The Torah Text
Pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem would recite a text that begins, “Arami oved avi”, a curious and somewhat confusing phrase. Often translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean” or “An Aramean [=Laban] sought to kill my father [=Jacob]”, it clearly needs some elucidation.
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
אובד אבי. מלת אובד מהפעלים שאינם יוצאים ואילו היה ארמי על לבן היה הכתוב אומר מאביד או מאבד ועוד מה טעם לאמר לבן בקש להאביד אבי וירד מצרימה ולבן לא סבב לרדת אל מצרים והקרוב שארמי הוא יעקב כאלו אמר הכ’ כאשר היה אבי בארם היה אובד והטעם עני בלא ממון וכן תנו שכר לאובד והעד ישתה וישכח רישו והנה הוא ארמי אובד היה אבי והטעם כי לא ירשתי הארץ מאבי כי עני היה כאשר בא אל ארם גם גר היה במצרים והוא היה במתי מעט ואחר כן שב לגוי גדול ואתה ה’ הוצאתנו מעבדות ותתן לנו ארץ טובה ואל יטעון טוען איך יקרא יעקב ארמי והנה כמוהו יתרא הישמעאלי והוא ישראלי כי כן כתוב
Deuteronomy 26:5 Arami oved avi. Oved (wandering/lost…?) is an intransitive verb. If Aramean referred to Laban then Scripture would have read mavid or m’abbed (the causitive forms of the verb). Furthermore, what reason would Scripture have had for stating, Laban sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt? Laban did not cause Jacob to descend to Egypt. It thus appears to me that the term Aramean refers to Jacob. Scripture, as it were, reads, when my father was in Aram he was “perishing”. That is, he was poor, he had no money. Similarly oved (perish) in Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish (Proverbs 31:6). Let him drink, and forget his poverty (Proverbs 31:7) is proof.
The meaning of our phrase thus is, a perishing Aramean was my father. Its import is, I did not inherit the land from my father, for my father was poor when he came to Aram. He was also a stranger in Egypt. He was few in number. He then became a large nation. You O God took us out of slavery and gave us a good land. Let the one who disputes not argue, “How could Jacob be called an Aramean?” Look, we find the same with Ithra the Ishmaelite who, as Scripture clearly states (2 Samuel 17:25), was an Israelite. [One can be called by the people of the land one is living in.] (Translation adapted from Strickman and Silver)
Reflections for the Path
Ibn Ezra understands this phrase to mean “my father was a poor-to-the-point-of-perishing person in Aram”. This highlights the miraculous growth into a nation and the miraculous redemption when God led the people to the land, where they can grow food, which they present along with these ritual words during pilgrimage.
Perhaps a spiritual lesson here is: every wonderful thing we can identify traces back to humble roots. When we remember the humble roots, we deepen our gratitude, soften our arrogance, and open our hearts to greater generosity, thus hopefully continuing the cycle of creating wonderful things in the world for others.
For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.