Is "Passover" a Mistranslation?Breaking News
tags: Jewish history, Passover
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.
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