This is a continuation from Part 3 about understanding the Maggid section of the Haggadah.
The Laban the Aramean Section
This is one of the most difficult sections of the Haggadah to understand. And the difficulty most readers have interpreting this part of the storytelling for Passover is understandable. It’s not even easy to explain in short form, though I will try my best below.
Here is a simple translation from Artscroll of the Laban section in which I place in bold text a few key phrases that help the whole story to make sense later. I have also omitted some text as noted by the periods of ellipsis:
Go and learn what Laban the Aramean attempted to do to our father Jacob. For Pharaoh decreed only against the males, Laban attempted to uproot everything, as it is said (Deut. 26:5):
An Aramean attempted to destroy my father. Then he descended to Egypt and sojourned there, with few people, and there he became a nation — great, mighty, and numerous.
Then he descended to Egypt — compelled by divine decree.
He sojourned there — this teaches that our father Jacob did not descend to Egypt to settle, but only to sojourn temporarily . . .
With few people — as it is written (Deut. 10:22): with seventy persons . . .
There he became a nation — this teaches that the Israelites were distinctive there.
A Short Explanation of the Laban Section
Below I fill in the details, but many readers may want to simply get a quick answer for what this section is all about. Then you can decide if you’d like to wade into the details below for more depth.
The Laban the Aramean section is an example of the creative retelling of the Exodus story to fit the struggle of a later generation. It is a model for the way the Biblical story can be told to fit the struggle of any generation of Israel.
The generation that best fits this creative retelling is from the time between the two Jewish revolts against Rome (between 70 and 135 C.E.). I will explain this theory as developed by Lawrence Hoffman in My People’s Passover Haggadah below.
The underlying message, Hoffman tells us, is that Jews should keep the Land of Israel as the center of Judaism and not allow the Labans, Pharaohs, Romans, Nazis, and so on to pull us off course. Even Jacob in a time of duress only entered Egypt to sojourn and only when God decreed it. The place for Jacob and thus for Judaism is the Land.
Now, this is an interpretation of this creative retelling, but the evidence is in the details if you care to read.
The Biblical Roots of the Laban Section
And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. (Deut. 26:5).
The key phrase is, “a wandering Aramean (Syrian) was my father.” The Hebrew is ambiguous (arami oved avi). Oved usually means perish or destroy. It can also mean lost or strayed (as in 1 Samuel 9:3 and 20). Not only is the word ambiguous, but so is the grammar. To make a long story short, the most likely two options are either:
–A wandering (lost/fugitive) Aramean was my father
–An Aramean destroyed my father
Of these two, there are two reasons to prefer the first one: (1) the verb is a participle and fits better as an adjective than as a past tense and (2) the second statement is not historically true. Thus, as we will see in the explanation below, some interpretations rendered it, “An Aramean wished to destroy my father.”
Onkelos and Later Rabbis
Onkelos is the name of an Aramaic paraphrase (Targum) of the Torah that is very ancient (1st Century C.E.). Onkelos reads this phrase from Deuteronomy with different vowels (arami ibed avi). This could be translated, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” Lawrence Hoffman explains that later rabbis likely had an even more creative reading in mind that uses the same consonants: romi ibed avi, a Roman tried to destroy my father (My People’s Passover Haggadah, Vol. 2, pp.25-26).
The Roman Theory
The best theory that explain this curious retelling of Deuteronomy 26:5 is that it was devised by the rabbis who lived after the destruction of the Temple when the oppression of Rome was felt strongly. Lawrence Hoffman suggests the key is to note the details that diverge from a simple reading of the Biblical story:
1. The idea that Laban the Aramean was worse than Pharaoh is a stretch Biblically speaking. It is true that if Laban had killed Jacob in Genesis 31 or if he had seduced Jacob into idolatry, Israel would never have formed as a people. But Laban did nothing of the kind (some interpreters say the fact that Laban wanted to do it was enough to create the possibility, so that “an Aramean destroyed my father” is real in a potential kind of way). But the Romans did do something like what Laban is accused of: destroying the Temple and killing many thousands of Jews. The Romans were worse than Pharaoh and killed more than just the males.
2. The idea that Jacob only went into Egypt by divine decree is also a stretch. It is true that God caused a famine and this might be interpreted as God orchestrating Jacob’s journey into Egypt, though the text never says this was the purpose of the famine. It is true, however, that in the period of Roman persecution, the Jewish center in Alexandria, Egypt, became the most important Jewish community outside of Israel.
3. The idea that Israel became a distinct people in Egypt is true Biblically, but Hoffman asks why emphasize it? This too fits the Roman theory, in which diaspora Judaism threatened to become the spiritual center of Judaism (it eventually did in Babylon; hence the Babylonian Talmud). Meanwhile, rabbis such as Gamaliel II sought to bring the center back to the Land of Israel.
Therefore, what we have in the Laban the Aramean section is a retelling of Deuteronomy 26:5 that makes its message contemporary for Jews in between the two Jewish revolts (66-70 C.E. and 132-135 C.E.). With some creativity, repointing the vowels, and making use of fanciful exegesis, the rabbis were able to make a wisdom parable for their generation.
One could easily imagine, and it has been done, other generations of Jewish history fitting the story to their generation’s struggle.
***Coming in Part 5: the rest of the Maggid section explained.