An Aramean Destroyed My Father

Commentaries on the Haggadah contrast the evil of Laban with Pharaoh and see Laban as a symbol for political, sociological, and psychological evil.

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One of the most difficult texts in the Haggadah is "arami oved avi." This verse from Deuteronomy 26:5, translated as "my father was a wandering Aramean," is part of the formula that was recited when the first fruit offerings were brought to the Temple in ancient times. The Haggadah includes the classic interpretation of the verse, reading it as "an Aramean destroyed my father." Who is the Aramean mentioned in this ritual formula? In this article, the author looks at this verse, which is at the center of the Haggadah, alongside the verse's rabbinic interpretation--which differs dramatically from the Torah text--and the numerous commentaries surrounding it that have arisen over the centuries.

"They pour him a second cup, and here the child asks the parent [about what makes this night different]--and according to the child's understanding, the parent teaches, beginning with shame and concluding with praise, interpreting from arami oved avi ('My father was a wandering Aramean') until he finishes the entire passage" (Mishnah Pesachim 10:4).

This passage in the Mishnah defines what is seen as the core of the Haggadah. The traditional Passover Haggadah includes a long section of midrash (rabbinic interpretation) in which the verses Deuteronomy 26:5-8 are dissected and associated with other verses and interpreted in light of the spiritual and political history of the Jewish people. The traditional text of this midrash begins:

"Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do our father Jacob. For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot all, as it is said, 'An Aramean would have destroyed my father, and he went down to Egypt and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous.'"
 
The Haggadah understands the word oved (wandering) as ibed (destroyed), changing the vocalization of the word. Read this way, Laban the Aramean destroyed my father, that is, Jacob. Of course, Laban did not destroy Jacob; they made a covenant not to kill each other. Consequently, Laban is usually seen as one who would have destroyed Jacob.
 
It should be noted that while the great French commentator Rashi (1040-1105) accepts this reading, the Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) strongly rejects it, noting the problem with the grammar and the non sequitur with "and he went down to Egypt." According to Ibn Ezra, the verse refers to Jacob, who, when he was in Aram, was lost. Rashbam (c. 1085-1174) also rejects (his grandfather) Rashi's interpretation, but argues that the verse more appropriately applies to Abraham, who can correctly be identified as an Aramean.
 
The following passages, drawn from commentaries to the Passover Haggadah, understand this passage about the Aramean as different kinds of threat to the people of Israel.

Gleanings:

Deriving Intention

"An Aramean wanted to destroy my father." Since Laban did not actually succeed in doing evil to our father Jacob, we must derive his intentions from his words. He himself admitted, "It is in my power to do harm to you" (Genesis 31:29), and this shows his evil intention. Laban wanted to root out the whole, to kill the mother and child when he says "The daughters are mine and their children are mine, and the flocks are mine, and all that you see is mine" (Genesis 31:43), that is, they should be mine, if God had not prevented me.
--Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437-1508), Portuguese philosopher and scholar, from his commentary on the Haggadah, written in 1496

Destroying Jacob's Fatherhood

An Aramean wanted to destroy my fatherhood. When Laban said, "The daughters are mine and their children are mine, and the flocks are mine," he wanted them to still be his and be called by his name. In this, he wanted to destroy Jacob's fatherhood, that is, his title of "father." In truth [Rachel and Leah] had said "Are we not as strangers to him (i.e., to our father, Laban)?" that is, Laban no longer had the title of "father" over them.
--Rav Tzadok haKohen of Lublin (1823-1900), Polish Hassidic Tzaddik, Sefer Dover Tzedek

Laban vs. Pharaoh

Why does the Haggadah consider Laban worse than Pharaoh? Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt because Joseph was already there. Joseph had been sold by his brothers into Egypt because his brothers had envied the way their father favored their youngest brother, who was born in Jacob's old age. Joseph was born in Jacob's old age because Rachel's marriage had been delayed. Rachel's marriage had been delayed because Laban tricked Jacob by giving him Leah rather than Rachel as a wife.
 
