Why “Passover”? On the True Meaning of Pesaḥ-פסח
“Because the Holy One Passed Over Our Fathers’ Houses”
Many of us commonly refer to our favorite spring holiday as Passover. This is reinforced by the passage in the Haggadah that has been imprinted on our minds by years of recitation:
פֶּסַח שֶׁהָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אוֹכְלִים בִּזְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הָיָה קַיָּם, עַל שׁוּם מָה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁפָּסַח הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל בָּתֵּי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּמִצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיי, אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל, וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְּׁתַּחֲווּ.
The Passover-sacrifice that our ancestors ate during the time of the Temple – for what reason [did they do so]? Because the Blessed Holy One passed over (פ-ס-ח) our fathers’ houses in Egypt, as it is said: “You shall say, It is a Passover-offering to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians with a plague, and He saved our houses. And the people bowed and prostrated themselves” (Exod 12:27).
The English “Passover” is an outlier. Other languages typically transliterate the Hebrew word Pesaḥ:
- Pâque (French);
- Pasqua ebraica (Italian);
- Páscoa (Portuguese);
- Pascua (Spanish);
- Passah (German);
- пасха (Paskha) (Russian).
But is “pass over” a good translation for Pesaḥ? What is the basis for this translation?
The Prevalence of this Translation in English
Pass Over You: Exodus 12:13
In Exodus, in preparation for the first Passover, the Israelites are instructed to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on the lintels and doorposts of the homes. Exodus 12:13 reads:
וְהָיָה֩ הַדָּ֙ם לָכֶ֜ם לְאֹ֗ת עַ֤ל הַבָּתִּים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אַתֶּ֣ם שָׁ֔ם וְרָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת הַדָּ֔ם וּפָסַחְתִּ֖י עֲלֵכֶ֑ם וְלֹֽא יִֽהְיֶ֙ה בָכֶ֥ם נֶ֙גֶף֙ לְמַשְׁחִ֔ית בְּהַכֹּתִ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
All the major English translations agree that ופסחתי עליכם means, “I will pass over you.”
|King James Version
|New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)||New Jewish Pub. Society Version (NJPS)|
|And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.||The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.||And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.|
Pass over the Door: Exodus 12:23
Two other verses in Exod 12 are germane to our discussion. Here is 12:23 in the same three translations:
וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֘ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת הַדָּם֙ עַל הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְ-הוָה֙ עַל הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף
|For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.||For the LORD will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down.||For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.|
Pass over the Israelites: Exodus 12:27
The last verse is 12:27:
וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֙סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃
|That ye shall say, “It is the sacrifice of the LORD’S passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.” And the people bowed the head and worshipped.||You shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.” And the people bowed down and worshiped.||You shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.” The people then bowed low in homage.|
Tyndale and Radaq: The Origin of the Word Passover
The King James translation, which five years ago celebrated its four hundredth anniversary, is the most influential English translation, and has had a strong effect on subsequent translations. This translation was based on the earlier translation by the scholar and theologian William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536), who wrote the first complete English translation of the Bible. Tyndale is credited with introducing the word Passover into the English language, and this was copied by the King James Version. Here are Tyndale’s renditions of the three relevant verses:
- Exod 12:13 – And the bloude shall be vnto you a toke vppon the houses where in ye are, for when I see the bloude, I will passe ouer you, and the plage shall not be vppon you to destroye you, when I smyte the londe off Egipte.
- Exod 12:23 For the Lorde will goo aboute and smyte Egipte. And when he seyth the bloude vppon the vpper doorposte and on the syde postes, he will passe ouer the doore and will not suffre the destroyer to come in to youre housse to plage you.
- Exod 12:27 Ye shall saye, it is the sacrifiice of the Lordes passeouer which passed ouer the housses of the childern of Israel in Egipte, as he smote the Egiptians and saued oure housses. Than the people bowed them selues and worshipped.
Tyndale’s Possible Use of Radaq’s Shorashim
Tyndale was a learned man who knew Hebrew and Greek. In this rendition of פ-ס-ח as pass over he was quite possibly influenced by David Qimḥi (Radaq; ca. 1160-1235), the renowned Hebrew grammarian and exegete, whose work was well-known in Christian Hebraist circles. In his dictionary, theSefer ha-Shorashim (Book of Roots), Qimḥi has a lengthy entry on the root פ-ס-ח . After listing the occurrences of the wordpisseaḥ, which means lame, he continues:
ומן הענין הקרוב אליו “ופסח י”י על הפתח” (שמ’ יב:כג), כלומר ידלג על הפתח בראותו הדם ולא יבא המשחית
Similar to this in meaning is ופסח י”י על הפתח, i.e., he will skip over [ידלג על] the opening when he sees the blood so that the destroyer will not come.
