Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Does Arami Oved Avi refer to a wandering / poor Aramean, or to Lavan who sought to destroy?

This post deals with an interpretation of Arami Oved Avi by Ibn Ezra and Radak which goes against the classic midrashic interpretation, and the reaction of two supercommentaries of Rashi to this "daring" interpretation. What comes into play is whether Ibn Ezra and Radak can claim to have absolute knowledge of Hebrew to be able to declare the midrashic interpretation to not work out according to the rules of dikduk; and whether one can argue on midrash, as they are doing, if after the midrashic interpretation goes all the way back to Sinai! It could also be that as supercommentators of Rashi, they are simply defending Rashi's interpretation as one of peshat.

At the start of Ki Tavo, we hear of Arami Oved Avi:
ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.5 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.
Rashi cites the famous midrash:
An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather: [The declarer] mentions [here] the kind deeds of the Omnipresent [by stating]:“An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather.” That is, Laban, when he pursued Jacob, sought to uproot [i.e., annihilate] all [the Jews], and since he intended to do so, the Omnipresent considered it as though he had actually done it (Sifrei 26:5), for [regarding] the pagan nations of the world, the Holy One, Blessed is He, considers the [mere] intention [of an evil deed] as [being equivalent to] the actual perpetration [of the deed itself]. — [Yerushalmi Pe’ah 1:1 at end]
ארמי אבד אבי: מזכיר חסדי המקום ארמי אובד אבי, לבן בקש לעקור את הכל, כשרדף אחר יעקב. ובשביל שחשב לעשות, חשב לו המקום כאלו עשה, שאומות העולם חושב להם הקב"ה מחשבה [רעה] כמעשה:

The Sifrei indeed says something like this:
ואמרת לפני ה׳ אלהיך ארמי אובד אבי • מלמד שלא ירד יעקב לארם אלא
ב)(לאובד) • ומעלה על לבן הארמי כאלו איבדו)
where Gra emends to להאבד. Though I would assert that there is room for movement here. But the simple reading is that אובד here is being taken as a transitive verb. ("Bill grew tomatoes" is transitive, while "Bill grew" is intransitive.) And so it is being taken as a statement that "An Aramean destroyed, or caused to wander, my father Yaakov.

Ibn Ezra takes exception to this. He writes:
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 הכתוב: 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.
Radak as well endorses this position. Thus:
והוא בודד כשהוא
מן הקל, כי פירוש פסוק ארמי אבד אבי יעקב אבי היה
אובד וקראו ארמי, לפי שגר בארם ושם היה אובד כי בצער
גדול היה שם עשרים שנה כמו שהתרעם על לבן ואמר הייתי ביום
אכלני חרב וקרח בלילה (בראשית ל א , מ . ) וכאשר
הפעל הזה מן הכבדים הוא עובר
That is, there is a difference between the kal and kaved patterns of this verb. The kal is intransitive, while the kaved is the transitive. And not only does this make sense grammatically, but other things in context or elsewhere work to demonstrate that this is the peshat. Thus Radak shows how it manifests in the actual story with Yaakov and Lavan, and Ibn shows how it fits in with the general theme being developed in the mikra bikkurim that we started out small with nothing. So dikduk plus working out with message make for good peshat.

As I noted elsewhere, Rashi's peshat, which is based on Sifrei, works well with the trup. Because the trup, which is Pashta Munach Zakef-Katon creates a situation of:
Arami | Oved Avi
as opposed to Mahpach Pashta Zakef Katon, which would be
Arami Oved | Avi

Of course, that trup could have been written to be in line with the midrash, rather than the peshat.

I would agree with Ibn Ezra and Radak as to the peshat meaning. And I would not discard Rashi's explanation as wrong. Rather, it is midrash, rather than peshat. And that is fine. Midrash need not always work out in accordance with the strict dictates of dikduk.

Mizrachi and Gur Aryeh both strive to defend Rashi. I am not convinced that they succeeded, or even that a defense based on dikduk is needed.

But Mizrachi writes about this, noting the Sifrei, as well as Ibn Ezra and Radak. His motivation is that since this is a midrash, from Chazal, this was transmitted via tradition, one man to the next, all the way back to Moshe Rabbenu who heard it from the Almighty, that the Arami is Lavan and than the Oved here is a transitive rather than intransitive verb, such that Lavan sought to destroy my father.

Of course, I would interject that there are other weighty opinions that do not consider every midrash to be of this sort, as a tradition all the way back to Har Sinai.

Mizrachi seeks to undermine Radak's grammatical point by pointing out that in Radak's own introduction, he writes that our knowledge of the Hebrew language is incomplete and reconstructed from the 24 books of Tanach, from Mishnaic Hebrew, and the like. So there could be a meaning which we would not know from other Biblical evidence. And so oved can be a transitive verb, and our unbroken midrashic tradition can be the true meaning of the pasuk, even on a peshat level.

