Why the Free Bird Sings

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

I know a bird
that sings when free,
but when caged
by you or me
it ceases to eat
and refuses to live.
Avraham Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Vayikra 25:10, as freely translated by Aryeh Klapper

The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  This excerpt (from the King James translation of Vayikra 25:10) makes several interesting translational choices. For example, why “throughout all the land,” when the Hebrew is בארץ, merely “in the land?”  Why “the inhabitants thereof,” rather than merely “inhabitants thereof,” when the Hebrew יושביה has no definite article?  These choices can seem odd even in English, and many internet sites quoting the Bell accidentally remove the first “all” and the second “the.” These imprecisions matter because  they license us to challenge the core translation: Is the Hebrew דרור/d’ror properly translated as “liberty?”

A translation can have any of three sources: tradition, parallel uses, and context. In the case of d’ror, the parallel in Yirmiyah 34:8-9 seems to make the meaning crystal clear.

הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־הָיָ֥ה אֶֽל־יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ מֵאֵ֣ת ה֑’
אַחֲרֵ֡י כְּרֹת֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ צִדְקִיָּ֜הוּ בְּרִ֗ית אֶת־כָּל־הָעָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּירֽוּשָׁלִַ֔ם
לִקְרֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם דְּרֽוֹר:
לְ֠שַׁלַּח אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּ֞וֹ וְאִ֧ישׁ אֶת־שִׁפְחָת֛וֹ
הָעִבְרִ֥י וְהָעִבְרִיָּ֖ה
לְבִלְתִּ֧י עֲבָד־בָּ֛ם
בִיהוּדִ֥י אָחִ֖יהוּ אִֽישׁ:

The matter which came to Yirmiyahu from Hashem
after Tzidkiyahu cut a covenant with all the populace that was in Yerushalayim
to proclaim to them d’ror
to send forth each man his manslave and his maidslave
the Hebrew and the Hebrewess
to not work them as slaves
a Jew, his brother man.

It seems undeniable that a d’ror-proclamation sets slaves free. When the Jews fail to abide by the proclamation, G-d frames their coming destruction as poetic justice, declaring that He will grant His servants of destruction freedom to destroy:

אַתֶּם֙ לֹֽא־שְׁמַעְתֶּ֣ם אֵלַ֔י לִקְרֹ֣א דְר֔וֹר
אִ֥ישׁ לְאָחִ֖יו וְאִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ
הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵא֩ לָכֶ֨ם דְּר֜וֹר נְאֻם־ה֗’
אֶל־הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֣בֶר וְאֶל־הָרָעָ֔ב

You did not heed me, to proclaim a דרור
Each man to his brother, and each man to his fellow
Behold I am proclaiming a d’ror regarding you, says Hashem,
to the sword and the plague and the famine

Yeshayahu 61:1 similarly reads

לקְרֹ֤א לִשְׁבוּיִם֙ דְּר֔וֹר

To proclaim d’ror regarding captives.

So d’ror plainly can refer to liberation from a previous state of constraint. Likely the King James chose “liberty” rather than “freedom” because the connotation of liberty at that time was “freedom from,” whereas freedom would be more likely understood as “freedom to.”

However, these are not the only Biblical contexts in which the word d’ror appears.

For example, Shemot 30:23 refers to “myrrh d’ror.”  Most commentators assume that the meaning in this context must be derived from the contexts we have already seen.  Thus R. Avraham ben HaRambam writes:

שם הטוהר והחרות

a term for purity/freedom (from impurities)

while BDB translates d’ror as “liquid” on the basis of “flowing; free run, liberty.”  Only Rashbam seems to take this instance as reflecting a different meaning entirely: חשוב, significant. I’m not sure that I’m understanding Rashbam correctly, though, and he may also see social significance as rooted in the capacity to resist others’ attempts to constrain you.

D’ror also appears twice in contexts where the intended referent seems to be a type or species of bird.

