July 15, 2024
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Arami Oved Avi: The Interpretation Hidden in the Mishna

Shavuot was the time that a portion of the first fruits were brought to the Temple for the priests, and Deut. 26:5-9 describes the prayer that was recited. As children, we grow up thinking that the phrase “arami oved avi” there is a reference to Lavan seeking to destroy Jacob. After all, this is what we are taught in the Haggadah, Onkelos and Rashi.

But when we get to high school and start learning commentaries like Rashbam and Ibn Ezra, we realize that this is not a plain-sense interpretation. “Oved,” if it is a verb here, would be in the “kal.” But in the “kal,” the root אבד is not transitive. This means it cannot act on an object. (For this root to be transitive, it needs to be in the piel or hiphil. But I don’t want to overload you with grammatical details.)

Thus, Lavan cannot be destroying anyone with an intransitive “oved.” Rather, the subject of the verse is “avi,” and “arami oved” is a description of “avi.” The meaning of the phrase is “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean.” Of course, the plain-sense commentaries did not agree on whether “my father” was a reference to Abraham or to Jacob. (A very reasonable alternative approach is suggested by S. D. Luzzatto; “my father” is a reference to all the forefathers in one composite figure.)

For almost all of us, this is how we viewed the history of the interpretation of the phrase. The early Sages understood the phrase one way, while the plain-sense Rishonim figured out a different interpretation.

But now I am going to show you that the interpretation expressed by the plain-sense Rishonim was not a new one. Rather, they were just resurrecting the mainstream interpretation in the time of the Tannaim.

Mishna Pesachim 10:4 includes the following statement: “Matchil be-genut u-mesayem be-shevach, ve-doresh me-‘arami oved avi’ ad she-hu gomer et kol ha-parshah.”

The Talmud records a dispute between Rav and Shmuel about the meaning of the word genut (=disgrace, shame). But neither of the two seem to consider the “arami oved avi” section as relating to the genut referred to in the Mishna.

But what if we would consider the Mishna on our own? The Mishna instructs one to begin with an exposition of genut and end with one of shevach. It then refers immediately to Deut. 26:5-9, a section that can easily be understood as beginning with genut and ending with shevach. This can be mere coincidence, but much more likely the adjacency suggests that Deut. 26:5-9 is the genut-shevach section referred to.

We all know the first four of these five verses from our Seder. Deut. 26:5-9 reads: 5) You shall speak and say before the Lord thy God: “Arami oved avi, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous. 6) The Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondage. 7) We cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. 8) The Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs and with wonders. 9) He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

A very reasonable approach to understanding the Mishna is that the genut referred to focuses on the phrase “arami oved avi” and the shevach referred to focuses on verse 9. This shevach can be either the implicit praise of our ancestors for becoming worthy of being given the land, or the praise of God for giving it to them. A genut of “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean” contrasts perfectly with this shevach. Moreover, a statement that “Lavan was trying to destroy my father” does not, on the simplest level, amount to a genut; it is merely a statement about an attempt to make our ancestor into a victim. Thus, the Mishna itself is implicitly adopting the “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean” understanding.

Of course, one can argue that being ill-treated, afflicted and put to hard work in Egypt is the genut, and being taken out (and brought to Israel) is the shevach. But in this interpretation, the genut does not begin until the 16th word, “va-yareiu.” Moreover, verse 6 only describes what the Egyptians did to us; it does not call us “avadim” or directly assign to us a negative status. Reading the genut as focusing on the first few words of the section referred to, words that do clearly portray a genut in the non-Lavan understanding, seems to be the simplest understanding of the Mishna.

Of course, I am assuming that verse 9 was part of the Seder at the time of the Mishna. But this assumption is a compelling one. The Mishna describes the section to be expounded as running through “kol ha-parshah.” To read the Mishna as implying that only up to verse 8 was expounded is farfetched. Verse 9 is a direct continuation of the capsule history of verses 5 through 8; the Mishna would have had to be more specific to indicate that verse 9 was not part of the ritual. Moreover, Mishna Bikkurim 3:6 specifies a ritual in that context that begins with “arami oved avi” and continues through “kol ha-parshah.” It is evident from chap. 26 of Deut. that verse 9 was part of the ritual recitation there.

(Regarding the word “ve-doresh,” although we are used to it as indicating an extended exposition, or a resort to midrashim, this was probably not the meaning of this root at the time of the Mishna. All that “ve-doresh” meant was that some explanation above and beyond the mere recital of the verses was being suggested.)

In sum, reading the genut as focusing on the first few words of the Deut. 26:5-9 section seems to be the simplest understanding of the Mishna. If the genut is to be located in these words, the Mishna almost certainly understood “arami oved avi” to mean “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean.” The assumption that verse 9 was part of the Seder ritual at the time of the Mishna is a compelling one. A genut of “my father was a homeless/wandering/lost Aramean” contrasts perfectly with this shevach.

Our approach to Mishna Pesachim 10:4 is very satisfying since we are no longer forced to take the position that the widespread interpretation of the Sages was a grammatically problematic one.

Over the centuries, due to the influence of Onkelos and the Haggadah, and due to the interpretations of “genut” expressed by the Amoraim, the way the Mishna originally understood “arami oved avi” was forgotten. It seems that it did not occur to almost all the Rishonim who argued for the homeless/wandering/lost Aramean interpretation that they were advocating the interpretation already implied in this Mishna! (The one exception: R. Judah Ibn Balam.)

Of course, the next question is what motivated the ungrammatical Lavan interpretation found in Onkelos and in the Haggadah. Also, what motivated Rav and Shmuel to deviate from the plain sense of the Mishna that the genut is found in the “arami oved avi” verses. Many answers to these questions have been suggested and I refer you to my longer article in Ḥakirah, vol. 13 (available at www.Hakirah.org).

Mitchell First, a non-wandering attorney, can be reached at his desk at [email protected].

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