Highlights from the Haggadah: My Father Was a Wandering Armean . . . or Was He?

In the magid section of the seder, the part in which we tell the Passover story, there is a three-word excerpt from the Torah (Deuteronomy 26:5). The Hebrew is ארמי אובד אבי (Arami oved avi), which translates to “My father was a wandering Aramean” in the context of the Book of Deuteronomy. One medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, suggests that “my father” is Jacob and this phrase refers to when Jacob was far from home and vulnerable in the Book of Genesis. Another medieval commentator, the Rashbam, suggests that “my father” is Abraham and cites an earlier passage of Genesis that connects Abraham to the Biblical land of Aram (Genesis 24:4). In either case, the phrase “Arami oved avi” connotes imagery of our lost, wandering ancestors from the Book of Genesis.

By the time this phrase makes it into the Haggadah, however, it is understood very differently. You might notice in your Haggadah, “Arami oved avi” is not translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Instead, it is translated as “An Aramean was destroying my father.” With an alternative understanding of the verb form and meaning of “oved,” the entire meaning of the phrase is changed. The “Aramean” in this case refers to Laban, Jacob’s uncle, the “destroying” is an interpretation of Laban’s employment of Jacob, and “my father” is Jacob. This part of the Haggadah even clarifies this further, by beginning “Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father, Jacob. For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot us all…”

In the Book of Deuteronomy, “Arami oved avi” means “My father was a wandering Aramean.” In the Haggadah, it means “An Aramean was destroying my father.” These two different translations highlight two significant aspects of our Passover experience. First, how we tell the story of Passover at our seders is an exercise in establishing which stories, details, and translations shape our tradition. And second, the reinterpretation of “Arami oved avi” is a perfect example of a timeless and timely text, just like the Haggadah itself. In the book of Deuteronomy, it’s a timeless phrase to recall the tales of our spiritual ancestors. In the Haggadah, it’s a timely phrase that captures the essence of oppression that seder participants recall in Egypt. This Passover, I invite you to consider what stories and details make your seder experience both timeless and timely.

Shabbat shalom,