כַּצִּפּ֣וֹר לָ֭נוּד כַּדְּר֣וֹר לָע֑וּף

Like a bird to wander; like a d’ror to fly (Mishlei 26:2)

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘

Also the bird found a home, and the d’ror a nest for itself (Tehillim 84:4)

One might see these uses as stemming from a different root entirely. BDB, for example, simply identifies the species as “swallow.” Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 seems to adopt this approach:

טעם שמות העופות והבהמות אשר פרשו הראשונים
הם כחלומות בלי פתרון
והזכיר הצפור והדרור
כי הם דרות בבתים עם בני אדם
וצריכין לנוד מהרה ממקו’ למקום מפני העוברים והשבים

The rationales that my predecessors gave for the species-names of birds and animals
are like dreams that have no interpretation
it mentions the tzippor and the d’ror here
because they live in houses together with human beings
and they need to flit rapidly from place to place because of the passers-by

Here Ibn Ezra denies that the species-name d’ror has any discoverable etymology, or that the species has any relevant characteristic that distinguishes it from the tzippor.  He does however identify it as a bird that lives in a space it shares with human beings.

Ibn Ezra to Tehillim 84:4 takes a radically different approach:

דרור –
שם עוף מנגן
אולי נקרא כן
בעבור שאין מנהגו לנגן
כל זמן שאיננו חפשי
וזה העוף ידוע הוא בספרד

“D’ror” –
This is the name of a songbird
Perhaps it is called thus
because its practice is not to sing
whenever it is not free
This bird is known in Spain.

Ibn Ezra here provides an etymology for the species-name d’ror – the same kind of etymology he scoffed at in his comments to Mishlei 26:2! Assuming this is the same species, we now learn that its residence among human beings does not imply domestication, or at least not total domestication; the bird sings only when it is free. Its constant motion is likely for the purpose of avoiding capture.

Even more astonishingly, Ibn Ezra to Vayikra 25:10 – the Liberty Bell verse – reverses the vector of derivation.

דרור –
והוא כמו חפשי.
וכדרור לעוף –
עוף קטן
מנגן כשהוא ברשותו
ואם הוא ברשות אדם
לא יאכל
עד שימות.

“D’ror” –
The meaning is known
and it is like “free.”
(as in the verse) “like a d’ror to fly”
a small bird
which sings when in its own reshut
but when in the reshut of a human being
it will not eat
to the point of dying

Here Ibn Ezra argues that the species name is the etymology of the term “liberty,” or at the least that we derive the meaning of d’ror here from the species name.  Why would he take that approach, which requires him to assume that the name was known via tradition, when the meaning seems clear from context here and from parallel passages?

I suggest that Ibn Ezra thought the translation of “liberty” was not a perfect fit in our context.  Why? Because although Yirmiyahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing slaves, and Yeshayahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing captives, a careful look at the Jubilee law in Vayikra 25:10 reveals no explicit contextual reference at all to slavery or freedom.  Rather, the unit Vayikra 25:10-13 speaks about the need for people to return to their hereditary homesteads. Slavery may be mentioned in 25:14, but as an additional element. One can argue that people who sell their land will eventually end up enslaved, or that 25:10-13 refers to people who were sold away from their lands rather than people who sold their lands, but this is certainly not obvious.

How does Ibn Ezra resolve this?  Perhaps the key is that he frames the bird’s refusal to sing as about reshut, which can mean both “space” and “authority.”  The bird will sing only when it is in its own reshut.  Similarly, even if people are not enslaved, they do not have d’ror unless they have a space they can call their own.

The problem is that Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 defines the d’ror species as one that lives in human houses, and therefore finds its space continually intruded on.

I can only suggest this. We all live within the impersonal constraints of time, space, and our own physicality.  We can only dream of perfect, Divine freedom. Perhaps we can even dream of that freedom only when we are not subject to any other person’s will. Until then we are constrained to imagine only freedom from, not freedom to.

The d’ror dreams of its own space, but its physical needs and limitations compel it to live in human abodes. So long as it is not captive – so long as it is not subject to a human will – the dream seems close enough that it can be expressed in music.

The free bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still.
it sings of freedom.


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