Behar: The "Torah" -- not "Taco" -- Liberty Bell

One of the most popular parks in Jerusalem is Gan Pa’amon HaDror – Liberty Bell Park.  It's so named because of its replica of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.  Indeed, Liberty Bell Park was inaugurated in 1976 to honor the United States on occasion of the American Bicentennial. 

As a rabbi, what interests me most about the Liberty Bell is its inscription from this week’s Torah portion, Behar, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it.”  

What was the context for this statement, and what does the Torah mean by “liberty?” The context was the “yovel,” or jubilee year, whereupon debts were to be remitted, Jewish indentured servants released, and most land returned to its hereditary owners.  

The Hebrew is “v’keedashtem ayt shnat hachameeseem ookratem dror baeretz lchol yosh-ve’ah: And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants of it. The very next sentence is “yovayl hee teeyeh lachem v’shavtem eesh el achooza-to v’eesh el meeshpachto tashoovoo:” it shall be a jubilee (homecoming) to you; and each man shall return to his possession, and each man shall return to his family. 

The Babylonians had a term, duraru, also anduraru, which resembles deror, both in sound and meaning.  They evidently got the concept from their predecessors, the Sumerians.  Duraru was sometimes a release of freemen who had been enslaved, sometimes the restoration of real property to its original owners, sometimes a cancellation of debts – or a combination of these.  

Evidently, therefore, there would be no reason to think that the word “d’ror” referred to the exercise of “individual autonomy,” as it has now seemingly come mean in America.  Indeed, although it referred to release from debt, indentured servitude, or landlessness, it was, in fact, the imposition of a mandatory communal obligation upon those who owned servants or property, or to whom debts were owed.  It was not a directive against an oppressive government, but a populist, egalitarian, socially-leveling directive.  

Rabbinic commentaries on the meaning of these verses are legion, but as they aren’t really the focus of my D’var Torah, I’ll just mention two in passing. Rabbi Haim Attar, better known as the “Ohr HaChaim,” or “the living light,” lived in Morocco from 1696 until 1742, when he moved to Israel.  Although he died just one year later, the yeshiva he established here survived 120 years.  He interpreted the Jubilee year legislation as intended to remind the Jewish people that all property belongs to G-d, not to man; we are merely tenants.

Moreover, G-d’s “gift” of the land is conditional upon our continuing Torah observance. The Ohr HaChaim also noted that the Jubilee year obligated people to be fair to each other in land transactions, and to remember their true relationship to the land.  It did this by requiring sellers to discount the value of land according to the number of harvests remaining before the Jubilee, when the “buyer” would have to relinquish it back to the seller (or original owner) without compensation. In sum, the Ohr HaChaim looked upon the Jubilee year requirement as important for both proper spiritual orientation and interpersonal behavior. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the most important figures of modern Judaism, lived in Germany from 1808 to 1888.  These were the early years of the Haskalah -- Enlightenment – at a time when an estimated 80% of German Jews assimilated or converted to Protestantism.  Hirsch was a fierce opponent of “Reform” where that meant abandoning traditional observance and discounting Torah.  

He was also an opponent of Zionism.  Nevertheless, he emphatically believed that Torah must be interpreted to be meaningful to contemporary generations, in order to stop the wholesale movement out of Judaism.  He also translated the Torah into German so that every Jew of his land could understand it.  He is credited with virtually single-handedly saving German Jewry from disappearance through assimilation.

His comments about the mitzvah of the Jubilee year are highly thought-provoking.  First, he engaged in a “pshat” or literal analysis of the text.  What does the word “Jubilee” actually mean?  The Hebrew is “Yovel,” which is a causative form of the verb “l’havee,” “to bring.” Hirsch explained that it implies an appropriate act of movement, such as the bringing of a person to a place where it is right for him to be, or of a thing to the person who rightly should have it.  The Jubilee year, therefore, is the year in which people and things are restored to their proper place.  Hirsch noted that in the book of Joshua (6:4), the Shepherd calls his flock home with the “shofrot ha-yovleem” – the shofar of Jubilees.  

Why this release and return in the fiftieth year?  Hirsch explained:

The evils that beset the inner life of society due to social class differences and the unequal distribution of property, with the resultant sharp contrasts between opulence and misery, independence and dependence, etc., and the precarious situations that afflict nations in the course of their political relationship with other nations – all these are to be atoned for and erased by the yovel.  By the grace of God, the nation is to be restored to the social health and political freedom with which it began its life as a nation founded on the Law of God.  

So, according to Rabbi Hirsch, the Jubilee year is the national Yom Kippur, the purpose of which is to restore and regenerate the social and political life of the nation. Hirsch also shares the Ohr HaChaim’s view that in the fiftieth year, we are to reaffirm that G-d is the owner of all property, with each of us tenants in G-d’s service.  

Torah thus commands us to periodically “release” our improper attachments to things and to false values, and to return to our proper place.  Only then can we both cure the social ills of class conflict and wealth inequities, and maintain the proper perspective on life.  The message of “release” and return in this week’s Torah portion should resonate in our lives.  

So those are two views of what these verses mean in Judaism.  Now, let’s get back to the American Liberty Bell. As an American historian, I’m interested in how it came to have “Proclaim liberty” inscribed upon it, and what those who put it there intend it to mean?   