Other Appearances of פ-ס-ח in Context
Some of the other occurrences of the root פ-ס-ח may shed light on its meaning in the Exodus story. Of these, Isa 31:5 is the most enlightening.
כְּצִפֳּרִ֣ים עָפ֔וֹת כֵּ֗ן יָגֵ֛ן יְהוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת עַל־יְרֽוּשָׁלִָ֑ם גָּנ֥וֹן וְהִצִּ֖יל פָּסֹ֥חַ וְהִמְלִֽיט׃
|As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it.||Like birds hovering overhead, so the LORD of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it.||Like the birds that fly, even so will the LORD of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting and rescuing.|
We find here a series of verbs that are more or less synonymous. The KJV is the only one that sticks to the meaning of “pass over” for pasoaḥ, while the other two, learn the meaning from the context and translate pasoaḥ as “spare” or “protect.”
Applying the Isaiah Definition “Protect” to Exodus
Now if we look back at Exod 12:27 we see that one of these four verbs—hitsil, “to save” or “spare”—appears in the second half of the verse, while pasaḥ appears in the first. So, I would argue that the correct meaning of pasaḥ in this context is “to spare” or “protect,” as in Isaiah.
Substituting this meaning in the verses in Exodus yields the following translations:
- Exod 12:13 – And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will protect you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
- Exod 12:23 – For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will protect the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.
- Exod 12:27 – You shall say, “It is a sacrifice of protection to the LORD, because He protected the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, and saved our houses.” The people then bowed low in homage.
The picture that emerges is one of a God who has unleashed a destructive angel—the biblical equivalent of the rabbinic Angel of Death—in Egypt and God must take an active role in protecting the Israelites from this destructive force.
The picture is clearest in v. 23 where we see God portrayed as standing in front of the doors of the Israelite homes, preventing the Destroyer from entering. Note the change in agency between vs. 13 and 23. In the former God promises to protect the people from an unspecified plague, while in the latter it is a Destroying Angel let loose to do his work that God must protect the people from. Passing over the homes does not make sense in this context. The same applies to the other verses.
The LXX Translation
The Septuagint, the earliest extant Bible translation (begun in third century BCE), still retains this proper understanding in two of the three cases:
- Exod 12:13 – And the blood shall be for you as a sign on the houses, there where you are, and I will see the blood and I will protect you and there shall not be a plague among you to destroy, whenever I strike in the Land, Egypt.”
- Exod 12:23 – And the Lord will pass by to strike the Egyptians and he will see the blood upon the lintel and both doorposts and the Lord will pass by the door and he will not let the destroyer to enter your houses to strike.
- Exod 12:27 – Then you shall say to them: “this pascha is a sacrifice to the Lord who protected the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians, but our houses he preserved.”
It is not clear why the meaning given in vs. 23 is pass by, rather than protect (lit. cover).
R. Eleazar Qilir’s Piyyut in the Haggadah
The correct understanding is known as late as the piyyut, וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח, written by R. Eleazar Qilir (Eretz-Israel; 6th-7th cent.), recited near the end of the Seder on the second night. It recounts all the events in Jewish history that happened on Pesaḥ, and notes concerning the very first Pesaḥ:
יָהּ רֹאשׁ כָּל אוֹן מָחַצְתָּ
בְּלֵיל שִׁמּוּר פֶּסַח,
כַּבִּיר, עַל בֵּן בְּכוֹר פָּסַחְתָּ
לְבִלְתִּי תֵּת מַשְׁחִית
לָבֹא בִּפְתָחַי בַּפֶּסַח,
וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח
God, you smote the firstborn
on the guarded night of Pesaḥ
Mighty One, you protected [Israelite] firstborns
with the blood of the Paschal sacrifice
Preventing the destroyer
from entering our doors on Pesaḥ
So declare the Pesaḥ feast.
Context does not allow the word פָּסַחְתָּ to be translated as “you passed over” because it is followed by the words “with blood.” It is clear that God here is understood as protecting the firstborn Israelites and not allowing the destroying angel to enter their homes.
The blood that was smeared on the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt was meant to protect the occupants of the house. This act is similar to that performed by Arabs, as related by Jaussen, when there is a cholera outbreak or to preserve their cattle in good health.
A Single Meaning of פ-ס-ח?
The problems in translating this term may come from the premise that all occurrences of the root must mean the same thing. We have already already mentioned David Qimḥi, who takes this position in his Sefer ha-Shorashim.