This is of course true. Anything is possible. See for a practical example the kal passive, and how people arrogantly claim something is impossible and outside the bounds of Hebrew grammar, without focusing on this possibility. Still, we have other forms, namely kaved, to get where we want, and no evidence of this particular meaning within this form. And it is not just that, but bringing in Lavan out of left field does not seem very peshat-like, while Ibn Ezra's explanation works quite well in terms of the peshat.

Mizrachi also points to a pasuk towards the end of Ki Savo, in perek 28, which reads:

כ יְשַׁלַּח ה' בְּךָ אֶת-הַמְּאֵרָה אֶת-הַמְּהוּמָה, וְאֶת-הַמִּגְעֶרֶת, בְּכָל-מִשְׁלַח יָדְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה--עַד הִשָּׁמֶדְךָ וְעַד-אֲבָדְךָ מַהֵר, מִפְּנֵי רֹעַ מַעֲלָלֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר עֲזַבְתָּנִי.20 The LORD will send upon thee cursing, discomfiture, and rebuke, in all that thou puttest thy hand unto to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the evil of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken Me.

which he interprets as until he is אבד you. This is not how JPS chooses to render it; instead, it is "until you perish quickly." Indeed, the verb pattern of hishamedcha which precedes it implies a passive, which then takes an actor out of the picture. Mizrachi seems to explicitly rule out that possibility.

On the other hand, compare with other instances of שמד and אבד in this perek. In particular:
מח וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת-אֹיְבֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ יְהוָה בָּךְ, בְּרָעָב וּבְצָמָא וּבְעֵירֹם, וּבְחֹסֶר כֹּל; וְנָתַן עֹל בַּרְזֶל, עַל-צַוָּארֶךָ, עַד הִשְׁמִידוֹ, אֹתָךְ.48 therefore shalt thou serve thine enemy whom the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things; and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee.

where there is an actor; as well as:

סג וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר-שָׂשׂ יְהוָה עֲלֵיכֶם, לְהֵיטִיב אֶתְכֶם וּלְהַרְבּוֹת אֶתְכֶם--כֵּן יָשִׂישׂ יְהוָה עֲלֵיכֶם, לְהַאֲבִיד אֶתְכֶם וּלְהַשְׁמִיד אֶתְכֶם; וְנִסַּחְתֶּם מֵעַל הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.63 And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest in to possess it.
But these are different verb patterns, and I am not convinced that this pasuk Mizrachi cited is evidence that אבד in the kal pattern is a transitive verb.

Mizrachi also argues (see inside) with Ibn Ezra's assertion that Lavan trying to destroy my father is out of place and unconnected to context. (I would interject that midrashically, Tg Yonatan elsewhere understands that Lavan went down to Egypt under the name of Bilaam, which handily explains how this all fits in. But Rashi, and Mizrachi, are not considering this possibility.) Who says that there needs to be a connection, other than that it is a chesed that Hashem did? Though in the end, he sort of finds a way to work it into the context and flow.

Even so, I agree with the thematic point Ibn Ezra is making, and that if one reads it in Ibn Ezra's way, it advances the theme (of rags to riches) much more, while with Rashi and Sifrei it does not.

The Maharal mi-Prague, in Gur Aryeh, also comes to Rashi's defense and attacks Ibn Ezra and Radak. He leads off explaining just how it does work out in context -- that it is a separate detailing of the chesed that Hashem did. This in answer to Ibn Ezra's left-field comment.

Meanwhile, Ibn Ezra wants to differ from the chachmei haEmet, and say that it should have said מאבד אבי and that as written, it means that he was without anything. But the Maharal does not think very much of Ibn Ezra's proof, but that one can ask some very good questions on Ibn Ezra.

One can answer Ibn Ezra that אובד is indeed not a transitive verb, but is a noun. Because Lavan always thought how to destroy my father, he is the destroyer of my father. Thus, it is not that an Aramean destroyed my father, but that an Aramean was a destroyer of my father. But if it said מאבד, it would imply that it was a one time effort. And this is on the pattern of {Bemidbar 24:20}:

כ וַיַּרְא, אֶת-עֲמָלֵק, וַיִּשָּׂא מְשָׁלוֹ, וַיֹּאמַר: רֵאשִׁית גּוֹיִם עֲמָלֵק, וְאַחֲרִיתוֹ עֲדֵי אֹבֵד.20 And he looked on Amalek, and took up his parable, and said: Amalek was the first of the nations; but his end shall come to destruction.
which Radak wrote in the name of the scholar Rabbi Yaakov ben Eliezer; and its meaning is that he always thought to destroy him, and therefore he is called the אובד of his. For in many places the harm caused by some thing is called by the name of the thing. And a stone, where it rests in a place where it can cause people to stumble is called a michshol, not a machshil. So too here, he is called the oved of my father because he is the אבידת יעקב. And so too in many places the actor of some thing is called by the name of the thing.

