This weekend, Jews throughout the world will be retelling the story of our national exodus from Egypt. And in the traditional haggadah reading, both Karaites and Rabbanites recite the following three words from Deuteronomy 26:5: Arami Oved Avi. The most common translation of these words is “My father (“avi”) was a wandering (“oved”) Aramaean (“arami’)”. This is in fact how the Jewish Publication Society has chosen to interpret these words.
There is an interesting debate in the Rabbinic community about what these words mean. But none of the Rabbinic opinions I have come across is fully satisfying. The historical Karaites have a unique interpretation of these words. And that interpretation is also not perfect. At the end of this post, you can vote on the interpretation you believe is the “best.”
Let me preface this by saying that there are actually no halakhic implications to this discussion. Regardless of whose interpretation is correct, it won’t affect your daily lives – or even your haggadah reading.
For background, we are instructed in the book of Deuteronomy to recite the following words when we bring the offering of the first fruits of the land: “Arami Oved Avi.” There are three issues to determine: (i) who is the “arami”? (ii) who is the “avi”? and (iii) what does “oved” mean? As you will see none of the interpretations I identify below is perfect. That is why you will vote on the “best” interpretation – and not the “correct” interpretation.
Let’s first analyze the common translation: “My Father (‘avi’) was a wandering (‘oved’) Aramaean (‘arami’).”
Under this interpretation, the Arami and avi are the same person, and he is described as wandering. The Rabbinic Sage Rashbam believes that Abraham is the Avi – that is Abraham was a wandering Aramaean. The Rabbinic Sage Ibn Ezra believes that Jacob is the avi – that is Jacob was the wandering (or poor) Aramaean.
This translation has 2 problems. First, the ta’amim (i.e., those symbols above and below the words that help us understand the text) suggest that “Arami” and “avi” are not the same person. (In fairness, some exegetes believe that the ta’amim actually support the view that Arami and Avi are the same person.) Second, Lavan is described as an Aramaean in the Torah, but Abraham and Jacob are not. (Abraham had Aramaean relatives, but he himself is not called an Aramaean.)
The Second Most Common Translation: “An Aramaean (‘arami’) [tried to] destroy (‘oved’) my father (‘avi’).”
This translation is based on the events of Genesis 31 in which Lavan chased after Jacob. Under this interpretation, the Aramean is Lavan and the father is Jacob. This is the opinion of Rashi. The perish opinion is also mentioned in Karaite sources.
This interpretation (in my opinion) solves two problems, but it creates a third problem. The two problems it solves are (1) it follows the suggestion of the ta’amim and makes Arami and avi two different people and (2) it correctly identifies Lavan as the Aramaean. The problem it creates though is that the word “oved” here is used as a transitive verb. The word oved in Hebrew is in the “kal” form, and the word in the kal form does not take an object in any of the other 10 or so uses elsewhere in the Tanakh. This makes the interpretation that Lavan tried to kill/destroy Jacob somewhat problematic in my mind.
A Karaite Approach: “With the Aramaean, my father was poor.”
Under this interpretation, the Aramaean is Lavan, and the father is Jacob. And the word “oved” means poor.
This interpretation solves all three problems mentioned above – (1) Arami and oved are now different people, (2) Lavan is “properly” identified as the Aramaean, and (3) the word “oved” does not take an object. However, this interpretation introduces a different problem.
In order to interpret the verse in this manner, you need to pretend the verse has a “bet” in front of the Arami. So it is “ba’Arami oved avi” – “With the Aramaean [Lavan], my father [Jacob] was poor”.
This opinion is reflected in the Karaite commentary of Sefer Ha’Osher, written by Hakham Yaaqov ben Reuven in the 11th century. Sefer Ha’Osher is almost exclusively a summary of earlier opinions (mostly the opinions of Yefet ben Eli). Here is what Sefer Ha’Osher says, which I will translate afterward.
(ספר העושר על פרשת כי תבוא 26:5 עמוד 90 ימין)
ארמי אובד- בעת שבא יעקב אל לבן היה אובד ועני. ד”א היה בלב ארמי לאבד לאבי והוא שרדף אחריו.
“Arami Oved – at the time that Jacob came to Lavan, he was poor and oppressed/suffering. Alternatively, [it means that] it was in the heart of the Arami [Lavan] to destroy my father [Jacob] and it was he [lavan] that pursued him [Jacob].”
As you know, the KJA just released its updated haggadah, and it chose to translate the words Arami Oved Avi in accordance with the opinion, “With the Aramaean, my father was poor.”
I have summarized these opinions in this chart:
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Credit must be given to:
(i) Nehemia Gordon, who discussed this verse in his collaborative commentary on each Torah portion. In that commentary, he indicates that he prefers the “perish” opinion to the “wandering” opinion – precisely because the ta’amim hint that the Arami and the avi are two different people. He did not address the opinion that I have labeled as the Karaite approach here;
(ii) a Chabad Rabbi who discussed these verses and opinions with me for hours over Shabbat dinner;
(iii) the orthodox rabbi (of Agudath Israel) whom I study with every week and who discussed this with me on countless occasions;
(iv) Isaac S (a frequent commenter here), who provided me with various opinions from his Miqraot Gedolot;