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Laban the Anti-Semite

Laban the Anti-Semite

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“Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Laban sought to destroy everything.” This passage from the Haggadah on Passover—evidently based on this week’s Torah portion—is extraordinarily difficult to understand.

First, it is a commentary on the phrase in Deuteronomy, Arami oved avi. As the overwhelming majority of commentators point out, the meaning of this phrase is “my father was a wandering Aramean,” a reference either to Jacob, who escaped to Aram [=Syria, a reference to Haran, where Laban lived], or to Abraham, who left Aram in response to G‑d’s call to travel to the land of Canaan. It does not mean “an Aramean [=Laban] tried to destroy my father.” Some commentators read it this way, but almost certainly they do so only because of this passage in the Haggadah.

Second, nowhere do we find that Laban actually tried to destroy Jacob. He deceived him, tried to exploit him, and chased after him when he fled. As he was about to catch up with Jacob, G‑d appeared to him in a dream at night and said: “Be very careful not to say anything, good or bad, to Jacob.”1 When Laban complains about the fact that Jacob was trying to escape, Jacob replies: “Twenty years now I have worked for you in your estate—fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for some of your flocks. You changed my wages ten times!”2. All this suggests that Laban behaved outrageously to Jacob, treating him like an unpaid laborer, almost a slave, but not that he tried to “destroy” him—to kill him, as Pharaoh tried to kill all male Israelite children.

Third, the Haggadah, and the Seder service of which it is the text, is about how the Egyptians enslaved and practiced slow genocide against the Israelites, and how G‑d saved them from slavery and death. Why seek to diminish this whole narrative by saying that actually, Pharaoh’s decree was not that bad, Laban’s was worse? This seems to make no sense, either in terms of the central theme of the Haggadah, or in relation to the actual facts as recorded in the biblical text.

How then are we to understand it?

Perhaps the answer is this. Laban’s behavior is the paradigm of anti-Semites through the ages. It was not so much what Laban did that the Haggadah is referring to, but what his behavior gave rise to, in century after century. How so?

Laban begins by seeming like a friend. He offers Jacob refuge when he is in flight from Esau, who has vowed to kill him. Yet it turns out that his behaviour is less generous than self-interested and calculating. Jacob works for him for seven years for Rachel. Then on the wedding night Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel, so that to marry Rachel, Jacob has to work another seven years. When Joseph is born to Rachel, Jacob tries to leave. Laban protests. Jacob works another six years, and then realizes that the situation is untenable. Laban’s sons are accusing him of getting rich at Laban’s expense. Jacob senses that Laban himself is becoming hostile. Rachel and Leah agree, saying, “He treats us like strangers! He has sold us and spent the money!”3

Jacob realizes that there is nothing he can do or say that will persuade Laban to let him leave. He has no choice but to escape. Laban then pursues him, and were it not for G‑d’s warning the night before he catches up with him, there is little doubt that he would have forced Jacob to return and live out the rest of his life as his unpaid laborer. As he says to Jacob the next day: “The daughters are my daughters! The sons are my sons! The flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine!”4 It turns out that everything he had ostensibly given Jacob, in his own mind he had not given at all.

Laban treats Jacob as his property, his slave. He is a non-person. In his eyes Jacob has no rights, no independent existence. He has given Jacob his daughters in marriage, but still claims that they and their children belong to him, not Jacob. He has given Jacob an agreement as to the animals that will be his as his wages, yet he still insists that “the flocks are my flocks.”

What arouses his anger, his rage, is that Jacob maintains his dignity and independence. Faced with an impossible existence as his father-in-law’s slave, Jacob always finds a way of carrying on. Yes, he has been cheated of his beloved Rachel, but he works so that he can marry her too. Yes, he has been forced to work for nothing, but he uses his superior knowledge of animal husbandry to propose a deal which will allow him to build flocks of his own that will allow him to maintain what is now a large family. Jacob refuses to be defeated. Hemmed in on all sides, he finds a way out. That is Jacob’s greatness. His methods are not those he would have chosen in other circumstances. He has to outwit an extremely cunning adversary. But Jacob refuses to be defeated, or crushed and demoralized. In a seemingly impossible situation, Jacob retains his dignity, independence and freedom. Jacob is no man’s slave.

