Pessaḥ- An Etymology

Pessaḥ- An Etymology

Yoel Halevi One comments


The translation of ancient texts presents an intricate tapestry where linguistic nuances and cultural contexts intertwine. In the realm of biblical scholarship, the term פסח, commonly translated as “Passover,” bears not only a linguistic translation but also an interpretative weight that shapes our understanding of a significant ceremonial event. This paper delves into the etymological intricacies of פסח, examining its dual meanings of “to limp” and “to protect.” Drawing on linguistic evolution and historical interpretations, we navigate through the genesis of the term “Passover” and explore whether this translation accurately encapsulates the rich layers of meaning embedded in the original Hebrew. By scrutinizing various biblical passages and extrabiblical sources, we aim to unveil a more nuanced understanding of פסח as an apotropaic ritual designed for the protection of the Israelites during the Exodus.


Very commonly, the term פסח is translated as “Passover.” This translation not only imparts a linguistic meaning but also carries an interpretative connotation. The foundation for this translation lies in the dual usage of the verb פסח, which can signify both “to limp” and “to protect.” Due to the prevalence of the meaning “limping” in later Hebrew, the translation was embraced, stemming from a somewhat incomplete comprehension of Hebrew verbs. The notion of a person limping gave rise to the concept of skipping over a step, hence the term “Passover.”

The adoption of “Passover” as the translation for Pesaḥ dates back to Tyndale in the 16th century, who introduced it as an interpretation of the term. Most English speakers have since accepted this translation as the accurate representation of the ceremony during the Exodus. Tyndale’s interpretation likely drew inspiration from common Jewish etymology found in late antiquity, such as in the Mekhilta Pascha chp.7, and medieval commentaries like Rashi, who, in turn, relied on Midrashic sources.

However, it’s crucial to recognize that Pesaḥ is, in fact, an apotropaic ritual designed to shield the Israelites from the destroyer responsible for killing the firstborn of Egypt. This more precise meaning can be gleaned from several sources, employing the alternative meaning of the root פסח.

  1. The description of the Pessaḥ in Exodus 12:23 explicitly states that YHWH will prevent the destroyer from entering. Although many translations render the verb וּפָסַח as “pass over,” the action pertains to YHWH, signifying that the destroyer passes over the house due to YHWH’s protection.

וְעָבַר יְהוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת הַדָּם עַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְהוָה עַל הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף

For the YHWH will pass through to strike the Egyptians; but when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the YHWH will protect the door and will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you

The verse contains within it a complication due to the dule description of who is doing the killing. In the first part, it is YHWH who is passing in Egypt while in the second part, it is both YHWH and the destroyer. The second part clarifies that it is the destroyer who is killing while YHWH is the one deciding who should be killed. It seems from the rest of the text of this episode that the destroyer had a free hand to destroy and was only stopped by YHWH when there was blood on the door. 

  • Exodus 12:27 characterizes YHWH’s action as protection, utilizing the verb הִצִּיל, meaning “to save.” In this context, the saving results from safeguarding the houses from the destroyer.

וַאֲמַרְתֶּם זֶבַח פֶּסַח הוּא לַיהוָה אֲשֶׁר פָּסַח עַל בָּתֵּי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּנָגְפּוֹ אֶת מִצְרַיִם וְאֶת בָּתֵּינוּ הִצִּיל וַיִּקֹּד הָעָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ.

Then you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to YHWH because He passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians but spared our homes.’” And the people bowed low and worshiped

  • Isaiah 31:5 employs the verb פסח to convey the concept of protection, emphasizing that the Lord of armies will safeguard Jerusalem, passing over and rescuing it.

