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.

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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.