My Aramean Father

19 04 2008

Tonight is Erev Pesakh, and Jews around the world are going to be conducting the Seder in accordance with its laws and traditions. For the benefit of anybody who has never attended a Seder, this involves the consumption of various symbolic foods, as well as the telling of a particular narrative: frequently midrashic, occasionally obscure, permanently didactic. Children are encouraged to ask questions and, to that end, some families go out of their way to do things in such a fashion that their younger members will ask involuntarily. Most families, however, adhere to a centuries-long ritual of behavior that has rendered all genuine questions moot in the face of annual familiarity, and have even reached a point at which the adults themselves do not necessarily possess the answers.

Much of the Haggada (that section of the Seder that involves the narration) is difficult to understand without a prior awareness of the manner in which midrash works. My family skips large sections that, in English, appear banal and trivial, despite my protestations that the Hebrew is frequently interesting. We do not all share the same interests. I would like to share one particular element of the Haggada with you in an effort to demonstrate that it is, indeed, an interesting text, and not a transparent text by any means.

The following is what the Haggada has to say in one particular point, and my own (obscure) translation follows:

צא ולמד מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקר את הכל, שנאמר: ארמי אבד אבי וירד מצרימה ויגר שם במתי מעט ויהי שם לגוי גדול עצום ורב

Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob! Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but Laban sought to destroy everybody, as it says: “Arami Oved Avi, and he went down to Egypt and he dwelt there in small numbers, and he became mighty and numerous”.

The three words that I have left untranslated are the subject of this brief exegesis. The verse that the Haggada quotes appears in Deuteronomy 26:5 and is likewise enigmatic there as it lacks any cotext to help us isolate the meaning. It describes a ritual that is supposed to take place with the bringing of the first fruits to the priest as an offering. The ritual involves declaring that Arami Oved Avi and that “our father” descended to Egypt where he became great and numerous; that the Egyptians persecuted them and that our Lord removed us from their control and brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

The three words in question can each be translated as follows:
Arami: An Aramean;
Oved: From the verbal root √אבד, meaning “perish”. The word appears to be a Qal participle with a masculine singular subject; perhaps serving as an attributive adjective: “perishing”;
Avi: My father.

What is the subject of the verb? The Haggada appears to understand it as “an Aramean”, given the prefatory remarks that speak of Laban. Laban, who speaks the only two words of Aramaic to appear in the entire Pentateuch, is certainly a candidate for this position, but does the verse function grammatically with such a subject? Effectively, this is how the authors of the Haggada are reading the verse:

An Aramean sought to destroy my father, and he went down to Egypt and he dwelt there in small numbers, and he became mighty and numerous.

Some might argue that this is also the fashion in which the Mishna (mPes 10:4) reads the passage when it mandates that it be expounded upon in the Haggada in such a fashion that we

מתחיל בגנות ומסים בשבח
… commence in shame but conclude with glory.

Does this interpretation work? Who shares it? Rashi, for a start, certainly does. He declares, in his commentary on Deut 26:5 that

לבן ביקש לעקור את הכל כשרדף אחר יעקב, ובשביל שחשב לעשות חשב לו המקום כאילו עשה, שאומות העולם חושב להם הקדוש ברוך הוא מחשבה רעה כמעשה

… Laban sought to destroy everybody when he pursued Jacob, and since he sought to do it, God considered it as though he had done it, for the wicked plans of the nations are considered by the Holy One, Blessed is He, as deeds.

This is also the opinion of Onkelos, from whose Aramaic translation of Deuteronomy, Rashi is undoubtedly drawing inspiration:

לבן ארמאה בעא לאובדא ית אבא

… Laban the Aramean caused [my] father to perish…

and the Aramaic translation of Pseudo-Jonathan who, while he does not mention Laban by name, holds the same opinion. Their translations are both of tremendous interest because, in order to present their opinions, they have both altered the verbal stem.

As noted above, Oved (אבד) is a Qal participle. The Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew Qal would be the Pe’al, but both Aramaic authors have chosen to render the word in the Haphel instead. This is not an unimportant change: the Aramaic Haphel is the equivalent of the Hebrew Hiphil – a causative/factitive stem. Let us have a quick look at the observations of Ibn Ezra, and we will see why this is an important switch:

מלת אובד מהפעלים שאינם יוצאים. ואילו היה ארמי על לבן היה הכתוב אומר מאביד או מאבד

The root √אבד (Oved) is intransitive. If Laban were the Aramean, the verse would employ the Hiphil or the Piel
[lit. “The word Oved is from the verbs that do not go forth. If Laban were the Aramean, the verse would say Ma’avid or Me’abed]

This is a genuine concern. As I noted above, the root √אבד means “perish”. It does not mean “destroy”. One cannot say that an Aramean perished my father, without committing a grammatical error – and Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan were both well aware of that when they altered the verb.

Ibn Ezra goes on to declare that the word is an adjective meaning “poor” (compared to Proverbs 31:6), and that it is here applied to Jacob. Seforno holds the same opinion, but translates the adjective as “wandering” instead. The Rashbam, however, also reads the word as “wandering”, but applies it to Abraham (who came from Aram). Is this what the Mishna meant as well? Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro, an Italian exegete of the 15th century whose commentary on the Mishna has now become standard, certainly thinks so. Responding to the Mishna’s declaration that one must commence with shame, Rabbi Ovadiah explains that

מתחלה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו ועבדים היינו

At the start our fathers were slaves to a foreign worship [ie: were idol-worshippers], and we were slaves

“Aramean” came very early on to denote anybody who was not a Jew, and “Arameanism” their abominable practises. Rabbi Ovadiah’s understanding of the Mishna is therefore not entirely in synch with what the Bible might have meant, but is a thoroughly legitimate interpretation of what the Mishna meant in suggesting that one expound upon that verse of the Bible.

