How Pesach became Passover
Sparing the Israelites
The festival of Passover, Hebrew “Pesach,” takes its name from the sacrifice the Israelites offer in Egypt on the 14th of Nissan as described in Exodus 12. As part of this ritual, God instructs the Israelites to put the blood of the paschal offering on their doorposts, so that God would see the blood as he moved through Egypt and spare their firstborn males.
This is described in three separate verses (13, 23, 27), all of which use the verb פ.ס.ח that, in this context, likely means “to spare or protect,” and not “to pass over.” For example,
שמות יב:יג …וְרָאִיתִי אֶת הַדָּם וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Exod 12:13 …and when I see the blood, I will spare you, and no plague shall be upon you to destroy you when I smite the land of Egypt.
Despite the popularity of the translation “to pass over,” the alternative “to spare or protect” has been adopted by many scholars, such as the late philologist Chaim (Harold) Cohen of Ben Gurion University, the British Bible scholar David Clines, in his Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, and most recently, Barry Walfish of the University of Toronto, in his “Why Passover? On the True Meaning of Pesach” (TheTorah.com, 2016). This meaning of the verb is clearly attested in Isaiah 31:5, which describes God as a bird hovering over Jerusalem, and uses the verb פ.ס.ח in a list of parallel synonyms, all meaning protect or spare.
Ancient Sources Knew What It Meant
The correct meaning of the term was known to ancient commentators as well. Thus, in the ancient Aramaic translations of Exodus 12, we read:
ואפסח ואגן במימרי עליכון
|And I will spare you||And I will spare you||I will pasach, and I will protect you with my Memra|
וְיֵיחוּס יְיָ עַל תַּרְעָא
ויגין מימרא דיי על תרעא
ויפסח ויגן מימריה דייי על תרע
|I will spare the door||The Memra of God will spare the door||He will pasach, and the Memra of God will protect the door|
דְּחָס עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
דחס במימריה על בתי בני ישראל
די פסח ויגן על בתיהון דבני ישראל
|Who spared the houses of the Israelites||Whose Memraspared the houses of the Israelites||Who pesached and spared the houses of the Israelites|
All three of these ancient translations understood וּפָסַחְתִּי as either “spare” (חס) or “protect” (יגן);none renders it as “pass over.” The 3rd century rabbinic midrash Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael offers this translation as well (Pascha 7), citing as a prooftext Isaiah 31:5:
ומה ת”ל וראיתי את הדם. אלא בשכר מצוה שאתם עושים אני נגלה וחס עליכם שנאמר ופסחתי עליכם. אין פסיחה אלא חייס שנאמר כצפרים עפות כן יגן יי’ צבאות על ירושלם גנון והציל פסוח והמליט
What does it mean by “I will see the blood”? As a reward for the commandment you are fulfilling I will reveal myself and spare you, as it says “I will pasach over you.” Pesicha means “to spare,” as it says (Isa 31:5): “Just as hovering birds, so will the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem: protecting and saving, sparing and giving refuge.”
So why do we call the day Passover?
Pesach’s “False Friend”
The root פ.ס.ח appears a number of times in the Bible referring to hopping, skipping, or some other disjunctive movement. For example, in the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Elijah criticizes the Israelites, saying:
מלכים א יח:כא עַד מָתַי אַתֶּם פֹּסְחִים עַל שְׁתֵּי הַסְּעִפִּים אִם יְ־הֹוָה הָאֱלֹהִים לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו וְאִם הַבַּעַל לְכוּ אַחֲרָיו
1 Kgs 18:21 How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If YHWH is God, follow Him; and if Baal, follow him!
This meaning of the verb is, in turn, related to the term פִּסֵּחַ (piseach), meaning “lame.” But how can a verb mean both “hopping” and “protecting”? It can’t. Instead, Chaim Cohen and others have suggested that hidden behind the root פ.ס.ח are actually two unrelated roots that function as homonyms. One of the roots means “hopping” or “moving disjunctively” and the other means “protecting” or “sparing.”
