You shall then recite as follows before your God YHVH: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. [Arami oved avi] He went down to Egypt…bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, YHVH, have given me.” (Plaut/Stein)
You shall call out and say, before HASHEM, you God, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather [Arami oved avi]. He descended to Egypt….brought us to this place, and He gave us this Land, a Land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O HASHEM!” (Stone)
— Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:5-10 (Plaut/Stein)
The phrase Arami oved avi has launched much discussion over the centuries, with commentators disagreeing on a basic understanding of these three words of the first fruits declaration. And, because this passage is part of the Passover Haggadah, the discussion has been a prominent one.
Who is “Arami” [Aramean]?
It is worth noting at the outset of this path, that Abraham and Sarah were originally from Aram. Rebecca is born in Aram. Jacob lives twenty years in Aram, in the household of Rebecca’s brother, Laban. Jacob’s wives, Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel, were born in Aram. There is, therefore, no shortage among the Matriachs and Patriachs of individuals who might be identified as “an/the Aramean.”
Ibn Ezra , Rashbam and others identify either Abraham or Jacob as the Aramean referenced in this passage. Others note that neither Abraham and nor Jacob is called “an/the Aramean,” while Laban is labeled this way.
I don’t know of any traditional commentaries that focus on Rebecca as “an/the Aramean.” And she would not be “avi” of this verse, in any case. She is often explicitly identified in the Torah, however, as Aramean through a relative: “Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean,” e.g., (Breishit/Genesis 25:19).
Oved — wander? destroy?
Sifre reads “oved” [alef-vav-vet-dalet] as the transitive verb “destroyed,” with “avi” as the object. Laban is identified in this reading as the one who “destroyed” or “sought to destroy” the forefather, Jacob. This reading was adopted by Rashi and became standard in the Passover Haggadah. Because Torah is often translated, sometimes without comment, to incorporate Rashi’s commentaries, Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:5 is frequently translated as “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (It is found this way, without footnote or comment, e.g., in the English translation of Bialik and Ravnitzky’s Book of Legends.)
Other commentators, including Ibn Eza and Rashbam, read “oved” as the intransitive verb “wandering.” This renders the verse: “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Many contemporary haggadot use this translation, with consequent changes in the text that follows.
It is interesting to explore, in the Torah itself, when and how a connection to Aram is mentioned. Is Rebecca called the daughter or sister of an Aramean simply to indicate that she’s from elsewhere? Or is the reference meant to convey something particular about her background? Her connection with Abraham and Sarah is portrayed as positive; her connection with Laban is used both to suggest that she is as wily as he or that she rose above negative examples in her home life.
It is also interesting to compare haggadot, to see how the Arami oved avi verse is translated and how that affects the surrounding text.
Nehama Leibowitz includes a substantial discussion of this verse, in the first fruits context, in her Studies in Devarim. This is further elaborated and related to the subsequent haggadah text in Studies on the Haggadah from the teachings of Nechama Leibowitz. Reiner and Peerless, eds. NY: Lambda (Urim), 2002.
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