Why “Passover”?
On the True Meaning of Pesaḥ-פסח

Dr. Barry Dov Walfish

Introduction: “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 Yehovah, 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:

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 Yehovah will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, Yehovah will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you. For Yehovah will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, Yehovah will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. For when Yehovah goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and Yehovah 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 Yehovah’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 Yehovah, 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 Yehovah, 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:

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, the Sefer ha-Shorashim (Book of Roots), Qimḥi has a lengthy entry on the root פ-ס-ח . After listing the occurrences of the word pissea, 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.

Isaiah 31:5

כְּצִפֳּרִ֣ים עָפ֔וֹת כֵּ֗ן יָגֵ֛ן יְהוָ֥ה צְבָא֖וֹת עַל־יְרֽוּשָׁלִָ֑ם גָּנ֥וֹן וְהִצִּ֖יל פָּסֹ֥חַ וְהִמְלִֽיט׃

As birds flying, so will Yehovah of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it. Like birds hovering overhead, so Yehovah 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 Yehovah 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.”[1]

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:

The picture that emerges is one of a Elohim who has unleashed a destructive angel—the biblical equivalent of the rabbinic Angel of Death—in Egypt and Elohim must take an active role in protecting the Israelites from this destructive force.  

The picture is clearest in v. 23 where we see Elohim 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 Elohim 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 Elohim 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:

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
בְּדַם פֶּסַח,
לְבִלְתִּי תֵּת מַשְׁחִית
לָבֹא בִּפְתָחַי בַּפֶּסַח,
וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח

Elohim, 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 Elohim 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.[2]

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” (Is 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 pasa 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 Elohim or his angel hopping around Egypt from house to house in order to carry out his mission. He brings as further corroboration

  1. 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.
  1. The noun pissea, 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 pasa, 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.[3] 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 pasa are attested in the Bible, with another in later literature:

  1. 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 Elohim protected the people from the Destroying Angel.
  1. 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).
  1. 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 Pesa (Not Passover)