The two roots are spelled the same and sound the same, but they are entirely unrelated, a phenomenon linguists call “false friends,” such as “ear” as a body part, and “ear” of corn. The term פ.ס.ח then either means “hop/limp” or “spare/protect,” but never “pass over.” So from where did this translation come?
Walfish notes that in the early first millennium, rabbinic scholars such as Rashi and Radak believed that every root must have one core meaning, and thus they looked for something similar enough to limping or hopping that would fit with the verses in Exodus 12, and decided on “passing over.” As a consequence of Rashi’s strong adoption of this compromise translation, the meaning of the root as “protect” in Exodus 12 all but disappeared, and “pass over” become dominant.
I agree that this is where the story ends, but this is not where it begins. Instead, I suggest that this translation as “pass over” begins in Hellenistic-Jewish sources.
1. The Septuagint
The 3rd century B.C.E. Greek translation of the Torah, known as the Septuagint (LXX) renders the term פ.ס.ח in Exodus 12 inconsistently. In verses 13 and 27 the verb is translated (correctly) as σκεπάσω (skepaso), which literally means “to shelter,” and is related to the Greek noun σκέπη meaning “covering, shelter, protection.” YHWH releases a destructive force to smite the Egyptian first-born but personally shelters the Israelite homes from the plague.
In verse 23, however, pasach is translated as “and the Lord will pass by the door” (καὶ παρελεύσεται κύριος τὴν θύραν). The verb chosen here is the future tense of parerchomai (παρέρχομαι). The choice here of translating the verb differently in v. 23 than in the other two verses in the same chapter is unusual and requires some explanation.
Saul Lieberman (1898–1983), the late rabbi and professor of rabbinics at JTS, noted that פ.ס.ח must have already had two meanings at this time, but does not suggest why the translator decided to use two different meanings for the same word in the same context. I suggest an alternative approach based on the translator’s literary sensibilities.
The verb parerchomai occurs earlier in this same verse, to translate the phrase, וְעָבַר יי לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם “for the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians” (καὶ παρελεύσεται κύριος πατάξαι τοὺς Αἰγυπτίους). I suggest that the verb parerchomai was used here to render פ.ס.ח based on two considerations. First, in Greek, this kind of parallel—passing through the Egyptians and passing by or over the Israelite houses—utilizing the same verb is high style.
Second, the translator is likely bothered by the seeming contradiction with regard to God’s actions that night:
שמות יב:כג וְעָבַר יְ־הֹוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְ־הוָֹה עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף.
Exod 12:23 For YHWH will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, YHWH will pasach over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
The verse is contradictory. It opens with God moving through Egypt smiting their firstborn but then has God protecting Israelite houses from a destroyer (משחית). How are we to understand this verse? Is God travelling through Egypt smiting Egyptian firstborn males, or is a destroyer doing this while God ensures that no Israelites are harmed? This second possibility is not only dissonant with the first half of the verse, but with the other two verses (13 and 27) as well.
Bothered by these problems, the translator decides to reuse the Greek verb parerchomai, that reflected ע.ב.ר, this time in the sense of “pass over,” solving the contradiction and utilizing good Greek style.
LXX Exodus’ Smooth Translation
The Greek translator of Exodus elsewhere shows more interest in producing a smooth literary product in high Greek than in semantic accuracy. To give just one other example, the translator smooths out the conversation between Moses and God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 33:18–19:
וַיֹּאמַר הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ
|He said, “Oh, let me behold Your glory!”||And he says, “Show me Your own glory!”||καὶ λέγει δεῖξόν μοι τὴν σεαυτοῦ δόξαν|
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל טוּבִי עַל פָּנֶיךָ
|And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you…”||And He said, “I will pass by before you in my glory…”||αὶ εἶπεν ἐγὼ παρελεύσομαι πρότερός σου τῇ δόξῃ μου|
Here the translator is bothered by the fact that Moses asks to see God’s glory (כ.ב.ד) and God answers by showing Moses his goodness (ט.ו.ב). The translator corrects this by using the Greek term for glory, doxa, for both verses. Again, he has chosen smoothness and good style over semantic accuracy.