Laban is, in effect, the first anti-Semite. In age after age, Jews sought refuge from those, like Esau, who sought to kill them. The nations who gave them refuge seemed at first to be benefactors. But they demanded a price. They saw in Jews people who would make them rich. Wherever Jews went, they brought prosperity to their hosts. Yet they refused to be mere chattels. They refused to be owned. They had their own identity and way of life; they insisted on the basic human right to be free. The host society then eventually turned against them. They claimed that Jews were exploiting them, rather than what was in fact the case, that they were exploiting the Jews. And when Jews succeeded, they accused them of theft: “The flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine!” They forgot that Jews had contributed massively to national prosperity. The fact that Jews had salvaged some self-respect, some independence, that they too had prospered, made them not just envious but angry. That was when it became dangerous to be a Jew.

Laban was the first to display this syndrome, but not the last. It happened again in Egypt after the death of Joseph. It happened under the Greeks and Romans, the Christian and Muslim empires of the Middle Ages, the European nations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and after the Russian Revolution.

In her fascinating book World on Fire, Amy Chua argues that ethnic hatred will always be directed by the host society against any conspicuously successful minority. All three conditions must be present: [1] The hated group must be a minority, or people will fear to attack it. [2] It must be successful, or people will not envy it, merely feel contempt for it. [3] It must be conspicuous, or people will not notice it. Jews tended to fit all three. That is why they were hated.

And it began with Jacob during his stay with Laban. He was a minority, outnumbered by Laban’s family. He was successful, and it was conspicuous: you could see it by looking at his flocks.

What the sages are saying in the Haggadah now becomes clear. Pharaoh was a one-time enemy of the Jews, but Laban exists, in one form or another, in age after age. The syndrome still exists today. As Amy Chua notes, Israel in the context of the Middle East is a conspicuously successful minority. It is a small country, a minority; it is successful, and it is conspicuously so. Somehow, in a tiny country with few natural resources, it has outshone its neighbours. The result is envy that becomes anger that becomes hate. Where did it begin? With Laban.

Put this way, we begin to see Jacob in a new light. Jacob stands for minorities and small nations everywhere. Jacob is the refusal to let large powers crush the few, the weak, the refugee. Jacob refuses to define himself as a slave, someone else’s property. He maintains his inner dignity and freedom. He contributes to other people’s prosperity, but he defeats every attempt to be exploited. Jacob is the voice that says: I too am human. I too have rights. I too am free.

If Laban is the eternal paradigm of hatred of conspicuously successful minorities, then Jacob is the eternal paradigm of the human capacity to survive the hatred of others. In this strange way Jacob becomes the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind, the living proof that hate never wins the final victory; freedom does.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org.
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Anonymous Boston, MA, USA April 10, 2017

Laban, the first antisemite The true message and teaching point of Rabbi Sacks cannot be missed. It is that no Diaspora has or will last for ever. All diasporas are limited. In time and in place. Not even the highly successful one in America. The history of the Jewish people is the proof. Eventually, Jews will have to come to the realization that unless the live in their own country (Israel) they will always run the very high risk of eventual rejection by their host countries. Reply

Judith ismini Tsavelidou Gustavsberg via chabadstockholm.com November 20, 2015

thanks! so great teaching on Laban I have been thinking a lot about the last weeks... Reply

John Kirschman Stuttgart Germany November 17, 2015

The Last Commandment The tenth commandment on not coveting is in my mind the most important. When we appeal to class warfare (e.g., the proletariat against the upper classes) we are appealing to a majority, real or imagined, against a minority. but worse we are often appealing to the greed in men such as Laban and instead of indulging in our own creation - take from others. This envy leads to murder (e.g.,Uriah the Hittite), genocide (Stalin/Pol Pot), and a host of lesser crimes such as theft and adultery. Some Jews in their quest for Tiku Olam have fallen prey to coveting and taking other people's property (and lives) in an effort to promote social justice and eliminate poverty. This commandment and its roots in Laban's behavior should be given more prominence in study for the deep harm it causes to the very problems that we as Jews are trying to resolve. Reply

Albert Benhamou England December 3, 2013

The 70 Jubilees, between Laban and Hitler... I am studying Biblical and Jewish History and can point to you that there is a definite parallel between the two threats, Laban and Hitler. The core point is that there are exactly 70 Jubilee periods (70x50=3500 years) between the escape of Jacob from Laban and his "return" to Canaan/Sion, and the escape of the Jews from Europe and their mass return to Sion (which led to the State of Israel soon after the Holocaust). Reply

Taswell Alexander Cape Town December 3, 2013

I love this teaching on Laban. I have actually been searching for some Rabbinic commentary on this story. Thank you Reply

