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Discovering Freedom: Unraveling the Meanings of חופש, חופשה, and פגרה

How do you differentiate between חופש and חופשה, and who is responsible for the פגרה taken by Knesset members?


The word חֹפֶשׁ appears only once in the Bible, and it has no connection to freedom: "דְּדָן רֹכַלְתֵּךְ בְּבִגְדֵי חֹפֶשׁ לְרִכְבָּה" (Ezekiel 27:20). Here, "חופש" refers to a type of wool, a word borrowed from the Akkadian חִבְּשֻׁ ("wool of a certain quality"). This word also found its way into Arabic — حِبْس (hibs), meaning "blanket." However, ancient translators and commentators did not know this. They linked "חופש" to the biblical word חָפְשִׁי, which frequently means "not a slave" in the Bible. Therefore, "חופש" began to be used in the sense of freedom. The earliest known use in this sense is in the Book of Ben Sira: "עֶבֶד מַשְׂכִּיל חַבֵּב כְּנֶפֶש, וְאַל תִּמְנַע מִמֶּנוּ חֹפֶשׁ" (Sirach 7:21). This usage is exceptionally rare, and in practice, the word "חופש" was almost unused until the 19th century when it became very common alongside the word חֻפְשָׁה.


Initially, חֹפֶשׁ and חֻפְשָׁה were synonyms without any distinction between them. However, in the early decades of the 20th century, they began to differentiate. "In modern Hebrew, an effort is made to distinguish between חופשה, a limited and private concept of temporary relief from work, and חופש, a general and unlimited concept. This distinction is worth adopting," explained linguist Yitzhak Avinery in his column in "Al Hamishmar" in May 1949. This distinction was partially adopted. Although it is rare to encounter the word "חופשה" in the general sense of "חופש," the word "חופש" is still used to mean "חופשה." Reader Zvi Sela complained about this in a letter to the "Davar" newspaper in August 1979: "Many people use both words incorrectly. One should say: חופשת מחלה; חופשה שנתית; חופשת־קיץ or חופשה מלימודים. חופשה in English is 'vacation,' חופש is 'freedom.'" Even today, complaints about this usage persist.



Besides the word "חופש," which is the most common and general, we also use the word חֵרוּת. This word was borrowed from Aramaic. For example, in the Targum Onkelos, the words "חופשה" and "דרור" are translated with the Aramaic word חֵירוּתָא. Similarly, the word "חופשי" is translated as בַּר־חוֹרִין and בְּנֵי חוֹרִין. Hebrew also adopted these as "בן חורין." The חוֹרִין in these phrases are "free," meaning not slaves. This word is also found in biblical Hebrew — חוֹרִים, meaning "nobles."


The root of all these words is חר"ר, which means "freedom." We also find it in this sense in Arabic, among other words like حُرِّيَّة (ḥurriyya, "freedom") and تَحْرِير (taḥrīr, "liberation"). In Hebrew, we find this root in the verb שִׁחְרֵר, which is also borrowed from Aramaic. The Aramaic binyan שִׁפְעֵל is equivalent to the Hebrew binyan הִפְעִיל.

In addition to "חופש" and "חֵרוּת," there is another synonym, more literary, דְּרוֹר. This word comes from the Bible, where it appears six times — almost always with the verb קָרָא, for example, in the Book of Leviticus: "וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכׇל יֹשְׁבֶיהָ" (Leviticus 25:10). This word comes to us from the Akkadian word אַנְדֻרָרֻם (andurārum), which in that language meant "release" from debts or "liberation" of slaves. In the Bible, the word is also associated with the declaration of the release of slaves and the cancellation of debts.


Apart from "חופשה," Hebrew has also coined additional words for certain types of vacations. The word נֹפֶשׁ appeared in medieval liturgical poetry, for example, in one of the poems of Samuel the Nagid: "עֲלֵי מַה זֶּה תְּהִי מוֹאֵס בְּנֹפֶשׁ." This word meant rest and relaxation and was probably influenced by the unique biblical verb וַיִּנָּפַשׁ, which appears in the well-known verse: "בֵּינִי וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם כִּי שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ" (Exodus 31:17). The root נפ"ש indicates breathing, and the connection to rest is not trivial, but there is a deep connection between breathing and rest, expressed in various languages. For example, in English, "breather" means both someone or something that breathes and a short break; in Spanish, "respiro" means both breathing and rest; and in Arabic, the verb تَنفَّسَ (tanāfas), derived from the Arabic root נפ"ס, equivalent to the Hebrew נפ"ש, means both to breathe and to rest. In the 19th century, "נופש" began to be used more and more to mean "rest," and in the 1930s, it became specific to going on vacation to a place intended for rest and rejuvenation.


When Knesset members stop working, we don't say they go on vacation; we say they are in פַגְרָה. This word also comes from Aramaic. In the Talmud, it is written: "יומא דמפגרי ביה רבנן," meaning "a day when rabbis are idle" (Shabbat 129b). From this, the Aramaic phrase "יומא דפגרא" was born, which was used throughout the generations in Hebrew and Yiddish as a term for vacation days in yeshivas. Eventually, the phrase was Hebraized, first to "יום פגרה" and finally simply to "פגרה."


Wishing you a pleasant summer vacation.

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