"My father was a wandering Aramean"
© 2011 S.H. Parker

What is the Jewish "declaration of faith?" The Shma. Of course.

Not so fast.

Perhaps, it is this:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, "My father was wondering Aramean." This declaration is made on bringing the first fruits, the first of the harvest, 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 you will speak and say before the LORD your God: "My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty and numerous."
Devarim 26:5

And, who is the Aramean? In "Wandering Aramean"-- Who is the Aramean?, I wondered who "Aramean" referred to. A case is equally well made for Avraham being the Aramean and for Yitzhaak being the Aramean.

My final speculation was that Torah is deliberately vague about the Aramean. The "who" is less important than the public acknowledgement 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 ... we haven't always been chosen or holy and, in the final analysis, we're not really that special.

The next obvious question is "Why is this important?" And the answer to that seems straightforward to me. This formula, "My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and numerous," is the (individual) Israelite's "declaration of faith."

"My father was ..." is the Israelite's public declaration, just as "your people shall be my people" is Ruth's. Every Israelite recites this on offering the first of his harvest (interesting: merchants, manufacturers, etc., need not apply). The Shma is not Israel's profession (besides, the Shma is from Moshe, not a commandment from God).

When did the Shma become part of daily prayers? Originally (i.e., when prayer developed as a substitute for sacrificial service), daily prayers included the 10 Commandments. But, with the rise of Christianity, who also used the 10 Commandments in their liturgy, they were dropped from Jewish liturgy lest someone think there were only 10 commandments (as most Christians do). This happened in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE.

Rabbi Ginsburg provides the following (from Rabbi David Golinkin):
... in the Second Temple period, Jews did indeed read the Ten Commandments every morning. So it appears from the Nash Papyrus, which was written in Egypt around 150 B.C.E. and published in 1903. It contains the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5) followed by the beginning of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6), and scholars believe that it was a liturgical text.
Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 include at least three small scrolls, which contain the Ten Commandments, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6 and 11) and other selected passages from Deuteronomy and Exodus. Esther Eshel, in an exhaustive study of one of those fragments, believes that they were collections of prayers recited at Qumran.
A more explicit reference is found in Mishnah Tamid 5:1, which states that the priests in the Temple used to recite every morning "the Ten Commandments, Shema (Deuteronomy 6), V'haya im shamoa(Deuteronomy 11) … Emet V'yatziv (the blessing after the Shema), the Avodah blessing (found today in the Amidah, the central prayer recited at all services), and the Priestly Blessing."
Similarly, in Sifrei Devarim the Sages discussed the possibility of including the Ten Commandments in the tefillin [phylacteries]. Furthermore, seven tefillin fragments discovered at Qumran actually include the Ten Commandments. In addition, the Church Father Jerome, who lived in the Land of Israel (342-420 C.E.) relates that the Ten Commandments were still included in the tefillin in his day. In his commentary to Ezekiel 24:17, he says that:
"The Hebrews say that the Sages of Babylon who observe the precepts surround their heads until today with the Ten  Commandments written on parchment, and these are what they were commanded to hang before their eyes on their foreheads…"

Why They Were Eliminated

Yet if the Sages considered the Ten Commandments so important, why did they eliminate them from the daily prayers? Rav Matana and Rabi Shmuel bar Nahman explained in Yerushalmi Berakhot, Chapter 1, fol. 3c: "It would be proper to read the Ten Commandments every day; and why don't we? Because of the zeal of the heretics lest they say: These alone were given to Moses at Sinai."
The Babylonian Talmud also explains (Berakhot 12a): "They were already abolished because of the murmuring of the heretics."
Which heretics did they have in mind? Theories include the early Christians or Philo or Gnostics or Samaritans or a group of Jews in the third century. In any case, the abolishment of the recitation stemmed from the fact that certain groups claimed that only the Ten Commandments were given to Moses at Sinai.
Indeed, when Maimonides wanted to prevent the custom of standing when reading the Ten Commandments in public, he used a similar argument: "… and they think that the Torah contains different levels and some parts are better than others, and this is very bad .…" In other words, standing for the reading of the Ten Commandments gives the impression that certain parts of the Torah are holier than others.

Attempts to Restore Them

Despite this opposition, there were attempts to maintain the original custom or to renew it. Some Babylonian Amoraim [sages] tried to renew the custom in the cities of Sura and Nehardea, but other Amoraim objected (Bavli Berakhot ibid.). The members of the Palestinian synagogue in Fustat continued to recite the Ten Commandments on Shabbat and holidays before Shirat Hayam (The Song at the Sea) until the 13th century.
Rabbi Shelomo ben Adret--the Rashba (Barcelona 1235-1310)--was asked if one could recite the Ten Commandments in the Shaharit (morning) service "because there are people who want to institute this in public." He replied that, even though this practice is supported by Mishnah Tamid (cited above), it was already abolished "because of the murmuring of the heretics" (Berakhot 12a cited above) and is therefore forbidden.
One generation later, R. Jacob ben Asher (Spain, died ca. 1340) reintroduced the Ten Commandments "through the back door." He says in the very first paragraph of Tur Orah Hayyim that "it is good to recite the Akedah (Genesis 21) and the story of the manna (Exodus 16) and the Ten Commandments…" before the Shaharit service.
This passage was quoted by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488-1575) in his Shulhah Arukh (Orah Hayyim 1:5). Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) quickly adds in his Ashkenazic glosses that only an individual may do so, but it is forbidden to recite them in public, as the Rashba ruled.
Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Cracow 1510-1574), relates in his responsa (rabbinic ruling) that, in accordance with the Tur, he recites the Ten Commandments every morning before Barukh She'amar, one of the morning prayers.
Indeed, some modern prayer books include the Ten Commandments. Yitzhak Baer printed them in his classic Avodat Yisrael (Rodelheim, 1868) at the end of Shaharit after the Psalm for the Day, as did the ArtScroll siddur [prayerbook] in our day. In the Reform Gates of Prayer (New York, 1975), the Ten Commandments appear in the Special Themes section in the back.
It is difficult to choose sides in this debate. On the one hand, the Ten Commandments are very important to Judaism and it is good for Jews to recite them daily and to know them by heart. On the other hand, there is indeed a danger that people will think that "there are different levels in the Torah"; they will ignore the entire halakhic [Jewish law] system and observe only the Ten Commandments.
Therefore, it is good that our ancestors only required the reading of the Ten Commandments in public three times a year, but encouraged their recitation in private all year long. In this fashion, we emphasize their importance without turning them into the only important mitzvot [commandments].

