A few years ago, I learned that I’d been misled about Passover for my entire life.
Jews will begin celebrating this holiday, which commemorates the exodus of the enslaved Israelites from ancient Egypt, on Friday night. In the Hebrew Bible, this festival is called “Pesach.” In English, it is known as “Passover.” But what if that’s a mistake?
Back in 2019, thanks to Joe Septimus, a member of my New York synagogue, and his brother Bernard Septimus, my teacher at Harvard, I discovered that according to the original Jewish sources, “Passover” is far from the most intuitive translation of the holiday’s name.
This debate has more than academic implications. As it turns out, recovering a lost earlier understanding of the festival’s title also helps us better grasp its meaning. For today’s edition, I thought I’d unpack that moral message, in hopes of enhancing your experience of this moment, whether you observe Passover or not. (If you do, feel free to print this out to read at your own seder!)
So, where does the name of Pesach—what we call “Passover”—come from? It appears in the Bible in Exodus 12, where Moses tells the Israelite slaves to sacrifice a lamb and mark their homes with its blood so that they will not be harmed by a plague that kills Egypt’s first-born males:
וַיִּקְרָ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה לְכָל־זִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם מִֽשְׁכ֗וּ וּקְח֨וּ לָכֶ֥ם צֹ֛אן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶ֖ם וְשַׁחֲט֥וּ הַפָּֽסַח׃
Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Pesach offering.”
וּלְקַחְתֶּ֞ם אֲגֻדַּ֣ת אֵז֗וֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם֮ בַּדָּ֣ם אֲשֶׁר־בַּסַּף֒ וְהִגַּעְתֶּ֤ם אֶל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף֙ וְאֶל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֔ת מִן־הַדָּ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּסָּ֑ף וְאַתֶּ֗ם לֹ֥א תֵצְא֛וּ אִ֥ישׁ מִפֶּֽתַח־בֵּית֖וֹ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃
“Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.”
וְעָבַ֣ר יְהוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃
“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 pasach on the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”
The Bible goes on to direct the Israelites to commemorate this moment by making a regular sacrifice, thus establishing the holiday that Jews now observe:
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה לְחָק־לְךָ֥ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃
“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants.”
וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֧ן יְהוָ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֵּ֑ר וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃
“And when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite.”
וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֛ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם׃
“And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’”
וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיהוָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּֽוּ׃
“You shall say, ‘It is the Pesach sacrifice to the Lord, because He pasach on the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” The people then bowed low in homage.
Now, you can see how “pass over” would be an easy way to translate the words pesach and pasach in the verses above. And in fact, that is how Saint Jerome, the Christian author of the Vulgate, the fifth-century Latin translation of the Bible, rendered the words. And he was not alone.
But it is not how many traditional Jewish translators and commentators rendered them.
One of the most ancient and foundational Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible is the Aramaic Targum Onkelos, which dates to approximately the third century. For many Jews of that era, it was the only way they could access the Bible, as they did not speak Hebrew. Indeed, after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem around 70 C.E., it became common practice for synagogues to read the Torah in both Hebrew (the language of the learned) and Aramaic (the language of the masses). Targum Onkelos was the most influential of the latter translations, and to this day it is printed alongside the Hebrew text in many traditional Jewish Bibles.
Simply put, Onkelos reflects how ancient Jews understood the Bible. And Onkelos did not think Pesach meant “Passover.” Here’s how he translates Exodus 12:23, which we cited above:
וְיִתְגְלֵי יְיָ לְמִמְחֵי יָת מִצְרַיִם וְיֶחֱזֵי יָת דְמָא עַל שַׁקְפָא וְעַל תְּרֵין סִפַּיָא וְיֵחוֹס יְיָ עַל תַּרְעָא וְלָא יִשְׁבּוֹק לְחַבָּלָא לְמֵיעַל לְבָתֵּיכוֹן לְמִמְחֵי:
God will appear to strike the Egyptians, and He will see the blood upon the lintel and upon the door posts, and God will be compassionate on your threshold and not permit the destruction to enter your houses to smite.
This shift also affects how Onkelos understands the purpose of regularly commemorating Pesach with the paschal sacrifice. Thus, he translates Exodus 23:27 like so:
וְתֵימְרוּן דַבַּח חֲיָס הוּא קֳדָם יְיָ דִי חָס עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם כַּד הֲוָה מָחֵי יָת מִצְרָאֵי וְיָת בָּתָּנָא שֵׁזִיב וּכְרַע עַמָא וּסְגִידוּ:
[When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?”] You shall say, “It is the sacrifice of compassion before God, who had compassion upon the houses and children of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians and spared our houses.”
In other words, in this traditional Jewish understanding, the holiday of Pesach is a celebration of divine compassion. The same idea is reflected in the commentary of Rashi, the most influential Jewish biblical commentator, who translates God’s conduct in Exodus 12:23 of “u’Pasach” as “will have compassion.” Only then does he add, “one can also say, ‘He skipped.’” Other Jewish sources that reflect this tradition include Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, ninth-century polymath Rabbi Saadia Gaon, and the famed biblical grammarians Ibn Janah and Menahem ben Saruk. (Hebrew readers can consult this scholarly article by Dr. Raphael Weiss for a full rundown of these materials, including related sources like the Greek Septuagint, which translated pasach as “protect.” Weiss also notes that the word pasach has parallels in Arabic—that also refer to compassion.)
The implications of this alternative understanding are significant. For one, it gives greater moral meaning to the observance of Pesach. Rather than marking a morally antiseptic act of omission—the “passing over” of Jewish homes—the holiday celebrates a deliberate act of compassion toward an enslaved people, and calls on us to emulate that divine conduct ourselves. “Passing over” is an almost incidental act; a “sacrifice of compassion” is not. When we commemorate Pesach, we commemorate compassion, and remind ourselves that without it, none of us would be here.
Wishing you all a chag sameach,
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