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"Free" and "Freedom" in Hebrew (and English)

millie O&M David C. Simpson

By inspiration from Passover, which celebrates the end of the Egyptian Jewish slavery, and by some inspiration from what David A. Wheeler wrote about the meanings of free in English, I present to you some non-professional philological study of the meanings of "Free" and "Freedom" in Hebrew and English.

First of all, there are two ways to say "freedom" in Hebrew: "Hhofesh" (חופש) and "Hherouth" (חרות). The double-h is my way of indicating a "Hheth", which is similar to the "kh" in "Khan" or the Spanish "j", but even more throaty when pronounced correctly.

Now, "Hhofesh" means Freedom, while "Hherouth" is even stronger, and means something closer to "liberty" in English, but probably not exactly the same. A free person (or a thing) is "Hhofshi" (in Singular Masculine form, other forms differ slightly), while I didn't hear the word "Herouthi" used often. Instead one can say that someone is a "Ben-Horin" (i.e: "son [or belongs to a people of] of free people."), which is probably the etymology for "Ben-Hur".

While "Herouth" is mostly limited to the liberty of a people or inidividuals, and is considered high language, "Hhofshi" is more disputed. It can naturally mean "libre" or free-from-oppression. But "Hhofesh" or "Hhufshah" also means vacation in Hebrew (like "Hahhofesh hagadol" (the big "Hhofseh") - which is the Hebrew name for the Summer vacation.) And so Hhofshi is sometimes applied to a person who is relieved of work, education or other responsibilities (such as that of a spouse), even though it is understood that it is not an exact meaning.

More recently, "Hhofshi" also started to be applied to "gratis", "costless" or "on-the-house" commodities similar to the "free-as-in-free-beer" distinction. For example, in Falafel stands, one often hears that the extras are "Hhufshi" meaning one can take as much as they want to put in his Pitah-bread. This may have been an influence from English, but as I noted, "Hhofesh" in Hebrew has not been restricted to mean freedom from oppression ("free-as-in-free-speech") either.

One doesn't often hear people using "Hhofshi" for "lacking" as in "Caffeine-free", although that may also have become a bit more common lately. "Caffeine-free" is "Netol-caffeine" ("נטול-קפאין") in Hebrew, and one can also say "lelo kaffeine" ("ללא קפאין" without Caffeine) or "She'eyn bo kaffeine" ("שאין בו קפאין" "which doesn't have Caffeine" more or else) in certain contexts.

And I'd also like to stress the fact that "free" in English even in its more "libre" meaning, can be used either for freedom-from-oppression or freedom-from-responsibilities. If you value liberalism, you should try to use it only in the freedom-from-oppression sense.

Happy Passover (a.k.a the Festival of Liberty in Hebrew) everyone!


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 23rd, 2008 09:34 am (UTC)
"Ben-" is not just "son of"
It can mean just "man of-" or "liable to-" (Hebrew, alas, is gender-biased). "Ben-Horin" is "man of freedom", or "free man". Similar examples:

"Ben Tarbut" -- "man of civilization", or civilized.
"Ben Mavet" -- "man of death", one who deserves to die
"Ben Blia'al" -- "man of evil"
Apr. 23rd, 2008 02:43 pm (UTC)
Re: "Ben-" is not just "son of"
Right. "Ben" also means direct-male-descendant in Hebrew. Like "Mashi'ahh Ben-David" - the Messiah who is the direct-male-descendant of David.
May. 7th, 2008 10:56 am (UTC)
I wrote about herut here:

May. 7th, 2008 01:09 pm (UTC)
Re: herut
Ah, thanks for the investigation and the link. I may subscribe to your blog.
Here's an HTML link.
Dec. 9th, 2013 06:25 am (UTC)
What would the correct word be if you are referring to a female as being spiritually free?
Dec. 9th, 2013 07:08 am (UTC)
Hi, it should be "חופשיה רוחנית" - "Chof'shiyah Ruchanith".
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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