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On Freedom

Harav Yaakov Medan
Text file


Translated by David Strauss



I. Adolescent Misdeeds


            One day when I was in eleventh grade, I slipped out from the Yeshiva to go to the Eden Cinema in Jerusalem to see a film.[1] The film dealt with the dictatorial regime of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia during the time of the First World War, the mass demonstrations that brought about its collapse, the Provisional Government under Kerensky, and the Communist Revolution that followed in its wake. In somber colors, the movie depicted the hopes for freedom at the time of the revolution, hopes that were buried in the slow and painful disillusionment that followed the rise of the Communist regime, which deviously removed the few liberties that had existed under tsarist rule.


            One scene in the film was for me a foundational event: a long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Most of the passengers are educated and affluent. They are seated and appear to be enjoying the trip, but no one dares speak to the person seated next to him. At every station, a political commissar enters the carriage and preaches to the passengers about the egalitarian and democratic truth of the Communist regime, and the people listen in fear and silence and nod with their heads. Under one of the rows of seats, a "volunteer cleaner" with an aristocratic face lies on the cold floor, his hands and feet shackled in iron chains. At every station, he scrubs the filth of the lavatories and railroad cars with his hands, and he is then gruffly shoved back under the seats and bound in his chains. When the political commissar delivers his speech, the "volunteer cleaner" is the only one who dares to interrupt his every sentence and scornfully refute his lies and praises of the government. The commissar tries to ignore the "volunteer" and continue his speech, but there is nothing that he can do to him.


            When the commissar leaves, the prisoner sticks his head out from under the seats, looks at the distinguished passengers, and says to them: "You think that you are free, and that I am in chains and manacles. But no, it is you who are bound and fettered. I am the only free person in this entire railroad car."


II. Someone Who Is Sleeping and Someone Who Is Bound


            I remembered this story, and even related it to the students in my shiur, when we were learning the passage dealing with a "moving courtyard" with respect to a get (Gittin 78a). The gemara discusses a get that was put into the hand of a woman's slave whose legs were bound (so that he not be regarded as a "moving courtyard"), and he was also sleeping, and she was watching him (so that he be regarded as a "courtyard watched under its owner's authority"). The Rosh and the Ritzba disagree about this passage:


Rava said: If he wrote a get for her and put it in the hand of her slave while he was asleep and she was watching him, it is a get. But if he is awake, it is not a get, because it is a courtyard not watched under its owner's authority. If he is asleep and she was watching him, it is a get… This implies that we require that he be asleep and bound. But this is difficult, for in the first chapter of Bava Kama (12a) and in the first chapter of Bava Metzia (9b), and above in the second chapter (21a), the implication is that being bound is enough by itself, for there is no mention of sleeping in all those places…


According to this, if his hands and feet were bound, and he is tied to a rope and she is holding it, we do not require that he be asleep, for now he is being watched under his owner's authority, and also not moving. And this is how we can explain the case above in the second chapter. And so I saw written in the name of the Ritzba.


It seems to me, however, that even if his hands and feet are bound, and he is tied with a rope, and she is holding it in her hand, since he is awake and he has a mind of his own, he is regarded as a courtyard not watched under its owner's authority. (Rosh, Gittin 8:5)


            The Ritzba maintains that if the slave is bound not only at his feet (so that he not be regarded as a "moving courtyard"), but also at his hands, and his owner is holding him by a rope, he is regarded as a "courtyard watched under its owner's authority" even if he is awake and of sound mind, for he is tied up and can do nothing of his own free will; he is totally subject to his owner's will. The Rosh, in contrast, maintains that if the slave is awake and has a mind of his own, his mind remains independent even if he is bound at the hands, and he is not regarded as watched under the authority of his owner who is holding him by a rope, even though he is incapable of doing anything against the owner's will.


            In other words, the Ritzba agrees with the passengers in the aforementioned story. Freedom (regarding being "watched under the owner's authority") is determined by the freedom to move one's hands, and in the normal case, also one's legs. Accordingly, the railway passengers were free people, even if they could not open their mouths to respond to the commissar's arrogance. The person who was not free was the prisoner whose hands and feet were bound, despite the fact that he was the only one to speak his mind before the commissar. The same is true about the slave in our passage. When he has an independent mind, but cannot give it practical expression owing to the fact that he is bound, he is totally subject to his owner, and functions merely as the owner's courtyard.


            The Rosh, on the other hand, agrees with the prisoner lying on the floor. As long as he is awake and has a mind of his own, the shackles on his hands and feet do not overcome his independence. He has a mind and he has a will, and he can only serve as his master’s courtyard when he is asleep and his mind and will slumber with him.


