Friday, September 16, 2011

Notes and points on Deut 26:5ff

This is going to be a collection of bullet points, not a full-fledged post. I hope you don't mind. My objective is to summarize some of the very interesting things about Deuteronomy 26:5, and to hint at the various theological and exegetical problems surrounding the interpretation of this verse.

How Deuteronomy 26:5ff Was Used in Temple Times
When the temple stood, this verse opened the Mikra Bikurim liturgy. Each year pilgrims brought heir first fruits to Jerusalem. Upon presenting them to the priest, a small service was performed, and the words of Mikra Bikurim were recited. as follows, with the first three words left untranslated for now:
Arami oved avi; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to YHVH, the God of our ancestors; YHVH heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. YHVH brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that You, YHVH, have given me.
How Deuteronomy 26:5ff Is Used Today
Its the Pesach seder's primary text, of course. The beginning of maggid until these words are said are introduction. The middle of the maggid is Mikra Bikurim with the Sifrei's interpretation. The end of maggid is our fulfillment of the Pesach obligations as set down by Raban Gamliel.

Why do we use Deuteronomy 26:5ff as the seder's text?
[In the view of the Rabbis] Mikra Bikurim is a first person liturgy, written by God, for people who hadn't witnessed the Exodus, but are asked to recall it for didactic purposes. As you present your first fruits, you said these words to remind yourself that you'd have no fruit, and no land, were it not for God's generosity stretching back to the patriarchs. Not a bad lesson to reiterate as you sit at the seder, surrounded by family and finery, celebrating freedom.

Ok, so what do those first three words really mean?
 The words, again, are Arami oved avi
(1) The Sifrei interprets Arami as Lavan, perhaps because Lavan, who hailed from Padan Aram, is everywhere referred to in Rabbinic literature as the Arami. He reads the opening verse as follows:
An Aramean [=Lavan] attempted to destroy my [fore]father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous
(2) Rashi cites the Sifrei; therefore this interpretation is the official interpretation, and the only one recognized and accepted by the masses.
(3) Radak rejects the Sifrei on grammatical grounds. [I don't do grammar. Josh explains the grammar issues in a 2009 post]
(4) Ibn Ezra also rejects the Sifrei on grammatical grounds. He suggests that the Arami is Jacob.He reads the opening verse as follows:
My [fore]father [=Jacob] was a near destitute Aramean; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous
(5) Rashbam also rejects the Sifrei on grammar grounds. He suggests the Arami is Abraham, and reads the verse this way.
My [fore]father [=Abraham] was a wandering Aramean; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous
(6) D.D Luckenbill notes that the phrase arame halqu munnabtum, which appears in the Sanchedrib Annals, has the sense of a "the run-away, fugitive Aramean". He suggests that "arami oved avi" was not intended literally but idiomatically. Perhaps its meant to convey that the subject of the passage, ie, the one who went to Egypt, ie, Jacob, was a wanderer.

Now, here's where it gets  interesting 
The Maharal and the Mizrachi were Rashi's two great defenders, or super commentators. They made it their mission k to protect Rashi from criticism. On this verse, they attack Ibn Ezra and Radak on grammar and theological grounds. (And when I say attack I mean they went to the mattresses with no pretenses of civility at all)  (Mysteriously, they spare  Rashbam - or perhaps not so mysteriously: Rashbam was Rashi's grandson.)

(1) Grammar: Josh deals with the grammar complaints in the post cited above. As he puts it
Let me be frank. I think that Radak and Ibn Ezra would laugh at many of the suggestions raised by Mizrachi and Maharal. Radak and Ibn Ezra are real grammarians, and the suggestions being raised [by Mizrachi and Maharal] are farfetched and implausible.
However, if Luckenbill is correct, the grammar issue is moot. Idioms don't necessarily follow the rules of ordinary grammar. If Josh is correct, we need to wonder why M &M raised such a smokescreen. Were they simply unskilled at grammar, or were they willing to cut corners for the sake of defending Rashi and the theological issue described below?

(2) Theology: Mizrachi and Maharal also attack Ibn Ezra and Radak on frumkeit grounds. It's the old "how dare you" attack, in this case "How dare you second guess a midrah." Like many of you, I am sure, M&M believed the Sfirei's interpretation went back to Sinai, that is when Moshe taught us the verse on the Plains of Moav, he also taught us that the Arami is Lavan. As a result, challenging this interpretation -- for any reason  -- is out of bounds. (Of course, this line of attack is ahistorical. IE and R didn't think midrashim were canonical. They didn't do anything contrary to the rules of frumkeit as they, or anyone they knew, understood them)

Summary of issues raised by this disagreement between the Rishonim
(1) Do Midrashim go back to Sinai? Ibn Ezra and Radak said no; Maharal and Mizrachi said yes.
(2) Is it legitimate to play the harmonization/reconciliation game when different authorities from different times and places had such different assumptions and conclusions? Isn't it smarter to acknowledge that reconciliation is often not possible?
(3) Is grammar a legitimate exegetical tool?
(4) When grammar and tradition conflict, who wins? On what grounds?
(5) How important is kavanah? If I recite Mikra Bikurim with the wrong interpretation, does it count? And if it does count, does it follow that the rote recitation of words has religious value?
(6) When ancient pilgrims said Mikrah Bikurim how did they interpret it, and are we really expected or required to give it the identical interpretation in our day?  How can such a thing be legislated, given that meanings shift, interpretations are forgotten, and so on.

Points in favor of Lavan being the Arami aside from what has already been mentioned
Mikra Bikurim was said to put us in mind of the miracles surrounding the Exodus. The Jacob and Lavan story is a microcosm of the Exodus story. Consider the following parallels.
(1) Jacob works for Lavan. The word used nine times to describe this labor is 'vd. This is a homonym for "slave" and is also used to describe the labor in Egypt.
(2) When Jacob leaves Lavan his escape is described with the word "barach" The word appears again when we leave Egypt. In fact check this out:

Gen: 31:22: וַיֻּגַּ֥ד לְלָבָ֖ן בַּיֹּ֣ום הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י כִּ֥י בָרַ֖ח יַעֲקֹֽב
Exodus 14:5: וַיֻּגַּד לְמֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, כִּי בָרַח הָעָם

(3) Lavan tricks Jacob, and the trickery compels Jacob to enter into his service. Same thing happened with us and Pharaoh
(4) When Jacob leaves Lavan's service, he gets a three day head start before Lavan overtakes him. At the Exodus we also had a three day head start before Pharaoh catches up
(5) Jacob entered Lavan's service with no money and no family. He left heavy with both. Same thing happened with us and Pharaoh. We went down a broke, famine escaping nation of 70, and left 6 million strong with great wealth.

Counter points aside for the grammar not working. 
Selecting Lavan seems a little random. If we're looking to recall God's kindness by remembering how he protected our forefathers, why pick this event? God saved Aberham from Nimrod, the 5 kings, Pharaoh, and Avimelech. He saved Issac from his father and from Avimelech. He saved Jacob from Esav and Shechem. Any of those events were suffocation in the cradle moments that were averted. So why pick the Lavan story?

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