Praying for Freedom
The tenth blessing in the daily Amidah, which asks God to return those in exile, begins, “Sound the great shofar for our freedom…” What kind of freedom are we praying for? And why does a shofar blast herald this freedom?
The wording of the blessing is as follows:
תְּקַע בְּשׁופָר גָּדול לְחֵרוּתֵנוּ.
וְשָׂא נֵס לְקַבֵּץ גָּלֻיּותֵינוּ.
וְקַבְּצֵנוּ יַחַד מֵאַרְבַּע כַּנְפות הָאָרֶץ.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', מְקַבֵּץ נִדְחֵי עַמּו יִשרָאֵל.
Sound the great shofar for our freedom
And raise a banner1 to gather our exiles
And gather us together from the four corners of the land
Blessed are You, YHVH, who gathers the rejected of His nation Israel
The first three words of the initial line are drawn from the vision of the ultimate return, as described in Isaiah:
וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִתָּקַע בְּשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל
וּבָאוּ הָאֹבְדִים בְּאֶרֶץ אַשּׁוּר
וְהַנִּדָּחִים בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
וְהִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַיקֹוָ֛ק בְּהַר הַקֹּדֶשׁ בִּירוּשָׁלִָם:
On that day, a great shofar will be sounded,
and the lost who are in the land of Assyria,
and the scattered who are in the land of Egypt
shall come and worship YHVH on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem.
Isaiah prophesies about a day in which the exiles from Israel return to their land and are able to worship God again in their homeland: Jerusalem.
But what about the word “לחירותינו - for our freedom,” which ends the first line of the blessing? In contrast to almost all of the language of the Siddur, this word is not drawn from the Bible. Indeed, the word “חירות - freedom” postdates Biblical Hebrew.2 But in Aramaic, the term חירותא is used in a very technical way: it refers to the freedom of the jubilee year.3 To wit, when the Torah proclaims “דרור - freedom” during the jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), the ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah (Targumim) all translate4 the word דרור as חירותא. This reference helps to sharpen what we might be praying for in the blessing.
In Parashat BeHar-BeHukkotai, the image of the shofar, and the freedom of the jubilee year, appear together:
וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר בְּכָל־אַרְצְכֶם: וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶיהָ יוֹבֵל הִוא תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּתוֹ וְאִישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ:
Then you shall sound a blasting shofar in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month; on the Day of Atonement, you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land. You shall hallow the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim freedom (dror) throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your land, and each of you shall return to your family.
The jubilee year, which occurs every 50 years, marks a time when everyone can return to their ancestral land. How would the community herald the beginning of the jubilee year? Through the blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur. Both the image of the shofar and the concept of jubilee freedom (expressed as heiruteinu) appear in our blessing’s first line. These images are drawn from this passage of VaYikra.
What is the significance of the jubilee year? The jubilee marked the ultimate end of slavery. Just as people could return to their original land, slaves could return to their original free status in their land. In this way, the jubilee was a unique declaration of freedom. While slaves were allowed to go free at the end of their 6th year of service, some slaves could choose to remain with their master in order to stay connected with their family.5 This slave is called an “eved olam - an eternal slave.” In the Torah, there seems to be no way for this type of slave to emerge as free.
But our Rabbis could not imagine a life of eternal slavery:
מכילתא מסכתא דנזיקין פרשה ב
הא מה תלמוד לומר ועבדו לעולם?
או ועבדו לעולם כמשמעו?
תלמוד לומר (ויקרא כה, י) "ושבתם איש אל אחוזתו."
רבי אומר: בא וראה שאין העולם אלא חמשים שנה,
שנאמר "ועבדו לעולם" (שם שם מ) - עד היובל...
Mekhilta, Massekhta de-Nezikin 2 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, pp. 253-254)
What is the meaning of “his slave forever” (Exodus 21:6)?
It means: until the jubilee year.
Or perhaps he is literally his slave forever? Scripture teaches: “Every person shall return to your land” (Leviticus 25:10).
Rebbi [Yehudah haNasi] said: Come and see that “forever” is only 50 years.
As it says: “his slave forever”—until the jubilee….
This midrash reads the law of the eternal slave in light of the jubilee year of freedom. Although the simple meaning of the verse in Exodus 21:6 is that the person chooses to be enslaved forever, the feature of the Jubilee year undoes that understanding: every person—even an eternal slave—returns to their original status. As Rebbi says: slavery has an expiration date; nothing can last past 50 years.