Furthermore, baalei dikduk often write about words that it is a strange word. So why should they be bothered here if they think it does not work out according to their dikduk? And he gives an example of a word -- ויסר -- needing to be explained as transitive though it is usually instransitive. {See Ibn Ezra's explanation of ויסר there, in his commentary on Shemot 14; and what he writes in his commentary of Bereishit 8; Imy impression is that Ibn Ezra is not saying that this is a kal which is usually intransitive but suddenly yotzei, but that it is from the binyan hakaved hanosaf and is strange because of a vowel substitution.}

Further, there are other examples of אובד which seems to be transitive, even though Ibn Ezra forces an intransitive explanation. Thus, in Devarim 32:28:

כח כִּי-גוֹי אֹבַד עֵצוֹת, הֵמָּה; {ר} וְאֵין בָּהֶם, תְּבוּנָה. {ס}28 For they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them.

which the Maharal feels should be a transitive verb, even though Ibn Ezra forces himself to explain otherwise, writing:
כי גוי אובד עצות -
הנכון שזה הגוי הם צרי ישראל.

ומלת אבד -
שם התאר והיא סמוכה, על כן נפתח הבי"ת וידוע כי מלת אבד מהפעלים העומדים, רק פירוש עצות שב אל אבד, כמו: נובלת עליה.
וכן: ותאבדו דרך, שהוא סמוך אל דרך והנה השכיל המתרגם שאמר: מאבדי עצה.
making it into an intransitive; but ultimately agreeing with the metargem who renders it transitive.

I would disagree with Maharal here and say that Ibn Ezra's explanation there is compelling rather than forced; and that the metargem had to switch it to a different mishkal in order to make it transitive, but this was cleverness in making the translated text easier.

And, he continues, Ibn Ezra and Radak should have explained the word in this way and should not have differed from the words of the Chachamim and the Targumist.

And he continues with further arguments how it can grammatically work out -- he only sought to destroy my father, but did not succeed, so it should stay as an intransitive.

Then, he turns to context -- what cause is there for mentioning Lavan's attempts to destroy my father? In answer: Lavan wanted to entirely destroy my father entirely, but Hashem saved him, and he descended to Egypt. And that it does not mention Hashem saving him from the hand of the Aramean as it mentions Hashem redeeming them from the hand of Egypt, this is because it does not want to make two good things. The point is that he was in these various dire straits and now he was given a wonderful land. It is starting with genai and ending with shevach.

Thus, he concludes, the words of Chazal are correct. And if it is difficult for you to believe that Lavan was trying to destroy Yaakov, despite chasing after him (because this was not necessarily to destroy him), see

the sefer Gevurat Hashem on the Hagaddah shel Pesach, and there (see here, I suppose, though I don't see it there) you can see it explained with clear proofs.

However, Ibn Ezra's explanation has neither hands nor feet, for he wrote that Yaakov is called an Aramean, and why should he be called an Aramean, where Avraham was called Avraham the Ivri -- even though he was in Eretz Yisrael, he was called by the initial name. So why does it call Yaakov an Aramean, and why does it not say "In Aram, my father was אובד?" And this question is greater than the question that he asks on our Rabbis, za"l, that it should have written מאבד. And furthermore, in which place do we find that the meaning of Oved means pauper? For the proofs which he brings from תנו שכר לאובד is no proof.

{This based on Mishlei 31:6:

תְּנוּ-שֵׁכָר לְאוֹבֵד; וְיַיִן, לְמָרֵי נָפֶשׁ.6 Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul;
ז יִשְׁתֶּה, וְיִשְׁכַּח רִישׁוֹ; וַעֲמָלוֹ, לֹא יִזְכָּר-עוֹד.7 Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more. {P}

for what is written after it that "he shall forget his רישו, and his effort he will remember no more," the explanation of this is not lack of money, but rather the explanation of "he shall forget his רישו" is all that he lacks. And behold, anyone who lacks something is called a ריש; all the more so when he is lacking more. But for someone who lacks money to be called an אובד, this is simply not so!

And further, this that Ibn Ezra writes {in explaining the import of Arami Oved Avi}, "for I have not inherited the land from my fathers; for behold when Yaakov was in the land he was lacking, without clothing {?}", this matter has neither {good} taste nor smell, for even though when he was in Aram he was lacking money, it was possible that he would have the money when he returned from Padan Aram, for he was a very wealthy man. And what of it that he was lacking in Aram?

So ends my rough summary of the points of Mizrachi and Maharal mi-Prague. Now, my brief thoughts on the matter.

Firstly, I am somewhat biased towards Radak and Ibn Ezra. Seeing them attacked for what seem to be reasons of frumkeit, that they are not entitled to hold their positions because of pious concerns, sparks that reaction in me. It also makes me tend to view those who attack Ibn Ezra and Radak's position as likely to be biased, and therefore not really evaluating the merits of either side appropriately. Despite all this, I do think that Radak and Ibn Ezra are correct, more or less.

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 are farfetched and implausible. It seems somewhat possible to me that continued attempts to explain Rashi's concerns as peshat, where Rashi passes midrash off as peshat, makes one view midrashic concerns as real peshat / dikduk concerns.

