"Wandering Aramean"-- Who is the Aramean?
2011 S.H. Parker

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, "My father was wondering Aramean." This declaration is made on bringing the first fruits, on Shavuot.

The full quote is:

  וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.'
Devarim 26:5

This pasuk is familiar from the Passover Ha'gaddah where it is rendered "an Aramean tried to kill my father." 

This raises the question "To whom does 'my father' refer? Who is the wondering Aramean?"

And, how does this question come out of these two passages?

My first association with the phrase "my father," other than the man who was my father, is Avraham. Known in traditional circles as "Avraham aveinu," Abraham our father, Avraham is the father of our nation.

So, the wondering Aramean would seem to be Avraham.

However, the Ha'gaddah is clearly referring to Yaakov:

Go forth and learn what Laban, the Syrian, intended to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh decreed the destruction of the males only, while Laban designed to root out the whole, as it is said: A Syrian had nearly caused my father to perish...
emphasis added -- this translation from the Maxwell House Ha'gaddah      

Further, if you check Biblical maps, published in many newer chumashim or available on line, Aram is located northeast of Israel. That is, "Aram" is Syria (there are frequent external references to "Aram-Damascus," for example).

Avraham probably did not travel in or through Syria. Certainly he was not from Syria and, therefore, cannot be called an "Aramean." Jacob, on the other hand, lived with Laban for 20 years. And we know that Laban lived in Aram.

Thus, the evidence seems to favor "my father" referring to Yaakov. Of course, there is the explicit mention of Yaakov's name in the pasuk in the Ha'gaddah. But, the point, here, is that the association of Yaakov with "Aram" is not simply from the Ha'gaddah but Torah.

So, is Yaakov "my father" and Avraham not? So it would seem so because there is no rational way to think that Avraham aveinu was an Aramean. How, then, is Avraham "aveinu?"

But this fails recognize the mistranslation in the Ha'gaddah (though this mistranslation had indeed become normative in ashkenaz by the early middle ages). The Jewish Study Bible notes that the rendering in the Ha'gaddah is a midrashic reinterpretation:

[The Ha'gaddah's] rendering departs from the actual grammar of the verse and almost certainly reflects the politics of the Second Temple period, when the Seleucid empire, which rule Israel from Syria (198-168 BCE), was referred to obliquely as Laban, the Aramean. The hyperbolic claim in the Hagaddah that Laban's oppression of Israel/Jacob was more invidious than the Egyptian enslavement points to a polemic against the Seleucids, whose policies triggered the Hasmonean revolt (167 BCE).

Readers of the early Ha'gaddah would have understood the play on words here. And they would have understood the message: "Just as Yaakov survived Laban's trickery, we will survive the machinations of the Seleucids." (N.B.: in the Torah's stories of Jacob's time in Laban's household, Laban is deceitful, dishonest, vengeful but nowhere is he depicted as murderous.)

So, a new question is "Is 'Aram' Syria?"

As it turns out, no, "Aram" is not Syria. Or, not only Syria.

"Aram" was a region of Mesopotamia stretching from Damascus eastward to the Euphrates. Haran, the city to which Terah, on leaving Ur, takes his family is in Paddan Aram. "Paddan Aram," "the field of Aram" or "the plain of Aram."

We are further told that Laban lived in Aram, specifically in Haran. Haran? In Bereishit 29, we hear that Yaakov, fleeing from Esau, "came to the land of the children of the east" (26:1). Yaakov asks the shepherds where they are from (26:4). "Haran," they answer.

They know Laban, Yaakov's uncle. Laban is "a local." So, Yaakov is near Haran.

Ergo, Haran, Avraham's point of departure for Canaan, is in Aram. And that means that "my father, Avraham, was a wondering Aramean." The passage in the Ha'gaddah is entirely polemical.

What, then, are we to make of the Torah injunction to publicly declare following "my father was a wandering Aramean" with "and he went down into Egypt?" Avraham did go down into Egypt (because of a famine, like Yaakov two generations later; this would be the occasion of the first time he sells Sarah into the harem of a king). 

But Avraham did not "became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous," as Torah enjoins us to declare. that was Yaakov. So, the passage in the Ha'gaddah now seems not entirely polemical -- Yaakov did "wander" (loosely construing "wander") Aram, as a member of Laban's household, did go down into Egypt and, through his 12 sons, became a nation. 

So, Yaakov is the Aramean? But, it is not Yaakov who becomes "a nation, great, mighty and numerous." It is his children that become a nation (and, arguably, not until they leave Egypt and wander the wilderness for 40 years).

If Yaakov can be spoken of as becoming a nation because of his children, then so can Avraham. And that leaves us back with Avraham being the "wandering Aramean."

Doesn't it? Or does our Shavuot declaration intentionally blend facts about two of our fathers to remind it that while we may be "chosen" and we may be a "holy nation," we started out as wanderers who had to descend into Egypt to feed ourselves.

... Just as the text of this declaration states..

Further references:

Bible Dictionary 

Padan-Aram