The paragraphs following the Shma, the Talmud teaches (maseket Brachot), each refers to the entire corpus of mitzvot. So the Shma with the three following paragraphs (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41) serves the purpose of reminding us of the mitzvot without letting anyone think that "10 is it."

This confession/profession/declaration, "My father was a wandering Aramean," argues for the notion of "Jewishness" being political (membership in a people, a nation), more than a "faith community" (especially as that term is understood today):

The thanksgiving prayer recited by the pilgrim provides a précis of the main narrative line of the Pentateuch and Joshua (the "Hexateuch"). For that reason, the verses have been seen by some scholars as an ancient confession of faith, or creed, that is older than its present context. Strikingly, this summary of the main events of Israel's religious history makes no mention of the revelation of law at Sinai/Horeb. The same is true for many similar "confessions" in the Bible (see 6:20-24; Josh. 24.2-13; 1 Sam. 12.8; Pss. 78, 105, 136). The existence of such a strong tradition that makes no mention of Sinai has suggested to a number of scholars the possibility that the inclusion of the Sinai/Horeb experience in the overall Torah narrative represents a relatively late, secondary addition. Sinai seems to have been incorporated into the larger narrative only in exilic or later texts (Ps. 106; Neh. ch. 9). Some scholars have explained this by reasoning that only a minority of the tribes or groups eventually comprising Israel experienced Sinai/Horeb; thus, only at a late stage of the tradition was their experience extended to all Israel and incorporated into the narrative of the Torah.

Alternately, this act of thanksgiving commemorates Israel's wondrous transformation from a single, landless, persecuted individual into a populous nation, secure and at home in its land. In this thanksgiving for the double miracle -- the individual has now become a nation and those who were homeless now harvest crops from their land -- mention of the journey to Sinai to receive the law would have been disruptive and irrelevant.

The Jewish Study Bible; Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds.; p 424

Without doubt, a thanksgiving prayer at the first harvest is an ancient practice, pre-dating Israel's entry into Egypt in the first place, pre-dating even Avraham's leaving Haran. Hijacking an old pagan ceremony, demythologizing it and turning it to the service of the one God is, as Kaufman demonstrated, entirely typical and expected of rigorously monotheistic thinking.

The absence of any mention of the Sinatic revelation is more interesting. This absence is not entirely explicable by the First Fruit Offering pre-dating Torah. Neither is any supposed disruption in the narrative flow nor any alleged lack of relevance to the narrative an explanation for this omission; throughout the liturgy, we find disparate notions "related," most notably Shabbat and the Exodus. And Torah frequently breaks off a story-line (the source of "there is no 'before' or 'after' in Torah"), disrupting the "narrative flow."

There is, however, evidence internal to the Torah text that there were two different routes for the Exodus. This has lead some to argue that there were two exoduses (one with a stop at Sinai/Horeb, one without such a stop, possibly several centuries apart); see Freund's Digging Through the Bible, ch. 1, for example. There is also reason to think that not all the people who become Israel went down into Egypt with Yaakov (see Dimont, Jews, God and History, for example). After all, Avraham was able to deploy 318 armed warriors (from this, I make the size of his camp to be about 1500, a sizeable city at the time) but Yaakov went into Eygpt with but 70; and we are never told that he took his entire household. In other words, from the Torah itself it is safe to infer that some of Israel went down to Egypt and some of Israel stayed in the land.

The "two group" hypothesis is important and should not be dismissed lightly. Without it, explaining the philosophical, theological and ritual differences between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea becomes quite difficult. If there were two groups either because some never went through the enslavement or because of having re-entered Canaan at different dates or because of not having had the Sinatic experience, the differences between Israel and Judah become not only easier to explain but rational.

Nevertheless, and points of historical interest notwithstanding, why does Torah require us to say these specific words when bringing the first of the harvest?

The historian, Gunther Rothenberg (late of Purdue University) once asserted that to be "Jewish" was, essentially, a political act. Ruth's "conversion" certainly seems a more political than theological act. 

More to the point is that a child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish regardless of religious profession and the most observant person born of a non-Jewish mother (and not converted) is not. Gunther is obviously correct, membership, not belief structure is definitive. But by characterizing "Jewishness" in this way, he correctly, I think, reminds us of one of the essentials of Torah: Israel is a nation, not a "faith community" and all Israel are chaverim. We're a family, first and foremost.

Declaring "My father was ..." is a "religious" act, certainly. But "religious" doesn't mean what we mean by that term today. "Religion" and "politics" are, to an important degree, inseparable.