“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). This familiar line appears in two very different contexts. The original is in this week’s Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, marking a moment known as the “Jubilee Year,” a year of celebration and freedom from servitude at the end of a 50 year cycle. The second place this line appears is in the city of Philadelphia, engraved in the side of the Liberty Bell. Although the words are the same, the line takes on different meanings in their two different contexts, thousands of years and miles apart from each other.
Despite the universal-sounding message of the verse on its own, Torah commentators over generations help clarify to whom “all the inhabitants thereof” really refers. French medieval commentator Rashi notes that “all the inhabitants” is intended specifically for Hebrew servants, both those who have served beyond their 6-year terms, and those still in the midst of that contract (Rashi on Leviticus 25:10). At the same time in Spain, commentator Ibn Ezra agrees that this proclamation is for Israelites and Israelites alone (Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 25:10). In the next generation of medieval commentators, French rabbi Chizkuni doubles down on the particular audience of this verse, and adds that this proclamation is inapplicable beyond the biblical land of Israel because it is designed for the “inhabitants” of that specific land (Chizkuni on Leviticus 25:10). To summarize each of these Torah commentaries together, “all the inhabitants thereof” exclusively refers to Hebrew servants living in the biblical land of Israel, and no one else.
Traveling from biblical Israel to Pennsylvania in 1751, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” took on new meaning in a totally new environment. The bell into which this verse is inscribed wasn’t even known as the Liberty Bell yet. It was the bell of the Pennsylvania Assembly, which would ring out to gather lawmakers for discussion and townspeople to hear the news. In these early days, “all the inhabitants thereof” likely meant the inhabitants of Pennsylvania, whose state charter promised religious and political independence from England. In 1835, the bell entered its next phase as abolitionist publication The Anti-Slavery Record named it the “Liberty Bell” based on its inscription. In the following years, the Liberty Bell became a symbol of aspiration for the Abolitionist Movement because “all the inhabitants thereof” in its American context excluded enslaved Black people from its message. The Liberty Bell similarly became a symbol for the Women’s Suffrage Movement because, again, the universal freedom proclaimed in its inscription did not extend to everyone.
As illustrated by both biblical and American context, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” wasn’t always intended for everyone. The expansion of who “all the inhabitants” refers to over time, however, teaches us a tremendous lesson, from biblical Israel, to colonial Pennsylvania, abolition, women’s suffrage, and beyond: In their original contexts, not all Jewish or American ideals are meant for all people. That can be a painful reality to face. However, I believe it is our job as Jews and Americans to identify what from our particular traditions fulfills and inspires us, and work to apply it to “all the inhabitants thereof” who could share in our benefit. Starting with liberty, I hope we participate in the progression of Jewish and American history and continue to expand it to all who are yet to be included in this transformative vision for freedom and equality.