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This bird you cannot change

The Torah's jubilee year and its mandated release of slaves gives a whole new meaning to the expression, 'as free as a bird' (Behar)
Great Sparrow (or Southern Rufous Sparrow or Rufous Sparrow), Passer motitensis at Marakele National Park, South Africa - male. Or דרור in Hebrew. (Hebrew Wikipedia, Derek Keats)
Great Sparrow (or Southern Rufous Sparrow or Rufous Sparrow), Passer motitensis at Marakele National Park, South Africa - male. Or דרור in Hebrew. (Hebrew Wikipedia, Derek Keats)

In Judaism, the number 7 represents the natural world — beginning with the first week of creation, established with seven days, and culminating in the day of rest, Shabbat. Similarly, the years of a Jewish calendar are organized in units of seven years — we can work the land for six years, and the seventh year is the sabbatical year, not unlike the weekly sabbath, during which the land is designated to rest, as this week’s parsha, Parshat Behar, describes (Bamidbar 25:4).

Moreover, the Torah describes how after seven cycles of seven year units — that is, 49 years — the cycle of seven is interrupted for the 50th year, the jubilee year — yovel (Bamidbar 25:9-10). It is ushered in literally with fanfare: 

You shall proclaim [with] shofar blasts, in the seventh month, on the 10th of the month; on the Day of Atonement, you shall sound the shofar throughout your land. And you shall sanctify the 50th year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all who live on it. It will be a jubilee year for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.

The dramatic and somewhat puzzling element of this ceremony is this proclamation of liberty. The plain sense of the verse suggests a literal releasing of bonds for slaves. That is, every 50 years, all slaves are to be freed. But is that the implication of the Hebrew term used here, “d’ror”? It is not the term used in the dramatic and well-know descriptions of the Israelite slaves being freed from Pharoah — that is described as “herut.”

One easy way to explain the use of these two terms is that both words indicate freedom or liberty. Namely, they are synonyms and one may suggest that they can be used interchangeably. But the tradition of delving deeper to cull more from the biblical text is well established. In light of that, the use of “d’ror” becomes a curiosity – why is it used here? What implications does it carry that herut does not? What might it lack that herut implies? Moreover, once the terminology is to be examined, the substance of this mitzvah begs for attention as well: why is there a jubilee year in the 50th year? That is, why is there any extra practice of freedom in this year as compared to the pause that the sabbatical year yields every seven years?

The Hebrew Bible itself suggests answers to these questions. 

When the word d’ror appear in Tanakh, it usually does so in the context of the yovel, and the freeing of slaves that takes place then (see Jeremiah 34:8-17). The two other times it appears, it is associated with birds, or more specifically, the name of a kind of bird:

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself in which to set her young, near Your altar, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God (Psalms 84:4). 

And:

As a sparrow must flit and a swallow fly, so a gratuitous curse must backfire (Proverbs 26:2).

The Talmud explains that the sparrow is called “d’ror” because it does not accept another’s authority (Shabbat 106b) — perhaps too free for its own good! That same passage in Shabbat explains “tzipor d’ror” to indicate the sparrow, as it dwells in a house as it does in a field — just as it is free to come and go and fly about in the field, so too it will remain uncaptured within a house. But Tractate Rosh Hashanah (9b) refocuses attention on human beings and their liberty. According to Rabbi Yehudah, the term “d’ror” refers to a person who lives in one particular place, but will travel freely to do business — as the peddlers of yore might have done.

D’ror is therefore the freedom to live where one wants, to conduct oneself as one chooses, and on one’s own authority. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, a medieval exegete, explains that this bird sings when it is free, but if captured, it will refuse to eat, to the extent that it will starve itself to death, the implications being far more precise, and more dramatic too, then the freedom of any freed slave.

But it is also that freedom of slaves — the liberty mandated by the jubilee year — that is illuminated by the sparrow. For it is only with the yovel that the now-freed slaves can live where they want, conduct business on their own, rejoin their communities, even express themselves as they so choose (as ibn Ezra’s sparrow sings!). 

Why the jubilee year? Because the 50th year is outside of the cycle of seven years at a time. The same way that the seven days of the week embody the creation of the natural world, the pattern of the seven years of the sabbatical cycle is the natural way of things…. And that is often taken for granted. By stepping out of the cycle, the jubilee year and its practices pushes those who keep these laws to pay attention. It jolts them into an awareness of their own liberty, and just how valuable that freedom is.

About the Author
Yardaena Osband, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. She hails from Boston, and studied for two years in Midreshet Lindenbaum, received her BA in Jewish Studies and Music at Stern College for Women, and attended medical school at the Sackler School for Medicine. She has taught in many schools and synagogues, lecturing in Tanach, Halacha, and Talmud with a specific interest in the biographies of the Taanim and Amoraim. Yardaena also serves on the board of ORA - Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, The Riverdale Minyan and is a founder of the Orthodox Leadership Project. She currently resides in New York with her husband and children.
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