The jubilee is the Torah’s way of saying: the present situation does not have to last forever. It may seem like the current state is neverending, and the trajectory is not moving in the direction of redemption. But inequality will eventually end. There comes a time when we are all redeemed. Indeed, the concept of the jubilee year itself was a victim of exile. In the Rabbinic understanding, the institution stopped when Israelites were banished from their land.6 But this cessation of the jubilee is not forever; it will be restored, just as we will be restored.
The connection between our blessing and the freedom of the Jubilee year is strengthened from alternative textual traditions of this blessing. In a number of versions of the blessing, the words “ותקרא דרור לקבצינו or קרא דרור לקבצנו - declare a freedom to gather us” are added before asking God to gather us from the four corners of the earth.7 In these versions of the blessing, dror is mentioned in the body of the blessing explicitly, parallel to heiruteinu. This underscores the interpretation of “our freedom” as a direct reference to the jubilee, with all of its associated freedoms.
What is the significance of the specific reference to the freedom (דרור = חירות) of the jubilee year in our experience of prayer? The reference to the jubilee is a related—but distinct—master story from the ingathering of the exiles. It is not only a political ingathering we pray for, but also a return to the most broad-reaching economic equalizing system the Bible presents: a year in which all debts are forgiven and everyone returns to the land of their ancestors.
It is true that the concept of a jubilee year—in which land reverted to its original owner and all slaves, regardless of their status, were released—was a longstanding tradition in many cultures of the Ancient Near East. The main difference, however, between the biblical use of the term as opposed to that of the surrounding religions is that only the Bible predicts an explicitly God-driven freedom on a regular timetable (50 years).8 In other cultures, the king declared a freedom (known in the Akkadian cognate to dror: duraru or anduraru) when he saw fit. This often happened when a king took the throne, in order to curry favor with his subjects, and not to implement a just society.9 God’s use of the dror took the institution out of human hands and made it clear that this is a divine system designed to help the poor, enslaved, and landless.10
What does it mean to say this blessing in a world with massive inequality? First, it offers us a vision of the future society we can envision and yearn for. Even though it seems inequality might last forever, the concept of the jubilee teaches otherwise. Indeed, no slavery lasts forever. Second, it can offer us a goad to work toward a more just society even now, in exile. This is also a unique aspect of the jubilee freedom: in contrast to other societies, where the control of freedom was solely in the hand of the king, in VaYikra, each person had to take responsibility for enforcing the dror.11 Similarly, we in the present can play a role in furthering economic equality, without waiting entirely for the final ingathering to work on structural issues of inequality.
Understanding the roots of heiruteinu as connected to the jubilee thickens the interpretative plane in which we might understand this blessing. The jubilee is a specific kind of freedom: one that comes from God, not humans, and focuses on establishing economic equality. A blessing that asks God to blow the shofar as a signal for a new jubilee (itself not practiced since the exile) is a powerful vision of a world of possibility we do not yet inhabit, but pray for and work toward making a reality.
1 Or: cause a miracle. Although the word “nes” in Modern Hebrew has the meaning of “miracle,” here it most likely connotes the more original meaning of “banner” or “sign-post.” When it appears in the Bible, the image of the “נס - banner” is often associated with the image of the shofar, which appears in the first line of our blessing. A banner and a trumpet were ways of rallying groups to fight or simply be oriented and come together (see Jeremiah 4:5-6; Isaiah 18:3; Jeremiah 51:27).
7 See Uri Ehrlich, Tefilat Ha-Amidah shel Yemot Ha-Hol (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi), 2013, pp. 148, 150-151. For example, the fragment labeled ENA 2527.8. This phrasing also appears in all versions of Seder Rav Amram Gaon (ed. Goldschmidt, p. 25) and in Mahzor Turin, ed. Abraham Schechter, p. 85.
8 Moshe Weinfeld, Mishpat U-Tzedakah Be-Yisrael U-Ve-Amim (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1985) pp. 3-4. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27 (New York: Doubleday, 2001) p. 2163, 2169: “In contrast with all ancient Near Eastern anduraru / misarum proclamations, the biblical jubilee was cyclical – ordained by God and not by an earthly ruler according to his whim or need – and could not be revoked or circumvented.”
10 Nahum Sarna notes that people fell into slavery as a way of paying off debt; there is a deep overlap between the institution of slavery and the state of economic inequality. Conversely, a forgiveness of debt would also consequently release slaves. See Nahum Sarna, “Zedekiah’s Emancipation of Slaves and the Sabbatical Year,” in Harry Hoffner Jr., ed., Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon (Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1973), pp. 143-149, here p. 147.