In short, the first appearance of “pass over” as a translation of פ.ס.ח reflects the translator’s desire to produce a smoother translation at the expense of accuracy.
2. Diabateria: The Alexandrian Name for Passover
Philo (ca. 25 B.C.E.–ca. 50 C.E.) was a Jewish philosopher living in Alexandria. He was devoted to both Platonic and Stoic philosophy and to Jewish Scripture, which I believe he knew only in the LXX Greek translation. He wrote primarily on the Torah, and his method of reading scripture was to interpret it as a philosophical allegory.
In his “On the Particular Laws” (De Specialibus Legibus) 2:145-147, Philo discusses the holiday of Diabateria (διαβατήρια), Greek for “crossing”—apparently this was the Alexandrian Jewish name for the festival—telling the readers that in Hebrew, it is known as Pascha (Πάσχα). The Greek verb diabaino expresses “crossing a boundary,” in this case, the Egyptian boundary, and Philo emphasizes the Israelites’ exodus in his interpretation of the festival’s meaning and import:
The festival is a reminder and thank-offering for that great migration from Egypt which was made by more than two millions of men and women in obedience to the oracles vouchsafed to them. Now at that time they had left a land brimful of inhumanity…. But to those who are accustomed to turn literal facts into allegory, the Crossing-festival (Diabateria) suggests the purification of the soul. They say that the lover of wisdom is occupied solely in crossing (διάβασιν, diabasin) from the body and the passions…
In short, Philo’s community called the holiday “The Festival of Crossing,” because it commemorates the Israelites’ exodus.
3. Hyperbasia: Josephus’ Preferred Term
Josephus Flavius (37–100 C.E.) wrote a multivolume review of all of Jewish history called The Antiquities of the Jews; it begins with the biblical period and contains an important retelling of many biblical stories. His paraphrase of Exodus 12:23 (Ant. 2:313) offers the earliest known example of the holiday being called Passover:
Hence still now, in accordance with the custom, we sacrifice thus, calling the festival Pascha, which signifies a passing over (ὑπερβάσια), because on that day God, passing over (ὑπερβὰς) our people, sent the pestilence upon the Egyptians.
We can only speculate on why Josephus used this term.
Josephus wrote Antiquities, his final work, late in life when he was already residing in Rome, and was likely reading the Bible in Greek. Certainly he knew that the LXX, in its translation of Exodus 12:23, describes God passing over (parerchomai) the Israelite houses. Nevertheless, Josephus doesn’t use the root parerchomai in his own description, but rather hyperbaino.
As a Hellenistic Jew, he likely heard that Pesach is called something like Diabateria in Greek. To a Greek speaker, the word Hyperbasia (from hyperbaino) is similar to Diabateria (from diabaino), as both build upon the same root, baino, which means “to walk or go.” The Alexandrian term, which means crossing, is a compound with the word dia, meaning “through,” whereas Josephus’ term is a compound with the word hyper, meaning “over.” Josephus either purposely adopts Hyperbasia as a compromise between Philo’s diabaino and LXX’s parerchomai, or perhaps he didn’t remember the exact earlier term that originated with Alexandrian Jewry, and thus transformed Diabateria to the similar Hyperbasia.
Hyperbasia Enters Judea
This translation influenced other Greek speaking Jews, since already in the 2nd century C.E., two Jewish translators, Aquila and Symmachus, adopted Hyperbasia as the name of the festival as well. Aquila was the preferred Greek translation among the rabbis, and is referenced a number of times in the Jerusalem Talmud, and thus the understanding of Pesach as “passing over” may have reached the rabbis via this translation.