Ruben Misrahi Beachwood, OH November 7, 2013

3 conditions The 3 mentioned conditions are not necessary nor sufficient, otherwise we could not explain America, where all are present and we can't explain the Pogroms to shtetls that we're far from successful (or conspicuous).
The point Rabbi Sacks is making is that these three elements have been present persistently throughout history, and that Laban represents this trend.
I find it very interesting that modern Israel is the new Ya'akov. It's a minority among nations, successful and conspicuous. Perhaps the new Labans cannot stomach seeing a fighting, successful, independent Jew in Israel, which has no links with other nations by language, religion, recent history or ethnicity. An undefeated David that refuses to surrender to subjugation. That's what drives Laban's hatred, then and now. Reply

Elizabeth Gordon England November 5, 2013

Jealousy Is not the core problem jealousy, displayed in brother against brother, Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Joseph's older brothers against him? This begins with perceived rejection, those who are jealous are most so when faced with another being favoured more than they. And the greatest cause of jealousy is to perceive G-d favouring others,
As Laban was grandfather to the tribes of Israel, he cannot be the personification of their enemy. He may have treated them as slaves, he certainly didn't disown them.
Elizabeth, England Reply

Albert Benhamou England July 10, 2013

"Arami oved avi" With all due respect to Rabbi Sacks, he is wrong on this one... "Arami oved avi" does refer to "destruction" not to "wandering". Wandered is "noded" in Hebrew, not "oved". The latter always refers to something negative depending on the verbal form: lose, destroy, commit suicide.
The Haggadah is thus correct: "the Aramean tried to destroy my father [Jacob]". And its interpretation is stronger than blaming antisemitism, i.e. blaming the others for the misfortunes that fall on our people. Pharaoh is no different than antisemistism: both are rooted in hatred. So why does the Haggadah makes a distinction and say Laban was worse than Pharaoh? Because the message of "Arami oved avi" is not to blame the others (antisemitism), it is blaming ourselves (the dangers of assimilation). In Aram, Laban didn't "hate" Jacob, but wanted him to join his clan, so he married him, employed him, cajoled him, etc. That would have been the end of our people. Assimilation is the worst evil, from gen. to gen... Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem January 6, 2013

anti-Semitism All the reasons ever given for anti-Semitism are not reasons at all, but excuses.

If we are rich or poor, successful or not, does not matter. They will always have an excuse. They hate us because we are Jews, a tiny minority that has changed all mankind. For we are the ones to whom the Torah was given and have remained a tiny, loyal nation, surviving against all odds. When the rest of the world was sacrificing children to pagan gods, our people had the highest standards of family life and closeness. They couldn't stand the love our children and parents displayed toward each other. The beauty and purity of the Jewish family, the loyalty of husband and wife. They saw that even the poorest, most down-trodden and pathetic Jew was on a higher level than their richest nobelmen.

Mr.Raban, know , that your relatives, who were so brutaly tortured and murdered, are in an everlasting Garden of Eden of joy and happiness. And their murderers, in geheinom (hell) , tortured, , forever . Reply

Anonymous GV, MG - BR November 21, 2012

Jews, Muslims and any other groups that practices different religions from 'Christians' are seen as enemies! And if they're reach high positions in local comunity, they are persecuted (Dreyfuss case). In Xs countries, minorities are struggled and destroyed.They do not allow them practice, talk, defend their faiths! You have to be a cryptoJew, Muslim...or you'll pay the price of prejudice and persecution!!! Reply

Henry Raban London, England December 1, 2011

The Reason Jews Are Hated Rabbi - So Jews were hated because we were a conspicuously successful minority. Why then, Rabbi, were forty of my relatives, who lived in poverty, killed in Europe during the Holocaust? Why, before the Holocaust, when they were equally poor, were they attacked in pogroms? And, on the other hand, Rabbi, why are Jews in America, who are a minority and, relatively speaking, very successful and conspicuous, not widely hated and attacked? Perhaps, Rabbi, the reasons for anti-Semitism are a bit more complex. Perhaps religion, and the sometimes "non-accepting" attitudes of Christians and Muslims had or have something to do with it. Is this possible, Rabbi? And, Rabbi, didn't Israel's neighbors hate it in 1948, when Israel was a poor country, struggling for survival? Do you think, Rabbi, that hatred toward Israel in the Middle East may predate Israel's relative economic success? Please tell me what I am missing. Reply

danny Masri Modiin, Israel December 1, 2011

The Authentic Jew WoW! Reading this in the modern city of Modiin Israel located in the ancient home of the Hashmoneam family who defeated the Greek empire adds to this inspirational description of the Jew! We should merit to regain our thirst for truth and dispel falsehood that cetainly makes up planet earth today. Reply

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