The Philology of Freedom: A Diachronic Analysis of Herut and Hofshiut

Many speak of Pesach as the festival of freedom, but the idea of “freedom” is rather abstract. Like “love,” “happiness” and “goodness,” “freedom” is an axiologically-loaded word whose import we intuitively apprehend yet whose precise meaning remains deceptively difficult to isolate. [1] In common parlance, of course, heuristic definitions suffice. Since, however, the notion of freedom is so intimately connected with the meaning of the holiday which we will soon celebrate, let us see if we can arrive at a clearer conception of the term, as it appears in our sources. In Tanakh, the word for “free” is hofshi. Notable instances of its usage include:


(1)   Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work [for] six years, and in the seventh [year], he shall go out to freedom (l’hofshi) without charge.[2]


(2)   And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who is coming up, for he is coming up to taunt Israel? And it will be, that the man who will kill him, the King will enrich him with great riches, and he will give him his daughter, and he will make his father’s house free (hofshi) in Israel.[3]


(3)   Who sent the wild donkey free (hofshi), or who loosed the bands of the wild donkey?[4]


All in all, the root is used in Tanakh over twenty times. In most of its occurrences it is used to describe the release of slaves – though as demonstrated by the verses which we cited above, the root is also used in connection with animals and tax exemptions. Given this information, we would naturally expect to find employed with high frequency in the narrative of the Exodus. But in the fifteen chapters which recount the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt and subsequent release from enslavement, the term does not show up even once. To put this in context, the words “freedom” and “liberty,” and all conjugations thereof, appear in the Declaration of Independence five times; in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen eight times; in the Magna Carta twenty-eight times; and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights thirty-one times. The complete absence of these terms within the story of the Exodus, then, is indeed remarkable.

When we turn to our liturgy the questions multiply. In the siddur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot are referred to as zeman herutenu (“the time of ‘freedom”), zeman matan toratenu (“the time of the giving of the Torah”) and zeman simhatenu (“the time of joy”), respectively. These terms have been in use since at least the days of R. Amram Gaon,[5] and though all are apt titles, one seems quite unlike the others. Whereas simha and Torah both clearly stem from Biblical vernacular, herut never appears in Tanakh. From where does this term originate?

At first glance it would seem that herut is simply the Aramaic version of hofshiut, since Onkelos routinely translates hofshi as “horin.”[6] But if that is the case, then we would have to conclude that the sages composed the holiday liturgy inconsistently. In the shemoneh esrei and the birkat ha-mazon prayers, the formulaic insertions for Sukkot and Shavuot refer to those festivals with Hebrew terms which are sourced in scripture. Why would Hazal deviate from this pattern when it comes to Pesach?

In fact, they did not. Although herut, per se, never appears in Tanakh, we do find a related term quite commonly. For example:


(1)   And she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed [them] with his seal, and she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles (horim) who were in his city, who sat with Naboth.[7]


(2)   And the prefects did not know where I went and what I was doing, and the Jews, the priests, the nobles (horim), the prefects, and the remaining performers of the work I had not yet told.[8]


(3)   Fortunate are you, O land, whose king is the son of nobles (ben horim), and your princes eat at the proper time, in might and not in drinking.[9]


Both the Judaica Press and the Jerusalem Bible render horim as “nobles.” Perhaps the term is derived from the Biblical passages recording the genealogy of Esau, wherein the chieftains who inhabited the mountain range of Seir are identified as “Horites.”[10] Alternatively, horim may be an Aramaic loanword, even when it appears in Tanakh.[11] Yet while its exact linguistic development proves difficult to trace, the semantic connection between the Biblical horim and its Rabbinic relative, herut, is impossible to miss. Herut has to do with nobility and is therefore not synonymous with hofshiut, despite the fact that the two are colloquially interchangeable. Rather, each of these terms alludes to half of a larger, single concept. For indeed, there are two “freedoms” to speak of: a positive kind and a negative kind.[12]

Of these two freedoms, we are probably more familiar with hofshiut. To fight for this freedom is to struggle for autonomy of person and conscience. More specifically, it is to battle against any conditions threatening that autonomy, be they political, social or economic. When we overcome tyranny, discrimination, poverty, or any other factor narrowing our options, imposing unnecessary limits on what we could be – then we are hofshi. A rough English analogue might be “liberty,” which derives from a Latin root implying lack of restraint.[13] So hofshi, like liberty, defines freedom negatively: to be “free,” these terms imply, is to be without constraints.

Yet our tradition, through the sages, emphasizes a different form of freedom: herut. As the translation suggests, this freedom is closely related to the concept of “nobility,” from a Latin origin meaning “excellence” or “superiority.” There is a virtuous way, a noble way to be free, this term suggests. Freedom is not only something to be gained, but also something to be earned; it offers possibilities, but it also carries with it obligations. We mentioned earlier that the root never appears in the story of the Exodus. What does appear in these chapters – sixty-seven times, in fact – is the root for “work” or “service”: a.b.d. No less than five times[14] throughout the narrative, moreover, do we find that familiar refrain, “let the Israelites go, that they may serve God.” So freedom also includes a positive dimension. When one simply “is” free, one has achieved hofshiut. To be worthy of one’s freedom one must become a ben horin.

