Happy Passover! If you think about it, using this word to name our holiday is a bit strange. The word “Passover” is the English translation of the Hebrew פסח (or maybe not – see below), but it’s an odd practice for us to call our holidays by their English name. When speaking about other holidays through the year, we don’t say “Huts,” “Dedication,” or “Day of Atonement,” etc. In common parlance, we call them Sukkot, Hanukkah, and Yom Kippur. It begs the question: why have the words Pesaḥ and Passover become interchangeable?
While no one is really sure, it seems to be an English phenomenon. Most other languages just transliterate the holiday into their language: French – Pâque; Spanish – Pascua; Italian – Pasqua ebraica; German – Passah; Russian – пасха (Paskha). The use of “Passover” in English stems from a translation mistake in the first Bible to be translated to English by William Tyndale in the mid-16th century, as well as a conflation of multiple definitions by the great Jewish commentator Rashi.
In Exodus 12, we read the familiar verses:
- 13 – 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.
- 23 – For when Adonai goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and Adonai will pass over the doorand not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.
- 27 – You shall say, “It is the passover sacrifice to Adonai, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egyptwhen He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.”
However, the Hebrew root פ-ס-ח from which we render “pass over” (derived from Tyndale’s original translation) does not actually make much sense in context. He imported the meaning from other places in the Bible where this root does appear. For example, in Isaiah 31:5, we find the verse, “Like the birds that fly, even so will Adonai of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting (פ-ס-ח) and rescuing.” The verse from Isaiah presents a series of verbs that are synonymous, and the word with the same Hebrew root as the one in the verses from Exodus means “protect.” If we put the word “protect” in place of “pass over” in those Exodus verses, God’s actions seem to make a lot more sense. If the Destroyer (what we call the Angel of Death, its Rabbinic name) is on the attack, we do not want God to pass over our houses. We want God to protect our houses! And this is exactly what God does.
In translations to other languages before English, and in other Jewish liturgical poems, this word was rendered with the sense of “protect” as well. Where did this idea of “passing over” come from? The Bible has another meaning for the root פ-ס-ח: to hop or skip, and the Hebrew word for someone who is lame is pisse’aḥ. Rashi, in his explanation of the word, harmonized all of these different meanings. In a comment on Exodus 12:13, one of our above verses, he says, “I say that any occurrence of [it] has a connotation of skipping and jumping. He would ‘skip’ from the homes of the Israelites to the homes of the Egyptians, since they were intermingled; similarly (1 Kings 18:21) ‘hopping between two opinions.’ Similarly, all lame people go as if they are jumping, as it says in Isaiah 31:5, he makes him skip and saves him from among the dead.”
It was probably a mistake for Rashi to connect all of the definitions of this Hebrew root. Hebrew has homonyms, words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings. Some examples in English are: bark, bank, arm, etc. In his commentary, Rashi does not seem to take this into account, and his explanation draws us away from a meaningful way in which we should understand the experience of our Israelite ancestors, and our own experience of the holiday today.
If we consider the meaning of Pesaḥ as “protect,” it frames that night in Egypt, and our understanding, in a new way. When our ancestors sat down to the first Pesaḥ mean in Egypt, they were not worried or anxious that they would be attacked by the Egyptians or by the Angel of Death. The lambs’ blood that they had painted on their doorposts provided them with comfort and confidence, as they knew that God’s providential protecting power was assured, and they could enjoy their last night in Egypt, even as the Egyptians were panicking and in terror. This is similar to how we feel at Sukkot. When we sit in our outdoor huts, subject to the elements, we counterintuitively feel God’s protection, and are afforded the opportunity to celebrate with joy.
Pesaḥ is so much more than “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” as the saying goes. When we sit down for Seder, when we eat matzah for the week of Pesaḥ, we not only acknowledge our freedom from slavery. We also recognize God’s protection over us, bringing us comfort and security, and allowing us to celebrate with joy. In a world with so much uncertainty, the original meaning of our ancestors’ experience of Pesaḥ helps us experience the one constant: God’s providence and protection.