So, to recap. We have a verse from Deuteronomy that would appear, on the basis of grammatical concerns, to be suggesting that “our father” (whether Abraham or Jacob) was a “wandering/poor” Aramean. We have a post-biblical trend away from this interpretation (as exemplified by Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan), as well as a Mishnaic imperative to remind ourselves of its ‘original’ meaning in order to cause shame (allowing for semantic differences between the Bible’s and the Mishna’s usages of “Aramean”), and then to conclude with the rest of the verse in order to indicate God’s favour and indicate glory. Finally, we have the text in the Haggada – on the basis of which we get the interpretation of Rashi who, contrary to even the basic grammar of the Biblical text, attempts to demonstrate that the verse is speaking of Laban.

How do we explain the perspective of Rashi and the Haggada? Prof. Steiner of Yeshiva University has an ingenious idea. Just as prophets utilised words from the languages of those to whom they were directing their prophecies, so too is the Haggada here choosing to understand the word Oved as an Aramaic word. As we saw in Onkelos, this would be the Aramaic Haphel: the causative/factitive stem of the verb. This is a very clever suggestion, but is it true? Do the authors of the Haggada genuinely think that this is what the Hebrew text originally meant? I do not think so, despite how the idea appeals to me for its neatness.

On the contrary, I would suggest that this is one of many things that is inserted into the Haggada in order to make people ask. The Talmud mandates reclining, for example, even at such a time as wealthy people no longer recline at the table, for precisely this reason. By doing something, or by saying something, strange or erroneous, we prompt the questions of those who are young enough to be less familiar. The exposition upon the Deuteronomic verse was, perhaps, one such example of this. By declaring that “An Aramean perished my father”, we invite children to ask us what we mean. Today, however, such subtleties are lost. By reading the Haggada in an English translation, with no awareness for the Hebrew, the texts appear repetitious, didactic, nonsensical, or just banal. I hardly blame my family for wanting to skip it altogether, despite my efforts to lecture them all on syntax.

Perhaps I should try a different approach.




5 responses

25 04 2008

1. At my Seder my brother and I are the best at reading Hebrew thanks to our school education, and no one really understands most of the Hebrew. Combine this with the way that most of the kids in our extended family have non-Jewish partners and we’ve been converting more and more to English every year. It’s turned the Seder experience from struggling through something that almost none of us have the skills for, to actually being able to share the stories and the reasons behind the traditions. And said non-Jewish partners have taken the place of youngsters at our table in asking all the questions about the traditions ;)

2. The other day one of my Indian coworkers asked me about Pesach, so I told him a paraphrased version of the whole story, from Pharoah killing all the male children up until Mount Sinai. And what he had to say was this: The entire first part of the story about Moses’ survival and upbringing sounds almost identical to the Hindu stories about Lord Krishna.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s just one more proof (as if I needed it) that biblical stories should never be taken literally.

25 04 2008
Simon Holloway

You raise an excellent point. When the Bible says, כי ישאלך בנך (“When your son asks”), perhaps it should also talk about what happens when ישאלך גרך (your ‘sojourner’ asks). The questions of non-Jews are just as relevant, in my opinion, as are the questions of Jews who are too young or too unfamiliar with the rituals. Most of my family are also non-Jewish as a matter of fact.

As for the similarities between the Moses story and various other narratives, much was made of these once-upon-a-time. Freud was very keen on the idea, although I don’t mean to disparage the connection by associating it with his terrible book on the subject. Other (genuine) scholars of the ANE have also discussed this, although it does remain to be said (as Freud also noted, incidentally) that the Moses story has something of a twist. Unless I am mistaken, Krishna was a prince who was raised as a peasant. The great turn-around in his life was when he assumed the mantle of royalty and left his peasant life behind. Moses, on the other hand, was a slave who was raised as a prince. The turnaround in HIS life came when he rejected the pharaonic future in store for him and chose to be a slave again.

Nice to see you back here, by the way. I hope you’ve had a good Pesakh?

29 04 2008

Yeh, it’s a bit more convoluted than the surface similarities show. Krishna was supposedly an incarnation of God (sounding familiar for a whole different reason now) and was sent down to bring about the downfall of his father, who was an excessively cruel king. Then he went on to have somewhere in the region of twenty five thousand wives. But I suppose that if you’re God then having so many wives wouldn’t be the logistical nightmare it would for mere mortals.

Pesach was good fun, with more fun added by the way that almost everyone at the table uses a different Haggadah, so when we go around the table with the English we get some interesting translation differences. How was yours?

13 06 2008
Joell Burville

It was written in the article, “—-do things in such a fashion that their younger members will ask involuntarily.”

I was just wondering what INVOLUNTARY questions by the children meant in the first paragraph of the article, My Aramean Father? Does someone hold a stick over their head to force them to INVOLUNTARY ask a question, and/or are the questions supplied by the adults and a stick used as a threat to scare these stubborn little children into “INVOLULTARILY” asking a question? Shouldn’t the word be “VOLUNTARY?”

13 06 2008
Simon Holloway

Well, I didn’t mean that they are normally coerced into doing so, but it is involuntary insofar as the encouragement is overt, and without such an encouragement they would perhaps never volunteer a question at all. In some cases, of course, it is actually coercion: singing “Ma Nishtana”, for example, forces the kids to ask questions without realising it. Of course, that’s not actually harmful coercion – not as bad as using sticks!

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