The Aramean of Deuteronomy 26:5

You shall then recite as follows before YHWH your God: “My father was a perishing [אבד-oveid] Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. Deuteronomy 26:5

There has been, over the centuries, much speculation over the meaning of this command- which has to do with the offering of the firstfruits once the Land of Israel was taken as a possession. Most Rabbinical authorities speculated that the meaning of perishing [oveid], in the above text, referred to the act of Laban- under whom Jacob served for more than 20 years for his two wives, children, and flocks. One of the more famous Rabbis explained this as follows:

ארמי אבד אבי. מַזְכִּיר חַסְדֵּי הַמָּקוֹם, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי — לָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקוֹר אֶת הַכֹּל כְּשֶׁרָדַף אַחַר יַעֲקֹב, וּבִשְׁבִיל שֶׁחָשַׁב לַעֲשׂוֹת חָשַׁב לוֹ הַמָּקוֹם כְּאִלּוּ עָשָׂה, שֶׁאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם חוֹשֵׁב לָהֶם הַקָּבָּ”ה מַחֲשָׁבָה כְּמַעֲשֶׂה (עי’ ספרי):ארמי אבד אבי

A SYRIAN DESTROYED MY FATHER — He mentions the loving kindness of the Omnipresent saying, ארמי אבד אבי, a Syrian destroyed my father, which means: “Laban wished to exterminate the whole nation” (cf. the Haggadah for Passover) when he pursued Jacob. Because he intended to do it the Omnipresent accounted it unto him as though he had actually done it (and therefore the expression אבד which refers to the past is used), for as far as the nations of the world are concerned the Holy One, blessed be He, accounts unto them intention as an actual deed (cf. Sifrei Devarim 301:3; Onkelos). [1]

This commentary, in reality, had nothing to do with the context, the Text, nor with the story of Jacob’s service to Laban and his journey into Egypt; this is, in reality, nothing more than a jab at the Aramean by Rashi.

The lands of Aram stretched from the eastern border of Israel to the Zagros mountains in the East. Aram was the dominant son of Shem- the only one worthy to have lineage mentioned in Torah- aside Arfaksad from whom the Israelites descended. Aram was such a dominant family that Nahor, Avraham’s brother, named his sons after Aram and his son Uts. Since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not a nation, until the birth of the Nation of Israel, it seems natural that Abraham and his sons would have been considered Arami- just like his brother’s family. Jacob, the Aramean, was indeed perishing- there was a famine in the land which caused him to send his sons to Egypt- setting up the events of the Exodus.

For this reason, we were commanded to remember this when we deliver our first-fruits. A miracle from start to finish.

וַיַּ֣רְא יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֥י יֶשׁ־שֶׁ֖בֶר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹב֙ לְבָנָ֔יו לָ֖מָּה תִּתְרָאֽוּ׃

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר הִנֵּ֣ה שָׁמַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י יֶשׁ־שֶׁ֖בֶר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם רְדוּ־שָׁ֨מָּה֙ וְשִׁבְרוּ־לָ֣נוּ מִשָּׁ֔ם וְנִֽחְיֶ֖ה וְלֹ֥א נָמֽוּת׃

The idea of the participle, Oveid [אבד], carried the same meaning in Arami Oveid as is used among the Arabs when referring to the vanishing/perishing tribes of Ancient Arabs of Qahtan (Yoktan)- [العرب البائدة] al-Arab al-Ba-idat (a participle). The alef in the Arabic is a metathesis- which happened in many North Semitic to South Semitic roots.

Laban was the uncle of Jacob, the brother of Rebekka, Jacob’s mother. He was from the same paternal line as Abraham- neither were descended from Aram, but were from Arfaksad, the brother of Aram. Although Laban tricked Jacob into working longer than Jacob planned, he never sought to harm Jacob.

The passage above referred to an event, long after the time Jacob left the service of Laban- just after Joseph was sold to Egypt as a slave. There was a famine in the Levant and there was no food in Canaan. Jacob, seeing his remaining sons idle, asked:

Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do you look one upon another? And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: go down there and buy for us from there; [that we may live, and not die]. And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt. But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him. And the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came: for the famine was in the land of Canaan. Genesis 42:1-5 brackets are mine for emphasis.

It was this event which prompted the children of Jacob to enter Egypt and which fulfilled the dream Joseph had- that his family would serve him. This was also the beginning of the prophecy God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 15- that his children would serve a nation for 400 years and return to Canaan in the 4th generation. Basically, this was the event which led to the miracle of the Passover and Exodus story.

This commandment, which demanded we speak these words when we offered the firstfruits, was intended that we remember the fulfillment of God’s promises, prophetic fulfillment, and the miracle of the Passover. Jacob, the Aramean, was not wandering astray, nor was he being pursued by an Aramean who wanted to destroy him; on the contrary, Jacob, the Aramean, was in danger of starvation and the annihilation of his family.

 

 

  1. Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.26.5?lang=bi&p2=Rashi_on_Deuteronomy.26.5.2&lang2=bi

About Ya'aqov ben Yisrael

I am simply a man with questions and trying to figure out the answers; my greatest joys are found in the study of Torah: its language and exegesis.
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