We now begin the main part of the Seder, which is to tell the story, and fulfil the obligation stated in the Gemara, to recite the passage of “Arami oved avi”, and then expound upon it.
Thus, we read the text, and then go through it line by line, offering explanations, proof-texts, and sometimes both. The explanations – the “midrash” – were probably not written specially for the Haggadah, but were put together from well-known interpretations. (Just like today, even in antiquity the average Jew was not capable of offering their own gloss, and so one was compiled). It is unclear if the version we have was the exact same one recited during Temple times, but scholars say it shows signs of being authored by the Tannaim (the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah), and some say even earlier.
The text of “Arami oved avi” was traditionally recited when the Jews of antiquity brought their first fruits to the priests in the Temple. Why was it considered appropriate here as well? Why was this version chosen rather than some of the descriptions from Exodus?
First, in a pre-literate age, it was familiar to the masses, who said it regularly. In the time of the Temple, when the Hagaddah was non-existent, this brief passage may have been all many people said on Seder night as they ate their Paschal lamb, matzah and marror.
Second, it is highly appropriate. The ultimate purpose of the Exodus is redemption: not just to exit Egypt, but to worship G-d, preferably in the Holy Land. Bringing the first fruit to the Beit Hamikdash is the embodiment of this.
As diaspora Jews – and indeed as Israeli Jews living without a Temple – there is certain amount of irony, as not only is the original context of this earliest of prayers now inappropriate, we have actually forgotten its original meaning. When Arami Oved Avi was first recited, at the Temple, the ultimate aim of the Exodus was considered to have been fulfilled. Reading the same text with none of the original overtones is a silent rebuke of history.
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