Did an Aramean Try to Destroy our Father?
Two prayers prescribed for Israelite farmers of old appear in this week’s Torah portion. One has fallen into disuse—a declaration that farmers made asserting that they had given all required tithes (Deut 26:13-15). The other, which begins “arami oved avi,” remains one of the best known texts of Judaism.
Originally prescribed as the prayer when bringing first fruits to the Temple (Deut 26:5-10), its four-verse summary of the enslavement in Egypt and the exodus was repurposed as the core text of the Passover haggadah, guaranteeing that it would not languish along with other agricultural relics of early Israelite history.
“An Aramean Tried to Destroy My Father”: The Passover Haggadah
In the haggadah, the arami oved avi passage is not simply recited but is “explicated” using standard rabbinic exegetical methods. Its explanation and elaboration of the central story of Jewish history is probably the best-known example of rabbinic midrash for most Jews, with or without formal training. Here is the traditional explanation from the haggadah:
צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּש לָבָן הָאֲרַמִי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ. שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקוֹר אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה…
Go forth and learn what Laban, the Aramean, sought to do to Jacob, our father. While Pharaoh decreed death only for the male children, Laban sought to uproot all. For it is said (Deut 26:5), “An Aramean would have destroyed my father, and he went down to Egypt . . ..” (translation by Nahum Glatzer, The Schocken Passover Haggadah )
Rashi (1040-1105), the revered Jewish Bible commentator, explains the verse the same way (“An Aramean would have destroyed my father”) in his Torah commentary; given his reliance on traditional Jewish sources, this is not surprising. But this explanation does not actually reflect the plain meaning of the verse in Deuteronomy. (It also seems at odds with the story of Laban and Jacob in Genesis, but that is not our issue here.)
“My Father Was a Wandering Aramean”: Medieval Peshat Commentators
In the twelfth century, a number of famous Jewish Bible commentators wrote explicitly that the phrase arami oved avi could not reasonably be interpreted as meaning, “An Aramean would have destroyed my father.” Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (= Rashbam; born c. 1080), Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (born 1089) and Rabbi David Kimhi (born 1160) all explained the verse in a non-traditional way that conformed better with biblical Hebrew usage. Their understanding is now found in all modern academic translations of the Bible: “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
Using Hebrew grammar and syntax, areas of study newly created in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, these rabbis offered detailed technical arguments to show that the more traditional understanding could not be the peshat, the plain sense of the words. The verb oved, they argued, has to be an intransitive verb here, as it is throughout the Bible, i.e. it cannot take a direct object. So avi (my father) cannot be, as Rashi and the haggadahheld, the object of the verb (“. . . destroyed my father”) but must be the subject of the sentence (“my father was . . .”). Furthermore, oved (a qal form) never means “destroy” in biblical Hebrew. “Ma’avid” (a hifil form) is the transitive verb that means “destroy”, but ma’avid is not the form of the verb that appears in this verse.
The version of the haggadah used in the homes of Rashbam, ibn Ezra and Kimhi certainly used the traditional explanation that arami oved avi meant that Laban tried to destroy Jacob. But those three great rabbis felt free to look anew at the biblical text and apply new scientific tools to its understanding.
Traditional Push-back: R. Eliyahu Mizrahi
Of course, there was push-back. The most interesting opponent of their “modern” critical understanding was Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi (born c. 1455), who offered two types of refutation. First, he argued that grammar was an unreliable discipline. The “fact” that oved is an intransitive verb is only a conclusion reached by grammarians who examined all the places where the verb appears in the Bible and tried to find a pattern. But, argued Mizrahi, there was once a much larger corpus of Hebrew literature from biblical times and perhaps if that corpus had survived we would see that ancient Israelites really did use oved both as a transitive and an intransitive verb.
Mizrahi’s second argument is that the interpretation found in thehaggadah and in Rashi is unassailable since that interpretation was provided by God! As he writes:
וחכמינו ז”ל העתיקו ע”פ קבלתם האמיתית איש מפי איש עד משה רבנו ע”ה מפי הגבורה שארמי הוא לבן ושאבד הוא יוצא
Our Sages, based on true traditions, copied person from person all the way back to Moses, who received it from God, that the Aramean is Laban and oved is transitive.
God, argued Mizrahi, specifically told Moses on Mt. Sinai that oved, in this verse, was a transitive verb and that the word arami was a reference to Laban. In this maximalist understanding of Torah from heaven, not only does God write the Torah, God also provides the only legitimate interpretation(s) of that Torah. (Mizrahi, however, provides no guidelines for identifying which of the many interpretations of biblical verses in rabbinic literature were actually communicated to Moses directly by God.)
Are New Interpretations Legitimate?
What do we learn from this dispute between scholars of the twelfth and fifteenth centuries? On the one hand, we see the view that new understandings of the Bible were unacceptable, since rabbinic literature contained the only interpretations sanctioned by God. Humans should not use their own intellectual prowess to interpret biblical verses in new ways.
But we also see a significant alternative. Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and Radak, religious Jews who were no proponents of halakhic reform or change, felt entitled and perhaps even obligated to use their brains and the science available to them to come up with new understandings of the biblical text—even ones that were at odds with tradition.
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August 14, 2013
October 16, 2019
Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin is a professor at York University and is currently the Chair of the Department of Humanities. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his five volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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