Put another way, hofshiut establishes the framework for a meaningful life, and herut supplies its content. In the Haggadah, hofshiut is represented by the first two of the four redemption phrases, ve-hotseiti and ve-hitsalti: “and I took out,” “and I saved.” All that has been granted by this point are the beginnings of freedom. But its telos – the ve-lakahti, (“and I took”) the ve-ga’alti (“and I redeemed”) – these remain conspicuously lacking, until we reach herut. Both freedoms are necessary.

And yet, if we think about them carefully, we will realize that these two freedoms conflict.[15] Whereas hofshiut is all about opening opportunities, herut begins precisely when opportunities are relinquished. Whenever one declares “I will be this,” one also admits “I will not be that.” To marry, raise a family, pursue a certain career path or life goal – in short, to build anything meaningful – requires supreme courage, for it means turning one’s back on all the parallel paths which might have been ours but now never will. That, in a word, is the paradox of herut.

By itself, this is a powerful idea. Judaism amplifies it further by claiming that the obligation to make good on one’s freedom is pervasive. Not limited to life’s “big decisions,” our duty to be the best we can be translates itself into a complex normative rubric called Halakhah, which dictates the way we ought to speak, dress, eat, manage our finances and even attend to our personal hygiene.  With this background, perhaps we can understand the following enigmatic statement recorded in the Mishna:


And it says: ‘The Tablets are God’s handiwork and the script was God’s script harut on the Tablets.’ Do not read harut (engraved) but herut (freedom), for you can have no freer man than one who engages in the study of Torah.[16]


Etymologically, the connection between harut and herut is rather tenuous. No matter, for the brilliance here is thematic. What is the act of engraving, after all, if not a conscious tampering with the proverbial “blank slate?” Does not the chiseler reveal the beauty hiding within the slab of stone before him precisely by removing all that peripheral potential concealing it? Could there be a more appropriate metaphor? How remarkable, indeed: The luhot ha-berit are not only a technical medium for transmitting God’s word to man; they are, too, a powerful symbol of the very process which God’s word is meant to initiate. This is the deeper message of freedom as expounded by our sages. In the interface between potential and actuality; between fantasy and reality; between what I could be, in theory, and who I build myself to be, in practice – therein lies the transition from hofshiut to herut.

And this, ultimately, is the message of Pesach. Taken in context, Pesach does not commemorate the exodus as an isolated historical event. On Pesach we reenact that process which began with our exit from Egypt but which culminated with the receiving of the Torah seven weeks later. The opportunity to become a “kingdom of priests,” a “holy nation”[17] – that is what we celebrate on Pesach. It is the festival not only of a potential freedom, but of an actualized one as well.


Alex Maged is a Sophomore at YC and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser


[1]  A version of this essay appears in the SOY-JSC Haggadah: A Collection of Divrei Torah from the Rabbis and Students of Yeshiva University (New York: Michael Scharf Publication Trust, 2014) and is reprinted here with permission.

[2] Exodus 21:2. Translations courtesy of the Judaica Press, available at:

[3] I Samuel 17:25

[4] Job 39:5

[5] Seder Rav Amram Gaon.

[6] See for instance Exodus 21:2, 5, 26, and 27, and Deuteronomy 15:12, 13 and 18. Throughout Tanakh, Targum Yonatan also translates hofshi as horin.

[7] I King 21:8. Underlined term has been changed from “officials” to “nobles” to keep it consistent with the translation for horim provided in the other verses cited.

[8] Nehemiah 2:16

[9] Ecclesiastes 10:17

[10] Cf. Genesis 14:6, Genesis 36:20 and Deuteronomy 2:12. I heard this suggestion from

my teacher R. Daniel Eliav.

[11] I heard this suggestion from my teacher R. Menachem Copperman.

[12] After writing this article I was directed to Isaiah Berlin’s well-known essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in which the author also speaks of “positive” and “negative” liberty. Though there are certainly overlaps between herut vs. hofshiut and Berlin’s positive vs. negative liberty, these categorizations should not be conflated or confused.

[13] Etymologies retrieved from the Online Etymology Dictionary, available at: By contrast, “freedom,” which seems to have developed from the German and Celtic terms for “love” and probably first assumed its current connotation with reference to members of one’s family or clan, defines freedom in more positive terms. As such, it would find a closer analogue in herut.

[14] Exodus 7:26; 8:16; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3

[15] This paragraph is based on the discussion of freedom in Akiva Tatz, The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life (Southfield, MI: Targum Press, 1999)

[16] Avot 6:2

[17] Cf. Exodus 19:6