Rashi, in his gloss on Exod 12:13, exemplifies those commentators working with this premise:
ופסחתי – וחמלתי, ודומה לו (ישעיהו לא ה) פסוח והמליט. ואני אומר כל פסיחה לשון דלוג וקפיצה. ופסחתי מדלג היה מבתי ישראל לבתי מצרים, שהיו שרוים זה בתוך זה, וכן (מלכים א’ יח כא) פוסחים על שתי הסעיפים, וכן כל הפסחים הולכים כקופצים, וכן (ישעיהו לא ה) פסוח והמליט, מדלגו וממלטו מבין המומתים.
ופסחתי —I will have pity; this resembles “protecting and rescuing” (Isa 31:5). But I say that any occurrence of פסיחה has a connotation of skipping and jumping. “ופסחתי”–he would “skip” from the homes of the Israelites to the homes of the Egyptians, since they were intermingled; similarly (1 Kgs 18:21) “hopping (פוסחים) between two opinions.” Similarly, all lame people (פסחים) go as if they are jumping, as it says in Isa 31:5, פסוח והמליט, he makes him skip and saves him from among the dead.
Although Rashi mentions that pasaḥ might mean “to have mercy” or “take pity on,” citing the verse in Isaiah as proof, he goes on to reject this interpretation and advocate the meaning “skip” or “jump.” Rashi imagines God or his angel hopping around Egypt from house to house in order to carry out his mission. He brings as further corroboration:
a. The verse in 1 Kings from Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal in which he taunts the people for not being able to make up their minds.
b. The noun pisseaḥ, the word for “a lame person,” who goes up and down as they walk as if jumping on one leg.
He finally returns to the verse in Isaiah and offers an entirely different connotation—to cause to skip.
Rashi assumes that there is only one meaning for pasaḥ, and therefore chooses the meaning of one text and interprets the others on this basis. The last comment especially, on Isa 31:5 seems forced. Rashi seems to have been influenced by 1 Kings 18: 21 and felt compelled to forge a unitary explanation for every occurrence of the root p-s-ḥ.
The Three Meanings of the Verb פ-ס-ח
At least two meanings for pasaḥ are attested in the Bible, with another in later literature:
- פ-ס-ח in Exod 12 and Isa 31:5, means “to protect,” “have mercy on,” or “save.” The noun Pesah refers to the sacrifice or the holiday of “protection,” when God protected the people from the Destroying Angel.
- פ-ס-ח in 1 Kings 18:21, and 18:26 (in the pi‘el) which means “to hop,” “skip,” or possibly “limp” (in a cultic setting).
- The later meaning which is “to celebrate Pesaḥ”, as in the הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא of the Haggadah: כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח, “let anyone who is in need come and celebrate the Pesaḥ”
Conclusion: Happy Pesaḥ (Not Passover)
I would therefore suggest that we stop using Passover to refer to our favorite spring holiday and just call it Pesaḥ (or the Yiddish version Peysakh). At least this way, we will not be promoting a misunderstanding of the original meaning of this surprisingly enigmatic word.
Homonyms in Hebrew
Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler
We now know that Hebrew contains many homonyms. Some of these result from the fact that Hebrew has fewer meaningful sounds (phonemes) than some earlier Semitic languages, and thus words that sounded different in those languages sound the same in Hebrew. Sometimes different words entered Hebrew via different routes, resulting in homonyms.
Words also developed over time so that what started as a polysemic root—namely a root with related meanings deriving from the same root meaning—became a homonymic root. The most recent Hebrew lexicon, edited by the British scholar David Clines, in fact, has three distinct meanings for the root פ-ס-ח, and in general, suggests that Hebrew has many more homonyms than meet the eye.
Though many scholars believe that Clines has over-done it, making Hebrew much too homonymic, all agree that the approach seen in Rashi and Radaq in this case, who try to connect all occurrences to a single meaning, is equally problematic.
Even in English, many words that seem to be related in meaning are true homonyms. For example, many English speakers believe that “ear” has one basic meaning that covers the organ of hearing as well as a “piece,” namely an “ear” of corn, which is ear-shaped. Historical linguistics shows, however, that these are two basically different words, deriving from different languages. The organ of hearing is related to the Latin noun auris, while the piece of corn is related to an old Proto-Indo-European root *ak- , meaning “sharp, pointed.” Thus, English “ear” is a homonym, as is Hebrew פ-ס-ח.
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Dr. Barry Dov Walfish was the Judaica Bibliographer and Curator at the University of Toronto Libraries until his retirement in 2017. He holds a Ph.D. in Medieval Jewish Intellectual History from the University of Toronto. He is the author of Esther in Medieval Garb, Bibliographia Karaitica, and The Way of Lovers (with Sara Japhet) and is the main Judaism editor for De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception.
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