This understanding of the root פ.ס.ח is visible in the same Mekhilta de-R. Yishmael passage quoted above (Pascha 7):
ר’ יאשיה אומר אל תקרי ופסחתי אלא ופסעתי שהב”ה מדלג על בתי בניו במצרים שנאמר קול דודי הנה זה בא מדלג על ההרים…
R. Josiah says: Read not uphasachti; read rather [as if it were written] uphasaʿati [I will walk, pass]. For the Holy One may He be Blessed skips (dileg) over the homes of his children in Egypt, as it is written (Song of Songs 2:8) “Here comes the voice of my Beloved, skipping (medalleg, from the root dileg) over mountains…”
רבי יונתן אומר ופסחתי עליכם עליכם אני חס ואני איני חס על המצרים הרי שהיה מצרי בתוך ביתו של ישראל שומע אני ינצל בגינו ת”ל ופסחתי עליכם עליכם אני חס ולא על המצרים.
Rabbi Jonathan says: “‘I will pasach over you’—you I will spare, [but] I will not spare the Egyptians. If an Egyptian was in an Israelite’s house, I might think that he would be saved on [the Israelite’s] behalf, thus the verse teaches “I will pasach over you,” I will spare you but not the Egyptians.
R. Josiah’s interpretation, although playing off Hebrew sounds (pasaʿ/pasach), may very well be influenced by his knowledge of the Greek translation.
The Appeal of “Passover” as a Translation
Why did this strange translation enter the mainstream of Jewish interpretation? I suggest that it was appealing ideologically.
The image of God hovering over the houses, not letting the destroyer in, is found in v. 23b, while in vv. 13, 23a, and 27, God is pictured as moving about among the Egyptians and smiting their firstborn sons, and the destroyer is absent. The Torah’s two contradictory visions for what happened the night of the tenth plague would have been troublesome to any translator or interpreter who read the text as unitary.
The LXX translator decided to fix the problem in v. 23b, by ignoring the meaning of the verb פ.ס.ח as “spare, protect,” instead bringing in the verb “pass through” so that the verse would read better. Even so, he allowed the other two verses to keep the verb meaning “spare” (skepaso).
R. Josiah, however, is explicating the Hebrew text. He thus has no choice but to offer an alternative understanding of the verb פ.ס.ח that would fit all three verses. This explains why he translates פ.ס.ח in all three instances as “pass over,” dissolving the contradictory images in the verses.
Moreover, the idea of two forces at work in Egypt—YHWH and the destroyer (mashchit)—may have become theologically troublesome in a period struggling against gnostic dualism. We can see this concern in the rabbinic Haggadah in the derasha about the tenth plague (Exod 12:12):
וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם. אֲנִי וְלֹא מַלְאָךְ. וְהִכֵּיתִי כָׇל־בְּכוֹר. אֲנִי וְלֹא שָׂרָף. וּבְכׇל־אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֥ה שְׁפָטִים. אֲנִי וְלֹא הַשָּׁלִיחַ. אֲנִי יְ־הוָה. אֲנִי הוּא וְלֹא אַחֵר׃
“And I will pass through the land of Egypt”—me and not an angel. “I will strike every firstborn”—me and not a seraph. “I will make judgments against all the gods of Egypt”—me and not a messenger. “I am YHWH”—I am he and no other.
It would seem that the introduction of the translation of פ.ס.ח as Passover was part of asserting that God alone struck the Egyptians, “he and no other.”
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
April 15, 2019
September 19, 2019
Alan Flashman, M.D. is the Director of the Family Institute of Neve Yerushalyim in Jerusalem. He is a child psychiatrist, practicing in Beer Sheba. Flashman has “advanced amateur” status in Judaic and Greek scholarship, having studied with the late Professor Morton Smith At Columbia University. He is the author of From Protection to Passover: Transformation of a Holiday (2018), which was dedicated to the late Chaim (Harold) Cohen, z”l, a good friend who gave this research emotional and scholarly support.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series