. כְּצִפֳּרִים עָפוֹת כֵּן יָגֵן יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת עַל יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם גָּנוֹן וְהִצִּיל פָּסֹחַ וְהִמְלִיט

  • Papyrus D7.6 seemingly queries the timing of the Pessaḥ concerning a child’s safety. This interpretation, arising from a reexamination of the sources, suggests that the Pesaḥ was conducted to protect the community’s children annually, rather than being a mere reenactment of the original event. This papyrus goes hand in hand with the Passover letter which describes a ritual that has been reconstructed as being the Pessaḥ. However, it must be stressed that there is no agreement these days over the meaning of the latter letter and some have challenged that it is about the Passover. Nonetheless, I bring the letter for the broader context of the matter.  
  • Historical evidence indicates a nomadic spring ritual aimed at protecting households, possibly against demons or Mot, the god of death. The Exodus story underscores that the destroyer operates under YHWH’s control, nullifying any sense of impending death not overseen by YHWH. This narrative serves as a biblical response to Canaanite beliefs, highlighting YHWH’s overarching dominion, even over death.


In the crucible of linguistic evolution and cultural interpretation, the term “Passover” emerges as a translation that, while widely accepted, may fall short in encapsulating the multifaceted essence of פסח. Our exploration of biblical passages, historical documents, and alternative meanings of the root פסח reveals a more intricate narrative, emphasizing the apotropaic nature of the ritual. The linguistic duality of פסח, encompassing both “limping” and “protection,” invites a reconsideration of the prevalent translation and unravels a narrative that extends beyond a mere commemorative act, suggesting that the Pesaḥ ritual served as a potent safeguard against the destructive forces at play during the Exodus. As we navigate the labyrinth of linguistic nuances, we are compelled to reflect on the importance of holistic translations that capture the richness of cultural and historical contexts, ensuring a more nuanced comprehension of ancient rituals and their profound significance.

Historical Background:

Knohl, Israel, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Redford, Donald B., Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E., New York: Doubleday, 1990.

Passover Ritual and Texts:

Halpern, Baruch, and David W. Halpern, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Levinson, Bernard M., Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Porten, Bezalel, The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change, Brill: Leiden, 1996. 


The Passover Papyrus of Elephantine, also known as Elephantine Papyrus 30 (Cowley 30), is an ancient text dating back to the 5th century BCE. It was discovered in the early 20th century on the island of Elephantine in the Nile River, near modern-day Aswan, Egypt. The Elephantine Papyri are a collection of documents that provide insights into the life and culture of a Jewish community that lived on Elephantine Island during the Persian period. The Passover Papyrus specifically contains a letter written by a Jewish military colony at Elephantine to the authorities in Jerusalem. The letter requests permission to celebrate the Passover festival and make a sacrifice at their local temple, which was not part of the central religious practices of Jerusalem at the time. This letter is considered significant because it shows the diversity of Jewish religious practices in different locations during the ancient period. The Elephantine Papyri, including the Passover Papyrus, provide valuable historical and cultural information about the Jewish diaspora and the variations in religious observances among different Jewish communities in the ancient world. Certainly, the Passover Papyrus is a part of the Elephantine Papyri, which consists of several documents. The specific content and wording of the Passover Papyrus are as follows:


[May] God seek [the welfare] of my lord.

Thus writes Yedoniah:

May the God of Heaven perpetually seek the welfare of my lord, and may He make the foundation of my lord peace and rest! And now, my lord, be informed that we have slaughtered the Passover lamb in the month of Nisan on the fourteenth day and have observed a festival for seven days. We have prepared for ourselves a kid for the Passover of the second month. From the twenty-third day of Nisan we have been fasting until the twenty-seventh day of Nisan.

And be informed that we have sent you by the hand of ‘Adayah the son of ‘Ezeh and Shemaryah the son of ‘Ur, two lambs for the whole burnt offering of the Sabbath and one kid for the whole burnt offering of the New Moon, a half homer of fine flour for the meal offering and a quarter of a hin of wine. And do observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread from the fourteenth day of Nisan to the twenty-first day of Nisan, eight days. And may you live as long as heaven and earth.

And be informed that Hananyahu son of Dodo and his comrades have taken the house of my father for themselves.

[May] God seek [the welfare] of my lord.

Elephantine, 14 Nisan

One comments

Edgardo La Rosa

January 18, 2024 at 8:15 pm

Exelente investigacion Moreh.

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