Here is the story in a nutshell:

  • In Exodus 12 the name of the Pesaḥ holiday is derived from the Hebrew  verb p.s.ḥ which appears three times in that chapter (verses 13,23,27).
  • The original meaning of the verb p.s.ḥ is protection. God released an evil force to kill Egyptian firstborn and He protected the doorways of the Israelite homes from this force.
  • There is an entirely different Hebrew verb, a homonym with the same root s.ḥ, which means to limp.
  • At some point the two homonyms got compressed as if they were the same verb, and God’s activity in Exodus12 changed from protecting to passing over the Israelite homes.

Israeli biblical scholars pretty much agree (to the extent that the combination “scholar” and “agree” is not an oxymoron) on this kernel. They also pretty much agree that there is nothing more to say.

In my recent From Protection to Passover: Transformation of a Holiday I attempt to say more. In an admittedly speculative reworking of the ancient Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic sources. I propose that the Holiday of Divine Protection became the Holiday of Passover after – and as a result of – the destruction of the Second Temple. The conflation of the two Hebrew verbs is only one part of the story.

Here is a brief summary:

  • “Passover” as the name of the Holiday appears only after the fall of the Second Commonwealth and the destruction of the Temple. It appears in a rather unique source, Antiquities of the Jews, written around 90 CE by Josephus Flavius. This colorful and controversial Jew commanded the Northern Front in the Jewish Revolt against Rome in 67 CE, capitulated to the Romans and saved his neck by becoming their local advisor. He then a composed his version of The Jewish War in which he claimed that the uprising was instigated and led by irresponsible fanatics and that it was they rather than the restrained Roman general Titus who was responsible for the destruction of the Temple. Anyone who has visited Masada knows that the reconstructed site accords extremely well with the description given by Josephus.
  • The Greek word used by Josephus for the name of the Holiday could never be used to translate the Hebrew verb p.s.ḥ in Exodus 12 because it has the opposite concrete meaning. The Greek verb hyperbaino (Greek verbs are traditionally cited in first person form, not in the infinitive as in English) actually means to pass over an obstacle and enter into the opposing camp. Josephus himself uses the verb in this meaning in the War.
  • So Josephus’ “Passover”, Hyperbataria in Greek, invites reflection. I suggest that this term, whether original in Josephus or already current in the Land of Israel, may have been influenced by two previously attested Greek developments.
  • The first earlier Greek source may have been the Septuagint, which Josephus, writing in Rome, used extensively. The Septuagint is the crowning achievement of the ancient Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt. This community, as I understand it, probably lost the ability to make use of Hebrew and Aramaic after two or three generations of immersion in the greatest Greek city of the period. Think of the Jewish community in the USA. Around 250 BCE this community created the first ever translation of the Jewish Torah around 250 BCE. To this day, it is the oldest complete Biblical text. The later legend that seventy-two scholars, six from each tribe, working independently, all miraculously agreed on every word gave the work a Divine authority in the eyes of the Alexandrian community.
  • In Exodus 12, the Septuagint translates the Hebrew verb p.s.ḥ according to its original meaning, skepazo which means to shelter in verses 13 and 27. But in verse 23, the translation is an ambiguous and thus highly literary verb parerchomai, which means to pass by. In the book I demonstrate the plausibility of this different translation being based on Greek literary preferences rather than an alternative meaning of p.s.ḥ.  Already in Plato and certainly later parerchomai came to be a synonym with hyperbaino in the abstract meaning of to skip. This is perhaps how Josephus (and his contemporaries) read the parerchomai in verse 23. For the reader lacking immediate recall of this verse, I reproduce it here in the Hebrew and the Greek forms:
    • HEBREW: For the LORD will pass to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the LORD will protect the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you
    • GREEK: For the LORD will pass to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the LORD will pass by the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
  • The second Greek source, preceding Josephus by about half a century, is Philo of Alexandria, another controversial and colorful figure. Philo was the last representative of an enormous Jewish community with a philosophical tradition. I doubt his ability to manage Hebrew texts, so he was entirely dependent upon the Septuagint. Like Josephus, Philo gives a name to the Holiday without reference to the Hebrew  verb p.s.ḥ. The name he gives is Diabataria, derived from the  Greek verb. The reader will recognize the baino part, a verb of movement. The dia prefix meaning going across, and this is the verb employed almost exclusively in the Septuagint for crossing borders. Philo provides a spiritual allegory for the Holiday, one of crossing spiritual borders from lowly Egypt to higher spirituality. It is Israel, not God, who does this crossing. When we recall that Philo was situated in Egypt, it would seem pretty clear that he gave the Holiday the name for Leaving Egypt.
  • The name Diabataria in Alexandria suggests that Passover was not current there, just a few decades before the destruction of the Second Temple. But if the name, using the verb baino, was known to Josephus and his contemporaries, one could see how fusing the parerchomai of the Septuagint with Diabataria of Alexandria could create the Hyperbataria that is PASSOVER.

I will leave this trailer here and invite the interested reader to the full-length version and the additional cast of characters – Aquilas the Proselyte, Onkelos, Rabbi Yoshiah, the monk Origen, Saint Jerome, RaShI and Professor Saul Lieberman among others.

I will add two more points here. The first is that the original Biblical meaning invokes God’s protective presence, while Passover evokes His menacing absence. I suggest that presence would have been consistent with the experience of the Holiday as celebrated in the Temple in Jerusalem. The later meaning seems coherent with the Diaspora experience of ducking dangers

The second point is that the renewed understanding of presence came about in the Land of Israel and was even hinted at in a lengthy article by Chief Rabbi A.I. HaCohen Kuk, which I translated and appended to the book. It was in conversation with my late friend Professor Chaim Cohen, a Biblical philologist of first rank who chose to reside in Israel that my research came together. The book is dedicated to his memory.