It may be that there is some way to reconcile the midrash with a grammatical reading of the verse. But the midrash saw Arami, connected it to the famous Lavan haArami, and worked from there. But this is not the most straightforward reading of the verse, that one would arrive at without the midrash. Neither Maharal nor Mizrachi would likely be endorsing this explanation if the Sifrei, and thus what they consider the tradition miSinai, were at stake.

We have no real Biblical evidence that אובד works as a transitive verb, and we have transitive versions which are used, though not used in this instance. And Lavan trying to destroy Yaakov, as opposed to e.g. Esav trying to destroy Yaakov, or Yosef being sold, or Dinah being captured, or Avraham fighting against the kings, or many other chasadim, seems random. I don't like random. There is no cause for it in context. Meanwhile, to say that it describes my forefather's sorry state before Hashem's salvation works out wonderfully in the context.

Radak and Ibn Ezra are not being driven by trying to preserve midrashic tradition. That is not what the process of peshat commentary is about. It is about looking at the text, mustering the tools of dikduk and context, and deciding what the text most probably means. A reference to Lavan is not likely, so it is not true that Radak and Ibn Ezra should have found some way to work it out.

And many of the suggestions they posit are quite far-fetched and irregular. That does not recommend a peshat commentary. Thus, Mizrachi suggests a pasuk later in Ki Tavo which is אובד in transitive. But this is quite close context, and one would think that expert grammarians such as Ibn Ezra and Radak would have picked up this close example. Yet they didn't, and they should not have, for we see from context that it was likely not intended as a transitive verb. And Mizrachi's suggestion that Radak should have humbly recognized what he said in his own introduction, that knowledge of the Hebrew language is not complete -- sure, anything is possible, and for all we know Bereishit Bara Elokim Et Hashamayim veEt HaAretz could really translate to "In the middle, God sipped coffee and tea." And each of these words are simply unattested to in these meanings attested to in the 24 books of Tanach we possess. So anything is theoretically possible. Should this be driving a pashtan? No, for if so, he would not be able to say anything about any verse; or else he could say anything about any verse. The existence of a midrash should not be a driving factor, if midrash need not be peshat.

What about Maharal? He suggests that it is a noun, rather than a transitive verb. And that a noun can be called based on what it causes, rather than as the causer. And it still works out perfectly with the trup, I would add! Also theoretically possible, and a very creative end-run around the rules of dikduk. As Ibn Ezra notes elsewhere, there is no such thing as a present-tense verb in Biblical Hebrew. There is the neutral-tense verb, which is really simply the noun. Ani Shomer means "I am watching..." or else "I am a watchman." The noun is the neutral tense verb. And based on context, that neutral tense can also be the present tense or future tense. So of course one can claim that it is the noun rather than the verb. But by doing so, one can make an end-run around any troublesome verb, and make it mean what you want it do mean. There would not be -- at least in the neutral tense -- transitive or instransitive, or causitive or passive. With enough creativity, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Just declare it a noun!

But reading the pasuk, it does not really seem to be functioning as a noun. Forget the creative reinterpretation which makes it unlikely, the awkwardness of the construction makes it unlikely. Should a pashtan seize on it as the peshat meaning of the pasuk? Not unless he is biased towards justifying the midrashic reading, and he is ideally not biased in this way. (They would argue that he should be biased, since it is "possible" plus we have a Sinaitic tradition. But not every midrash is mipi haGevurah, some say; and even if it is, not every midrash is peshat.)

The idea that Lavan didn't actually carry it out, so it should be in the intransitive form is justified, is creative; but creative is not necessarily true or plausible. Do we have any other examples of this phenomenon? This is a midrashist playing with dikduk and calling it peshat. I have a similar reaction to the claim that it was decided that it be a noun because of continuous effort, rather than a one-time effort. This is creative, but I don't think it would be convincing to pashtan grammarians such as Ibn Ezra and Radak, and for good reason. Though we do have certain other forms (such as imperfect) to denote continuous action.

In terms of the questions on Ibn Ezra based on meaning, some seem to me to be good, and some not so good. Even the "good" ones are not as convincing to me as they appear to be to the Maharal. Because sometimes textual interpretations have difficulties, but they are still on the whole better than the alternatives. Despite Yaakov being able to buy the land on his return, once he was no longer a pauper, the point and theme was to stress how he was wandering about, and was not settled yet in the land. Why he would be called an Arami does not really trouble me; many objections can be raised, and are raised, on minor debateable points by midrashically inclined commentators. That does not make them solid peshat concerns. And even where there are solid peshat concerns, those can often be the result of the fine-grained peshat decisions of the particular commentator, but another explanation can be put forth which obviates those solid concerns and not resorting to farfetched midrash and dikduk.

Indeed, I would agree with Shadal, somewhat, who said:
ה ] אבי : כולל כל האבות כאחד שהיו תועים מגוי אל גוי , והראשון בא מארם , וקרובין לזה דברי הרשב " ם
and with Rashbam, who said:

ארמי אובד אבי -
אבי אברהם ארמי היה, אובד וגולה מארץ ארם. כדכתיב: לך לך מארצך.
וכדכתיב ויהי כאשר התעו אותי אלהים מבית אבי - לשון אובד ותועה אחד הם באדם הגולה, כדכתיב: תעיתי כשה אובד בקש עבדך.
צאן אובדות היו עמי. רועיהם התעום, כלומר מארץ נכריה באו אבותינו לארץ הזאת ונתנה הקב"ה לנו.
Where Maharal focused his attack on the idea of it being Yaakov who was the Arami Oved, he did not focus on Rashbam, who agrees but makes it Avraham. And he did not anticipate Shadal, who came later.