Had Jacob married Rachel first, Joseph would have been the firstborn and his brothers wouldn't have envied him and wouldn't have sold him into slavery. If he had not been sold into slavery, Jacob and his sons would not have gone down to Egypt. If they had not gone down to Egypt, their descendants would not have been enslaved under Pharaoh. We learn from all this that if it had not been for the act of deceit of Laban, there would not have been a Pharaoah as we know him.
--R. Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899), German rabbi and educator, from his haggadah commentary, Hukkat HaPesach

The First Exile of Israel (i.e., Jacob)

The key to the Haggadah's midrash on arami oved avi is the covenant with Abraham cited earlier in the Haggadah, "?your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them and they shall afflict them? Afterward they shall come out with great wealth?and the fourth generation shall come here again" (Genesis15:13-16). The language of the text--"stranger (gerut)," "serve (avdut)," and "afflict (inuy)"--applies not only to Israel, but to Jacob who lived in a strange land, served Laban, and was afflicted by him. Then Jacob left Laban's service with great wealth (and with Laban chasing after him), and his children (the fourth generation) returned to the land. Laban's persecution of Jacob confronts us with the image that this cycle of exile, persecution, and return predated our enslavement and redemption from Egypt and reinforces the Haggadah's message that redemption can and does recur in every generation.
-- Devora Steinmetz, "An Aramean in Every Generation" (unpublished paper), Assistant Professor of Talmud, Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Hatred Without Reason

How can it say "Pharaoh decreed against only the males"? Does scripture not say, "The enemy said:? I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them" (Exodus 15:9)? Pharaoh wanted to destroy the whole! The Haggadah's intention is to say that in every generation there are those who stand against us and hate us without any reason. Consequently, the Haggadah does not recall the hatred of Esau, who had a reason to hate since Jacob took his blessing, and the pursuit by Pharaoh after Israel was in order to return them to Egypt; if they would not return, then he would make war against them. But Laban had no reason to hate Jacob who had done so much good for him, and similarly, Pharaoh's decree against the male children was without reason.
--Rabbi Judah Loew (Maharal) of Prague, (1525-1609) Sefer Gevurot Hashem, 54, published in the Ostrog Haggadah

Still Seeking Destruction

An Aramean destroys my father. The word oved is present tense and means destroys. Laban was always trying to destroy Jacob and even today, the forces that he represents are still seeking the destruction of Israel.
--R. Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966), Lithuanian rabbi and communal leader, from his posthumously published Haggadah commentary, Sefer HaShir vehaShevach

The Enemy Within

The Haggadah teaches us through Laban's example that Jews ought to fear the enemy within as much or even more than the enemy without. While non-Jewish persecutors, such as Pharaoh, have taken their toll of Jewish lives throughout history, even more Jews have been lost through the blandishments of the Labans of the world. Those presumably close to us--our "family"--have caused more danger to the Jewish community through the scourge of assimilation. Their kiss has been the kiss of death.
--Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, modern Orthodox rabbi and leader of the Jewish community of Efrat, The Passover Haggadah (KTAV, 1983)

Evil Inclination

I remember when I was a little child at the seder of [my grandfather], Rabbi Jacob Aryeh, I heard from his holy mouth concerning [the verse, "an Aramean would have destroyed my father"] that there are two kinds of yetzer hara (evil inclination). The first is like Esau; it kills through the temptation to sin, which causes a person to forfeit both this life and the life of the world to come. This is the common form, which affects average people.
 
There is, however, another form of the yetzer hara that is like Laban the Aramean, which convinces a person that a mitzvah (a commandment) is a sin or that a sin is a mitzvah. And this kind of yetzer hara can come against even a tzaddik (a righteous person), since it comes through trickery (rama'ut, a pun on Aramean). And this is what the Haggadah means by saying that Laban wanted to uproot the whole, since this kind of yetzer hara can affect everyone, including the righteous. This is what I heard from my grandfather, and his face was lit up like a flame and he appeared like an angel.
--Rabbi Jacob Aryeh ben Solomon Guterman of Radzymin (1792?1874), Polish Hassidic Tzaddik quoted by his grandson Aaron Menahem Mendel, Haggadah Commentary Tzemach Menahem

Shame to Praise

In Temple times, people would recite this passage from Deuteronomy when they brought their first fruits on Shavuot. The Mishnah describes its use in the seder as part of the teaching that proceeds from shame to praise. The shame is the desperation brought on by hunger; the root oved is the same as the root of the word in the second paragraph of the shema "[if you stray from God,] the land will stop producing its fruit and you will quickly perish (v'avad'tem) off of the good land" (Deuteronomy 11:17).
 
"My ancestors were starving Arameans." The person bringing the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem remembers the shame of the famine that led his ancestor Jacob and the Jewish people into slavery in Egypt and praises God for the redemption from Egypt and the restoration to the Land of Israel with its abundant harvest. The person at the seder recalls this hunger with his invitation, "Let all who are in need, come and eat." And throughout Passover, we remind ourselves of our blessings by eating lehem oni, the bread of poverty.
--Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, Congregation Beth Tzedec, Toronto

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.