One important detail regarding this passage: the law was decided in accordance with the view of the Rosh, against the Ritzba.[2]


III. "Who Releases the Imprisoned"


            As stated above, the Rishonim disagree about what subjugates a person to the point that he loses his own personality – the shackles on his hands or sleep, the hibernation of will and mind. We may perhaps be able to bring support for the Rosh's view regarding the hibernation of the will and mind from the "matir asurim" ("who releases the imprisoned") blessing recited each morning.[3]


            The posekim rule that a prisoner who is released from jail does not recite this blessing, since the Sages enacted the blessing exclusively for one who wakes up from his sleep (when his hands and feet free themselves from the chains of slumber and start to move). While a person is sleeping, he is imprisoned. In the morning, when he wakes up, he goes out from bondage to freedom. The fetters of sleep bind his limbs, his will is dormant, and he does nothing.


If we continue in the direction of dream analysis according to the school of Freud, we find that during sleep, sub-conscious thoughts take control of the consciousness and inundate the person. During the day, a person chooses what will engage his consciousness and what will be stored away in his sub-conscious. At night, while asleep, these hidden thoughts come flooding in against his will, and he is enslaved to them without being able to control the subject matter of his dream or to influence the course of the dream. He is bound by the chains of sleep, and he is enslaved to things he does not want. His bound hands become defiled, and in the morning, when he goes out from bondage to freedom, his hands require renewed purification through washing.




            A dream bears undeniable force, and it also contains "a sixtieth of prophecy."[4] This may also be the plain sense of the verse: "When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like dreamers" (Tehillim 126:1) – like one who understands something that is incomprehensible under ordinary circumstances.


            The gemara, however, expounds this verse in a negative manner:


R. Yochanan said: This righteous man [Choni Ha-Me'agel] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse: "A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like dreamers." Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? (Ta'anit 23a)


The dream is understood by Choni Ha-Me'agel as referring to the seventy years of the Babylonian exile. Exile is like sleep for the entire nation, for during such a period, the people are enslaved to their enemies. Their hands and feet may not be bound, but they are obligated to fulfill the will of a foreign king. This is what the prophet Yirmiyahu told those going out into seventy-year exile in Babylonia:


Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylonia: Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them; take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters, that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city into which I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it – for in its peace shall you have peace. (Yirmiyahu 29:4-7)


            This is sleep and this is a dream, and about this, Choni was distressed. For seventy years is a human lifetime, and an entire generation spent all its days in sleep.




            This may be the meaning of "leil shimurim," the night of watching observed on the night that Israel went out from bondage to freedom. Five of the greatest Tannaim did not go to sleep on this night, but rather they reclined at their seder in Bnei Brak and related the story of the exodus from Egypt all night long. They did not allow their consciousness to become imprisoned by sleep or their wills to become chained by slumber. They gave thanks for their freedom to the One who gave it to them, to the One who released them from their prison and brought Israel out of Egypt. This is the meaning of what R. Kook writes in his siddur, Olat Re'iya:


The soul of man is only able to receive this revelation of the supernal light on the night of watching, when he sits as a free man and engages in the service of the blessed One.


            This is also the way to understand the midrash about the day on which the Torah was given, which teaches that the people of Israel had fallen asleep until God came and went out to greet them the way a bridegroom goes out to meet his bride, and woke them up on the morning of the third day:


R. Chanina said: During the third month (Sivan), the day is twice as long as night, and Israel slept until the second hour of the day, for sleep on the day of Shavuot is pleasant, and the night is short. And Moshe went out and came to the Israelite camp and was rousing Israel from their sleep, saying to them: Rise from your slumber, for surely your God wishes to give you the Torah… And the Holy One, blessed be He, also went out to greet them the way a bridegroom goes out to meet his bride. (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 40)


            For the only truly free man is he who sits and occupies himself with Torah.[5] He who releases the imprisoned released us on that day from the bonds of laziness to the freedom found in the acceptance of the Torah.


The lust for wisdom, even though God made man upright and planted in his soul a fierce yearning to become wise and to understand and to gather wisdom and knowledge within him – nevertheless, laziness will cast down sleep, heaviness of body and a desire for rest will oftentimes overcome the intelligent soul, and for no reason the person will lie down in the bosom of sloth, even if he knows and his heart understands the great value of wisdom, for it is great. (Otzarot Ha-Re'aya 3, Pilpul Ve-Halakha 1)



[1] To place the matter in perspective, this happened only once during my high school years, and even then it did not come at the expense of a learning seder.

[2] See Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Even Ha-Ezer 139:51). It seems from the posekim that even someone who rules in accordance with the Rambam, who maintains a third view regarding our passage, would agree that concerning the disagreement between the Rosh and the Ritzba, the law is in accordance with the Rosh.

[3] See Berakhot (60b) and Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chayyim 46).

[4] Berakhot 57b.

[5] Bamidbar Rabba 10. Based on this, the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 494) writes that we are accustomed to stay awake all of Shavuot night in order to atone for that night.

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