Indeed, historically the patriarchal wanderings may have come at about the same time as general Aramean migrations. And Avraham came from Aram. He was indeed a wandering Aramean. And it could mean Avraham, Yitchak, Yaakov, and perhaps even the shevatim. They came initially from Aram, and are called Arameans since they did not assume the name of their destination, as they never permanently settled there. So my forefathers were wandering Arameans. And there wanderings took them to Egypt. And so on and so forth. We can make them paupers, or wanderers, and answer some of Maharal's questions. And eventually they were redeemed from Egypt and because plentiful and inherited the entire land.

It works out perfectly, or near perfectly. I say Ibn Ezra, Radak, Rashbam, and Shadal win. Of course, Mizrachi and Maharal cluttered the page with impressive seeming arguments, and those who don't have an ear for dikduk and peshat may well be convinced of the opposite position. I still say that Ibn Ezra, Radak et al have not been toppled.


Michael said...

I agree with you, it seams to be the correct pshat. A few questions though:

1. How is this translated in the septuagint?
2. What is the big problem for mefarshim with calling yaakov an aramean. Lavan is also ivri, yet is called arami?
3. I don't understand the trup:
It would imply that the subject is arami,(who perished my father), who went down to Egypt.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I haven't seen it inside, but I think Heidenheim defends the midrashic reading on grammatical grounds.

Speaking of which, it's funny that the Stone chumash doesn't cite him, so concerned are they never to draw attention to a critical or less pious type of problem with the text. Yet, he's listed in the bibiliography.

Michael, in the Septuagint it is of course not translated with the midrashic interpretation, or else you can rest assured that you would already know that it was!

One English translation of the Septuagint has "My father abandoned Syria."

I would speculate that the Haggadah influenced the popularity of this interpretation.

Shmuel said...

Right, it's in Moda Labina.

joshwaxman said...

i think the objection to Yaakov being an Aramean might be emotional -- he is one of the Avos, unlike Lavan, and should be an Ivri, rather than an Arami.

you are right that there is a shift in person from the object of the first clause (avi) to become the subject of the second clause. this is slightly awkward but not impossible. an aramean sought to destroy my father, and he (my father) descended to Egypt (perhaps as a consequence.)

i'll try to check out Modah Lebina. I linked to it but didn't check it out yet.

Dr. Richard Steiner also has a nice thing about this. He notes that where Arameans are around, the Biblical text often includes some Aramaisms -- and he gives examples. if this is Arami oved avi, so we can analyze אובד as an Aramaic form, and (iirc) read it as the aphel for יבד {?}, which would give give us Oved. Thus, it *could* mean "cause to perish".

even so, this is nowhere near what Maharal and Mizrachi are saying. and while it might work out grammatically, i still am not convinced that it is the peshat, such that it would supersede Ibn Ezra / Radak / Rashbam / Shadal, since they use a common form in a way that works out almost perfectly in context.

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

interesting. i just checked out Heidenheim. one can read it here.

he explains it as a weird form that crops up occasionally. i am not expert enough in dikduk to weigh this assertion. but it strikes me that he is overly influenced by the trup here. trup is a commentary like any other, and i agree that it is against Ibn Ezra et al, but at the same time the derasha on Arami Oved Avi is a famous derasha. i would not see this as cause to shoehorn it in, even if this is a possible though weird grammatical construction.

Michael - The real one said...

I think that your notion that there exists a "pure Pshat" independent of Midrash, is wrong, in this case.
Think about modern English. There are rules for normal prose. But then, there is poetry. And there is not just one poetry form, there are hundreds. Imagine a person that speaks a different language trying to break down the meaning of a rap song.
We have a few hundred pages of prose text in biblical Hebrew, perhaps that is enough to base a grammatical system off of. But we have only a few pages of poetry text. what is laughable, to use your disrespectful phrase, is to make a categorical assertion about the meaning of a cryptic phrase in Torah poetry. Frankly, I think that the Ibn Ezra is making a fool of himself to assert that his grammatical analysis renders the Midrashic interpretation impossible.
Now, considering the paucity of our knowledge of Hebrew, the way that the passage has been understood for a thousand years (by the time of the Ibn Ezra,) becomes very important. The issue is not whether the interpretation of Arami as Lavan is from Sinai. The fact is that that was the consensus reading in the Jewish world for a thousand years, it is probably the most famous Midrash in the Jewish world at the time of the Ibn Ezra.
Throwing that out on the basis of (by definition) flimsy grammatical evidence is silly.

joshwaxman said...