Contrary to what we might think, the bell was not cast in Philadelphia in the 1770s or 1780s for the purpose of commemorating American Independence, right?  It may have had little – or nothing – to do with that event.  

This quintessential symbol of American freedom was actually cast in 1752 in Britain, while the colonies were still steadfastly loyal and, to some extent, royal.  Most of the colonies were established by charter, the terms of which dictated the extent of local authority.  The Pennsylvania colony, established by William Penn, had a broad charter that granted substantial individual rights, including freedom of religion and public participation in lawmaking. The Bell was ordered in 1751 by the Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania for the State House in Philadelphia to commemorate, not American Independence, but the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution. 

Why was the verse from this week’s Torah portion chosen as the motto of the Bell?  As I’ve already indicated, the bell commemorated the Charter of Privileges of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth.  So, of course, the proclamation of “liberty throughout the land” resonated with the Pennsylvania colonists.  But there was another important reason for the verse’s selection.  

Remember that the line immediately preceding “Proclaim “d’ror” throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof” is “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year.” The Bell commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Charter of Privileges; hence, it was Pennsylvania’s “Yovel” year.  The colonists certainly knew the Hebrew Bible. So, the 50th year aspect was also important, which many people forget. 

According to American tradition, a few days after the July 2nd (note, not 4th) 1776 adoption of the Second Continental Congress’s resolution for Independence, the Bell was rung from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House to summon citizens for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.  However, the Bell didn’t gain iconic status until, ironically but not coincidentally, 50 years later, beginning in the 1830s, the abolitionists adopted it as their symbol to abolish slavery in America.  It was they who gave it the name “Liberty Bell;” until that time, it was simply the “State House Bell.” The first documented use of the name “Liberty Bell” was a poem by that name contained in William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery publication “The Liberator.”  

I say “ironically but not coincidentally” because the Abolitionists understood the passage “It shall be a jubilee until you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family” to mean that the Bible demanded that all slaves and prisoners be freed every 50 years.  So, again, it was the Jubilee that was just as significant as “Proclaim Liberty.”  

So, if the Liberty Bell was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Pennsylvania charter, was only incidentally rung to call Philadelphia citizens to hear the Declaration of Independence – according to tradition, and it didn’t become a symbol of liberty – actually, anti-slavery – until the 1830s, how did it come to be so thoroughly associated with American Independence, including a replica in Jerusalem? 

This resulted from a fictional story in an 1847 edition of the magazine, The Saturday Currier. It told of an elderly bellman waiting in the State House steeple for the word that Congress had declared independence.  The story continues that privately he began to doubt Congress’s resolve. Suddenly, the bellman’s grandson, who was eavesdropping on the doors of Congress, yelled to him, “Ring, Grandfather, Ring!”  This story so captured the imagination of the people throughout the land that the Liberty Bell was forever associated with the Declaration of Independence. Actually, though, in 1776 the State House steeple was in bad condition, and the bell weighed 2,080 pounds. Historians therefore highly doubt that it was actually rung in 1776!  However, its association with the Declaration of Independence became fixed in the collective mythology. 

I’ve mentioned several ironic things about the Liberty Bell – that it was cast in England to commemorate the “Jubilee year” of a charter to British colony, not American Independence. That it may never have been rung in connection with the Declaration of Independence because by 1776 the State House tower likely couldn’t hold it.  And that it became a national symbol of anti-slavery, not one of “freedom of expression.”  

But, getting back to the replica at Gan Pa’amon Ha’Dror, here’s an irony that I especially like. Before the British occupied Philadelphia in October 1777, all the bells were removed from the city on the expectation that the British would melt them down and use them for cannon.  The State House Bell that would later be known as the “Liberty Bell” was hidden in the floorboards of a church in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  The name of the church?  The Zion Reformed Church.  Zion, of course, is a synonym for Jerusalem!

Since becoming an American Icon for Liberty, the Liberty Bell has been used to promote many causes, including civil war reconciliation, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and protests against various government policies.  It has become an international symbol of freedom, especially of freedom of expression. The presence of its replica in Jerusalem, as well as the naming of the popular park after it, is not only a tribute to American-Israeli friendship but of the common value of liberty.  

On “April Fool’s Day” 1996, the Taco Bell corporation placed full-page ads in seven major newspapers announcing its purchase of the Liberty Bell to help reduce the national debt, and its renaming to  the “Taco Liberty Bell.” That was a clever hoax, but it would not be nearly as far-fetched to call it the “Torah Liberty Bell.”  As we’ve seen, according to our sages, political freedom, per se, is not what the Torah had in mind for the Jubilee year. Still, liberty is a value that recognizes the worth and dignity of every person.  And that certainly is a core Torah precept.  

We can therefore be extremely proud that perhaps the best-known written expression of this value, admired throughout the free world, comes from Judaism and Torah.  

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem! 

(This D'var Torah was delivered at Kehillat Moreshet Yisrael, Jerusalem, May 8, 2014)

[The information concerning the Liberty Bell’s history is largely taken from the websites of the Independence Hall Association, a non-profit corporation, and National Park Service,]

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