Of Arameans and First Fruits: A Pre-Pesach Reflection

The centerpiece of our Seder is the section of the Haggadah known as the “Maggid,”  through which we fulfill our Torah obligation to transmit the story of yetziat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt) to the next generation (Ex. 13:8). Since the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) in 70 CE, we can no longer bring the korban Pesach (Passover offering).  The fulfillment of the mitzvah of telling the story has taken its place as the central focus of the Seder night.

If you were asked to design a text to fulfill the obligation to transmit the exodus story to future generations, it’s a pretty safe bet that you would not come up with anything resembling the Maggid section of the traditional Haggadah.  Logically, the easiest way to fulfill that obligation would be to recite excerpts of the exodus narrative  as set forth in the Torah (Ex. 1:8-12:42), but that’s not what we do.  Instead,  the center of the Maggid is a brief summary of the exodus  story found in Deut. 26:5-8.  That summary is prescribed by the Torah as a declaration accompanying the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem, which generally occurred on Shavuot.  Our Haggadah sets forth these four verses one at a time and then, in familiar rabbinic fashion, draws on other Biblical verses to expound on the meaning of the phrases.

The four verses quoted in the Haggadah as the heart of the Maggid are part of the six verses that constitute the declaration of the first fruits as found in the Torah.   That declaration, (as translated in the JPS Tanakh), reads as follows:

My father was a fugitive Aramean [Heb. Arami oveid Avi].  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there;  but there he became a great and very populous nation.  The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.  We cried to the Lord , the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression.   The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You O Lord, have given me.

If you’re familiar with the text of the Haggadah, you’ll probably notice two key differences between the text quoted above and the one you are used to reciting. The last two verses of the above declaration, as set forth in the Torah to accompany the first fruits, do not appear in the Haggadah. Also, the first three Hebrew words are translated in the Haggadah (for example, in the translation of the Haggadah edited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks): “An Aramean [wanted to] destroy my father.”

The reason for the omission of the last two verses is obvious.  They link the declaration to its context in the Torah, which is the bringing of the first fruits in gratitude for God’s gift of the Land of Israel.  The Haggadah, however, is using them in a different context and thus concludes the passage by thanking God for taking us out of Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

The change in the meaning of the declaration’s opening words, however, requires more explanation. This is not just a whim of modern translators, but is clearly central to its purpose in the Haggadah.  The declaration is preceded in the Haggadah by the following introductory passage (as translated in the Sacks Haggadah):

Go and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob.  Pharaoh only wanted to kill the young boys, but Laban wanted to uproot the whole [Jewish nation,  by killing Jacob].

The different interpretations of this verse stem from different understandings of  who is the Aramean being referred to in the first verse (Deut. 26:5).  According to the Haggadah’s interpretation, the Aramean is Laban, Jacob’s uncle, so that the opening phrase means “an Aramean wanted to destroy my father.” The JPS translation of the verse, like most modern translations (other than Artscroll, which follows the Haggadah) understands the Aramean to be Jacob so that the phrase  means “My father was a fugitive [or wandering or homeless] Aramean.”.

The Haggadah’s reading of the verse is also reflected in Targum Onkelos (the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah) and by Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator.  Most other classical commentators — among them Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Sforno and Abarbanel — do not share the Haggadah’s understanding of the phrase.  (Rashbam holds that the Aramean is Abraham, rather than Jacob, but his basic understanding of the verse is  the same as Ibn Ezra, et al.).

But even aside from the grammatical and other evidence supporting the notion that the Aramean is Jacob, the Haggadah’s understanding of the verse faces another obstacle.   The text of the Torah does not support the notion that Laban wanted to destroy Jacob.  The Haggadah’s interpretation, supported by Rashi, is based on the narrative of Jacob’s departure from Laban, who chased after him.  On overtaking him, Laban addressed him as follows:

Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? I would have sent you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre.  You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-by!  It was a foolish thing for you to do.  I have it in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father said to me last night: “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.”
(Gen.31:27-29, JPS translation). 

Rashi understands these verses as signifying Laban’s intent to destroy Jacob and says that the Torah attributes it to him as if he had gone through with it.  There are at least three problems with that interpretation.  First, the Torah does not generally attribute guilt based on intent, unaccompanied by action.  Second, Laban’s words do not indicate a real intent to destroy the Jewish people, merely to prevent them from running away.  Do we really believe that Laban would have killed his grandchildren out of resentment that he had not been given the opportunity for a proper good-by?  Finally, even if Laban was really as evil as charged, how can the Haggadah say that he was worse than Pharaoh, who not only intended to destroy us but, unlike Laban, actually acted on that intent?

I think that the key to understanding the declaration that sits at the heart of the Haggadah is to focus on what it does not include: the last two verses, which relate to the Land of Israel and the bringing of the first fruits.  The theme of the declaration as it appears in the Torah (including those two verses) is best summed up as “look how far we’ve come!”  We began as a wandering Aramean, and now God has given us this wonderful land which has produced this beautiful fruit.  In the context of that declaration, the reading of the passage with Jacob as the Aramean makes complete sense.  The Rambam (Maimonides) explains that the purpose of the declaration accompanying the first fruits to induce humility by reminding us of our lowly origins.

By eliminating those last two verses, the Haggadah changes the focus of the passage to one of oppression and redemption.  The declaration as it appears in the Haggadah expands on the Haggadah passage that immediately precedes it, the bridge paragraph to which we call attention by raising our wine cups (as translated by the Sacks Haggadah):

It is this [promise] that has stood by our fathers and by us.  For it was not one man alone who stood up against us, but in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us — and the Holy One blessed be He saves us from their hand.

That leaves us with the question we started with.  Why does the Haggadah fulfill our obligation to transmit the exodus story by a passage that was intended for another purpose and that can only be interpreted  for this purpose by deleting its last two verses, thus changing its focus?  The Lehman Haggadah suggests a pragmatic explanation.  During the period of the second Temple, when the only available texts were handwritten on parchment, it was essential to fulfill the obligation of transmitting the story by means of a short, easily remembered summary.  When the destruction of the Temple changed the focus of the Seder night from the korban Pesach to the telling of the story, the easiest way to expound on the story was to add commentaries to the familiar verses.

That pragmatic explanation may have merit, but perhaps there’s more to it than that.  The story of the exodus doesn’t end with the drowning Egyptians at the Sea, or even at Sinai, crucial as those events were.

The purpose of the exodus could only be fulfilled when the Israelites had conquered the Land of Israel and built the Temple.  The Haggadah makes that linkage clear later on, in the section familiar to us as Dayeinu.  That song expresses gratitude for fifteen acts of redemption, the first of which is the exodus from Egypt and the last of which is the building of the Temple.  Only when all of those redemptive acts were accomplished — when Jews could experience the ordinary joy of bringing their first fruits to the Temple.  They expressed that joy by reciting a formula acknowledging the connection between their origins in slavery and their present prosperity. Only through that acknowledgement could the covenant of redemption be fulfilled.

A kosher and joyous Pesach to all.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.