"flimsy evidence" seems to be one of the points Mizrachi and Maharal were making, by citing Radak's remark in his introduction. though you are throwing in that Biblical poetry uses arcane and archaic words. true enough, and it reinforces the point, if we choose to consider this speech Biblical poetry. repeated use of vav hahipuch suggests to me that this formulaic speech is narrative.

sure, we cannot know anything absolutely, but we sure do know a lot, and were able to reconstruct a lot, as a result of efforts by very brilliant, intelligent, and creative people.

a separate point i haven't covered enough here, but bli neder, have intents for a separate post, is what DovBear addressed. does the peshat stand independent of midrash, contradicting it?

there are at least three possibilities for how Chazal intended this:
1) the midrash is true to the exclusion of peshat.
2) peshat is true, and the midrash is homiletic.
3) both peshat and midrash are true.

in terms of 1000s of years of tradition, sure, it became a famous midrash, because of its incorporation in the haggadah and in rashi. but famous, and popular, does not necessarily mean true. and ibn ezra and radak should not stop their critical thinking and the use of what they view as a true methodology because it undermined consensus.

at any rate, depending on how the midrash was intended, it was not necessarily consensus for 1000 years. if chazal knew the peshat meaning, but also saw opportunity for this alternative meaning, and only wrote down the non-obvious and creative because it was a chiddush, then initially these two interpretations might have stood side by side. but for a long time people focused on midrash to the exclusion of peshat. a consensus to read like the midrash, by a hamon am, and by a rabbinate which did not focus on peshat but on midrash, would not be meaningful to Ibn Ezra.

at any rate, Ibn Ezra, Radak, and Rashbam were no slouches. nor were they not frum. that someone today, coming with frum bias, thinks that possessing intellectual integrity and lack of bittul hadaas to a popular midrash makes him a fool would not faze him, nor me.

this is a very broad question. but ibn ezra and other medieval pashtanim; and rav moshe hadarshan and other medieval darshanim, did not see a problem arguing with midrashim and presenting their own interpretation. they felt they were allowed to do this, and i would guess that they should do this, as part of their talmud torah.

this is true even if they are wrong. they should make this effort. on the other hand, there is a way to argue. and the *types* of grammatical arguments that Mizrachi and Maharal are raising are flimsy, silly and farfetched. had a contemporary of Ibn Ezra in the beis medrash raised these points -- and I exaggerate only slightly for emphasis -- he would tell that person that he is not a bar plugta, that he is not engaging in serious dikduk, and that "zil gmor", he should learn a bit more before promoting random and farfetched suggestions. they are way out of their area of expertise.

and this is important to note, even if people get offended. people see this and they think "a machlokes of meforshim." but it is not a matched fight, and i would guess that in general people who don't typically study dikduk or who are being motivated by frum biases would think this.

i rambled on for long enough here. maybe i'll be able to structure this, and add to this, better at a later point.

kol tuv,

Michael said...

sure, we cannot know anything absolutely, but we sure do know a lot, and were able to reconstruct a lot, as a result of efforts by very brilliant, intelligent, and creative people.
I deeply disagree with you on this point. I happen to live in the world of academia, though I am not an academic myself, and I am struck by how frequently academic opinion shifts. (Not that I am repelled by the fact that they readily move away from previously held opinions in the face of new evidence, on the contrary, I consider that a feature, not a bug, and I wish that the practice was more widespread. Rather, what I find remarkable is the number of times that something is characterized as "the consensus based on strong evidence" only to be discarded later.)
The conclusion that I draw from this is that for a lot of the fields, the goal is not to determine the truth, but rather to create the best possible theory on the basis of the evidence available, without regard to the key question of "how much evidence is available." For some reason, people rarely distinguisn between academic consensus on the basis of evidence when the evidence available is a significant percentage of the knowledge needed to make a sure judgement, and when the evidence available is only a tiny fraction of that amount.
This is the reason that all academics know that it is no longer smart to speak in terms of "what actually happened" only in terms of "an interesting conjecture", etc.
The Ibn Ezra, Rambam etc., lived in the first wave of people that sought to discover truth not on the basis of received wisdom, but on the basis of their own analysis of the evidence. As such, they can be forgiven for their statements, which they made with such assurance, which are almost comical today. But, nevertheless, the statements, on their face, are silly. The assuredness with which the Rambam, Ibn Ezra et al speak of the consensus of wisdom of their day should give pause to anybody who speaks with assurance on the basis of intellectual analysis nowadays.
So, coming back to the topic at hand. If the Ibn Ezra was a modern thinker, one would hope that he would take a lesson from the repeated failures of intellectual analysis to arrive at the truth about anything in the past. He would therefore be more hesitant to discard a thousand years of tradition for a grammatical issue.
And, while I agree that there are times that we can speak of Derech Hamidrash and Derech HaPshat, I think that it is a bit forced to say that the most fundamental issue of the text - who is the Arami? - could be split along those lines.

MIchael said...

And, Just to clarify what I meant when I said the Midrash was probably the most famous Midrash in the Jewish world in the time of the Ibn Ezra (something that is possibly not true today) - I say this because of the Haggadah, which was the only time that Midrash was explicitly included in the liturgy.

joshwaxman said...

without going over old ground, here is a midrash vs. peshat.

