Monday, February 20, 2017

chofesh and chovesh

A while back we talked about herut חרות - "freedom". But what about the similar word chofshi חפשי - "free" and the related chofesh חופש and chufsha חופשה - which originally meant "freedom" and today have the sense of "vacation, holiday" (the former being more general, and the latter referring to a specific break from school or work)?

The etymology of the root חפש is not clear. Klein mentions an Ugaritic cognate hps - "freeman, soldier", and Kaddari brings the Akkadian hupsu. However, one of the more interesting theories connects it to the root חבש, meaning "to bind" (or in more particular usages - to saddle an animal, to dress a wound or to imprison someone.) From this root we get the word chovesh חובש - "medic" (one who bandages wounds) and machbosh מחבוש - "(military) incarceration." Klein says that perhaps even the Hebrew word for quince, chabush חבוש, has the same origin, due to its "constipating effect."

I found the connection between חפש and חבש first mentioned in the writings of the 19th century writer Isaac Baer Levinsohn, who here suggests that the two related roots are an example of a "contronym" - one common root developing opposite meanings. (We've seen examples of such contronyms in Hebrew before.) While certainly most uses of chofesh and chofshi in Biblical Hebrew refer to freedom, there are a couple of examples that Levinsohn brings which would seem to point to the opposite connotation. 
He quotes Tehilim 88:6 -  בַּמֵּתִים חָפְשִׁי כְּמוֹ חֲלָלִים שֹׁכְבֵי קֶבֶר, which the JPS translates as "abandoned [chofshi] among the dead, like bodies lying in the grave". This translation uses "abandoned" which is a sense of "free" - free of all obligations or connections in this world. However, Levinsohn says chofshi here is like chavush - "imprisoned."
Another example is from Melachim II 15:5, where it describes how the king was plagued with leprosy and lived בְּבֵית הַחָפְשִׁית - b'veit hachofshit.  The JPS translates this as "isolated quarters", similar to the translation "abandoned" above. However, the context here is discussing some type of imprisonment, and this is how Levinsohn, and later the Daat Mikra explain the verse - as if it was בית החבשית beit hachavshit - "prison".

He says both senses can be understood via "the idlers who are free [from work, society] but are sealed in their homes."
In light of this, Aveneri (Yad Halashon, pp 197-198) says that overall, chofesh and chofshi have a somewhat negative connotation. It describes a slave being released, but not a state of true freedom. And as we've seen it can describe a leper being sent away or the state of the dead in the grave (whether or not we accept the connection between chofesh and chovesh). This caused some critics to oppose the phrase עם חופשי am chofshi in Israel's anthem, Hatikva, since chofshi here seems to only freedom from obligations, not a particular mission. Judaism generally focuses on commandments and obligations, so they preferred an adjective like kadosh קדוש - "holy" - which implies a higher level of obligation.

I don't think that the negative connotation of chofesh remains in Hebrew today. However, the tension between "freedom from" and "freedom to" certainly exists, as any parent can tell you during the חופש הגדול chofesh hagadol - "summer vacation"...

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