A God-oriented life is a life of moderation, restrain, submission, dedication, and virtue. Though we have been physically exiled, spiritually the Jewish people does not consist of wayfarers and wanderers. We do not believe in happenstance, at least on a collective level. Hence the holiday of Passover requires us to operate between two poles. On the one hand, freedom from slavery means the reinstatement of free choice. On the other hand, the mere existence of physical freedom presents a myriad of choices of disparate worth. The removal of physical bondage presents the opportunity to properly utilize our freedom of the will, while our deliverance from Egypt creates the obligation for proper conduct.

VIII. Conclusion

The Jewish concept of freedom may very well differ from the twenty-first century western sense of freedom. The Jew does not believe the source of freedom is the state, but God Himself. The state merely safeguards that freedom as a pledge. The Jew does not believe all choices are morally neutral. Rather, some choices are optimal, some are sinful. Freedom primarily means freedom of the will, both in its existence and in its proper exercise. Finally, we must realize that freedom of the will is not absolute because there are physical constraints on what we can achieve. It is only by living a Godly and moral life that we can ultimately transcend those restraints and achieve everlasting freedom with God.

 

Slaves of the hour are slaves of slaves

A servant of the Lord, he alone is free;

Thus when each man seeks his lot,

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul.

 — Rabbi Judah Halevi, Avdei Zeman

 ________________________________________

[1] Translation from ArtScroll Siddur Ahavat Shalom, p. 911.

[2] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, p. 2167.

[3] Understanding deror from the word dar, “dwell.”

[4] Jeremiah’s phrase likro deror is linguistically similar to Leviticus’ phrase u-kratem deror.

[5] Leslie Allen, Jeremiah: A Commentary, OTL, p. 387.

[6] Joseph Breuer, The Book of Jeremiah, p. 277.

[7] Compare to the Greek idea that freedom very quickly turns into a free-for-all, e.g., Plato: “… he shakes his head and says that they are all alike, and that one is as good as another…. [H]e lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom…” (Republic VIII [561]). Further, he writes, “The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery” (Republic 564).

[8] Aristotle notes that it was being questioned in his time as well (see Politics, Book I).

[9] There is a line of thought that even in the Jews’ oppression in Egypt, some Jews were able to purchase their less fortunate brethren into slavery. More likely, both from a historical perspective and a homiletical one, it is a reference to the laws of slavery in Exodus 21.

[10] As is well known, Albo’s primary purpose in writing his Ikkarim is largely to critique the opinions of Maimonides.

[11] Both e.e. cummings in “As Freedom is a Breakfasthood” and Albert Camus in The Fall seem to mock this idea of freedom as ephemeral, contradictory, and unfulfilling.

[12] Technically, debts are forgiven on the sabbatical (seventh) year, which is common for everyone, while slaves work six full years based the beginning of indenturement.

About the Author
Alec Goldstein received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and is the founder of Kodesh Press.
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