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The concept of freedom in the Bible is found in the injunction that on the advent of the *Jubilee, "liberty was proclaimed throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof … and ye shall return every man unto his family" (Lev. 25:10). Thus the freedom envisaged encompassed not only the emancipation of slaves, but the return to one's ancestral lands which had been alienated by sale. This concept is extended in Jeremiah 34, in which the prophet denounces the people for later disregarding the order given by Zedekiah "that every man should let his man-servant and every man his maid-servant, being a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, go free; that none should make bondsmen of them, even of a Jew his brother" (34:9). Although the Talmud also uses the word freedom in antithesis to slavery (BK 15a), in general it employs the word in a wider sense as denoting absence of subservience, and the concept that it was morally and legally wrong under any circumstances for a Jew to be dependent upon or subservient to another Jew became one of the fundamental principles of the rabbis, but to the evil of the denial of freedom to Jew by his fellow Jew was added that of the subservience of the Jew to foreign rule.

The concept of that freedom was unique in the insistence on the freedom of the individual in order that he might be free to devote himself utterly and without restraint to the service of God and the fulfillment of His will. The locus classicus of this conception is the rabbinical interpretation given to the verse "For unto Me are the children of Israel servants," which is emphasized by the repetition "they are My servants" (Lev. 25:55), upon which the rabbis comment: "they are My servants, but not the servants of My servants." It is the basis of the reason given by Johanan b. Zakkai for the law that a Hebrew slave who chose to remain in slavery when the time came for his emancipation had to have his ear bored (Ex. 21:6), an interpretation which is called "a species of homer" (probably "an important ethical principle") "Why the ear of all the organs of the body? God said: Because it was the ear which heard Me say upon Mount Sinai 'Unto Me are the children of Israel servants, but not servants to My servants,' yet its owner went and acquired a [human] master for himself, therefore let that ear be bored" (Kid. 22b; in the Mekhilta to Ex. 21:6 Simeon b. Judah ha-Nasi derives the same ethical lesson from the fact that the ear had to be placed against the doorpost).

It was in accordance with this principle of freedom from man in order to be free for the service of God that R. Joshua b. Levi stated, "No man is free but he who labors in the Torah" (Avot 6:2), which may be a protest against those who thought of freedom in purely physical or rational terms. This principle was enshrined to such an extent that the Talmud actually asks how, in view of this interpretation, it is permitted for a Jew even to be the employee of another Jew and replies that the right of the laborer to withdraw his labor at any time preserves his essential liberty (see *Labor). This conception of the right of the Jew to individual freedom was extended to include national freedom from foreign rule. R. Judah interprets the freedom which comes from the study of the Torah as "freedom from exile" (Ex. R. 32:1), and the theme that failure to exercise this freedom brings in its train political servitude was a favorite theme of the rabbis in the period immediately following the destruction of the Temple, when foreign rule became a grim fact. Thus Johanan b. Zakkai homiletically interprets Song of Songs 1:8, "You were unwilling to subject yourselves to heaven; as a result you are subjected to the nations of the world" and his contemporary Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah states, "He who accepts the yoke of Torah will have the yoke of foreign rule removed from him, and he who casts off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of foreign rule" (Avot 3:5). The striking statement of Samuel in the Talmud (Sanh. 91b et al.) that the only difference between the present world and the Messianic age is subjection to foreign rule is actually accepted as the halakhah by Maimonides in the last chapter of the Mishneh Torah, but he also emphasizes that the "sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat, drink, and be merry. Their aspiration was that Israel be free to devote itself to the Torah and its wisdom, with none to oppress or disturb it" (Yad, Melakhim 12:4).

Most extreme in their passion for liberty were the members of the "Fourth Philosophy," the *Zealots or *Sicarii as thecase may be. Josephus states of them that "this school agrees in all other respects with the opinions of the Pharisees, except that they have a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master. They think little of submitting to death, if only they may avoid calling any man master" (Ant. 18:23), a principle which they carried into practice with their mass suicide at *Masada rather than submit to the Romans. It has been suggested that the differences between them and the Pharisees with regard to the love of freedom was that whereas the Pharisees, while extolling the importance of liberty, did not include it among the cardinal principles for which one should suffer martyrdom rather than transgress, those members of the "Fourth Philosophy" did include it. The ideal of freedom was kept alive in the Jewish consciousness throughout the period of exile. The four cups of wine obligatory on the *seder night of Passover, the festival of freedom (Pes. 108b), are the symbol of freedom, and in the daily liturgy in the evening prayer, the Exodus from Egypt is referred to as the emergence of the children of Israel to "everlasting freedom."


In the Bible: L.I. Rabinowitz, in: Sinai, 55 (1964), 329–32; S. Goren, Torat ha-Mo'adim (1964), 334–45. In Jewish Philosophy: M. Carmilly-Weinberger, Sefer ve-Sayif (1966); R. Gordis, The Root and the Branch (1962), 31–53; D.J. Silver, Maimonidean Criticism and the Maimonidean Controversy (1965); E. Shmueli, Bein Emunah li-Khefirah (1962), 161–78.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.