"vadoni zaken". who is adoni? peshat is that Sarah was saying that Avraham was too old, while derash was saying that Hashem was too old. can we split the derash / peshat of this pasuk along these fundamental lines? yes, if the point of the midrash is to draw out a thematic point.

decorative swords can simultaneously be decoration and a mashal for talmud Torah. there are a great many theories of how these levels can interact, and what forms the intent of Chazal when they made these midrashim. i am not subscribing to any particular one, though.

also, some theories are better grounded, and stand up to scrutiny, than other theories. and lavan the aramean is not good pshat, imho, even if grammatical difficulty were not an issue. it is context and theme.

btw, were you insulted on behalf of Maharal and Mizrachi?


Michael said...

btw, were you insulted on behalf of Maharal and Mizrachi?
Not at all. I think that the Maharal is as dismissive of others as the Ibn Ezra (in your imagining of his reaction to the Maharal's ideas) was of him.
There is a general issue that we have argued about in the past, that is coming into play here.
When you look at an artifact (it may be a piece of Gemara, a line in Tanakh, or a piece of history) and try to analyze it using only the evidence available, without taking into account the way tradition has understand that artifact, you are doing yourself a disservice, if your goal is to arrive at the "What does it actually mean?/ What actually happened?" answer.
Why? Because the weight of tradition should be taken into account, not out of blind respect for tradition, but out of the recognition that the available evidence is frequently sparse, and the tradition is frequently based on more evidence than is available to the modern scholar.
IOW, I think that the tradition should be treated as the status quo, and any disagreement with the tradition should require special scrutiny in order to be admitted.

MIchael said...

lavan the aramean is not good pshat, imho, even if grammatical difficulty were not an issue. it is context and theme.
Why can't Lavan the Aramean fit into the context the way the Haggadah reads it:
The story of the slavery in Egypt is one in which the Israelites are forced to take refuge in a place which then turns on them and enslaves them, and even tries to (partially) annihalate them.
It is only the promise of G-d to Abraham that preserved them.
In this context, it is useful for Jews to know that this is not a one-time thing - Lo Echad Bilvad... - but even our ancestor Yaakov suffered the same fate when he was a refugee, and only G-d's promise of protection saved him.

joshwaxman said...

"Why? Because the weight of tradition should be taken into account, not out of blind respect for tradition, but out of the recognition that the available evidence is frequently sparse"
true enough. but conversely, Chazal are often brilliant in their creative reinterpretations of pesukim to bring out additional points. they do this will al-tikreis, they do this with rereadings into other languages, not only Aramaic, but also Greek, and so on. i often will see something and say that it is a creative interpretation, and this is how they applied creative rereading to arrive at a conclusion. and i extrapolate from the clear cases to many ambiguous cases. their concern is not always "peshat". and their methodology is not always one of repeating tradition, but of innovation, which makes their innovation equal to Ibn Ezra's innovation, in weight.

"I think that the Maharal is as dismissive of others as the Ibn Ezra (in your imagining of his reaction to the Maharal's ideas) was of him"
just to clarify (though I think you get this), there is a difference in kind. maharal is dismissive because of frumkeit, and passes off quirky dikduk as credible in order to defend Chazal. in my imagination of Ibn Ezra and the many Rishonim, they would see this quirky dikduk as ridiculous and entirely non-credible and would be correct to laugh.

let me give an example. if some heretic were to say to you, in accordance with the translation Chazal tried to avoid in translating Bereishit Bara Elokim, that it means that "In the Beginning, Hashem was created," because even though Bara is a transitive active verb, we should understand it as a passive, because who are you to say that we cannot do this, for we don't have comprehensive understanding of Biblical Hebrew, you would laugh. Bad dikduk is just that, bad dikduk.

This is not to say that Chazal did not have good dikduk in their corner. Wolf Heidenheim and Dr. Steiner have much more credible grammatical explanations of the midrashic parse. Ibn Ezra, Radak, etc., would likely not laugh at them. They would not be laughing at Chazal, but of kooky invented dikduk to defend Chazal. And just as I would be right to laugh at, or dismiss, the heretic who proposed totally ungrammatical explanation of Bereishit Bara, the Rishonim would be right to laugh at kooky dikduk, especially if it were used as an attack at them that they could not say a peshat otherwise.

"Why can't Lavan the Aramean fit into the context the way..."
it is very difficult to quantify a plausibility judgement of peshat. it is intuition and a sense of what is "right" that one develops, and to this degree it is subjective. but i trust my own subjective intuition on this matter.

part of why i feel Shadal works much better in context and theme is that this is the story of a people, not of random individuals, even important individuals, in our history. thus, the Israelites in early history were a wandering people, with no permanent home and oppressed. and then, Hashem redeemed them and gave them such a home, and great material success. thus, Arami Oved Avi as referring to the Avot all the way down perhaps to the shevatim, followed by the migration to and subjugation in Egypt, is the story of a people. and i would even guess that, the Haggadah's repetition of the derasha from Sifrei aside, the Haggadah itself likely actually means "a wandering Aramean" as peshat. in rav vs. shmuel's starting with genai and ending with shevach, this might be just what was intended in the selection of these verses. then, since they want to make a derasha, they use the derasha from the Sifrei, which happens to take the pesukim in a different way.

kol tuv,

Michael said...

if some heretic were to say to you, in accordance with the translation Chazal tried to avoid in translating Bereishit Bara Elokim, that it means that "In the Beginning, Hashem was created," because even though Bara is a transitive active verb, we should understand it as a passive, because who are you to say that we cannot do this, for we don't have comprehensive understanding of Biblical Hebrew, you would laugh. Bad dikduk is just that, bad dikduk.
No, that is not why I would say that the heretic was wrong. I would say that the heretic was wrong because the Torah, as a body of work, is essentially closed to us, living so many thousands of years after its composition, and it is silly to make any argument about the Torah's meaning just based on analysis of the text, without seeing that text in the context of the traditional interpretation. Since Judaism teaches that G-d is the Kadmon, an interpretation, regardless of how gramatically sound it is, that disputes that, is ruled out. K"Yehuda V'Od Likra, I would add that the grammar just doesn't work here.
Now, I know that the Ibn Ezra tried to read Pshat without paying attention to the tradition, and that, to some extent, the Ramban did so also, but, I consider the Ibn Ezra's efforts a sort of parlor game, not a true effort to understand what the Torah really says. Because the Torah cannot be understood without the context of the tradition of interpretation.

joshwaxman said...

i'll try to respond later, since i am not sure i'll have any more time erev shabbos.

check out next week also, where i plan to put up a post showing from the wording of the Sifrei that the author of the statement in Sifrei certainly knew the objections of the Ibn Ezra and Radak, and therefore offers both peshat and derash alongside one another.

have a great shabbos,

Lurker said...

As I wrote in a comment over at DovBear, I believe it is a mistake to understand the Sifrei as being identical to Rashi. In fact, the Sifrei seems to contain both Ibn Ezra’s explanation, as well as that of Rashi. (Is this by any chance what you meant when you said that you “would assert that there is room for movement here”?)

In point of fact, the Sifrei says that the “Aramean” is simultaneously Lavan and Yaakov. If you read the words of the Sifrei’s comment carefully, you'll see that it consists of two clauses, which I’ll refer to here as (A) and (B), each of which says a very different thing:

(A) מלמד שלא ירד אבינו יעקב לארם אלא על מנת לאבד מן העולם.
This teaches that our father Yaakov went down to Aram only in order to be destroyed from the world.

Notice that here the Sifrei is identifying the “Aramean” as Yaakov: It’s saying that Yaakov is described by the verse as an “ארמי אבד” – a “ruined Aramean” – because his descent to Aram was destined to bring him to ruin. According to this, “אבד” is an intransitive verb. This is essentially the same explanation as that of Ibn Ezra and Radak.

The Sifrei then continues:

(B) ומעלה על לבן הארמי כאילו איבדו.
And [the text] regards Lavan the Aramean as though he destroyed him.

Here, the Sifrei is identifying the Aramean as Lavan: It’s saying that Lavan is described in the verse as “אבד אבי” – “destroying my father” – because Lavan sought to destroy Yaakov. According to this, “אבד” is an intransitive verb.

In other words, the Sifrei is citing both interpretations in a single sentence: It is saying that the Aramean is both Yaakov and Lavan; and that “אבד” is both intransitive and transitive.

Now, one can certainly object that this is illogical, and that the “Aramean” can’t be a reference to both of them at the same time. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Sifrei does say exactly that.

Indeed, to suggest that the Sifrei is not saying this would require an even bigger kvetch than that of the Mizrahi and Maharal. Furthermore, this is not only my interpretation of the Sifrei: As Steiner notes in his article (p. 130, f. 18 ), the Sifrei was also understood this way by Abraham Geiger, David Zvi Hoffman, Daniel Goldschmidt, and Yeshayahu Maori. This dual explanation by the Sifrei is also noted by Joshua Kulp and by Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai in their commentaries on the Haggada. [Hoffman, in fact, was of the opinion that the clause identifying the “Aramean” as Lavan (B) was a later addition to the Sifrei.]

Now what is true is that Rashi – and the Haggada – completely ignore clause (A), and cite only clause (B). I would imagine that this is because Rashi and the Haggada’s redactors were disturbed by the Sifrei’s inherent contradiction, and felt that they had to pick one and reject the other.

What this means is that Ibn Ezra is not actually arguing against the Sifrei, entirely, but only part of it. And he is certainly arguing against Rashi, as well as the Haggada. (One can only imagine what Ibn Ezra used to say at his Seder when he got to the passage containing this midrash which he rejected…)

joshwaxman said...

"Is this by any chance what you meant when you said that you “would assert that there is room for movement here"

yes, very much along these lines. and that if so, the Sifrei acknowledges both explanations, and Ibn Ezra and Radak are not so "heretical"...


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