Pesach means much more than Passover. In the Tanakh, the verb PaSaCh (פסח) encompasses at least four different meanings. Two of these can be found in Elijah’s challenge against the prophets of Ba’al and Asherah. Elijah admonishes the Israelites, stating, עד מתי אתם פסחים על שתי הסעפים “Until when will you be those wavering over the two opinions.” (KgI18:21) Soon after, it is said of the other prophets, ויפסחו על המזבח, “and they were leaping upon the altar.” (KgI18:26). The first is a participle in the simple, paal form, and the second utilizes the piel or intensive form.
A more familiar use of this verb in the paal form occurs in Shemot 12:13
והיה הדם לכם לאת על הבתים אשר אתם שם וראיתי את הדם ופסחתי עלכם ולא יהיה בכם נגף למשחית בהכתי בארץ מצרים
And the blood will be for you regarded as a sign upon the houses that you are there. And I will see the blood and I will pass over above you. So that there shall not be against you a plague, regarded as a subduer, in my striking upon the land of Mitsraim.
This idea of passing over can be seen again in Isaiah 31:5
כצפרים עפות כן יגן יהוה צבאות על ירושלם גנון והציל פסוח והמליט
As birds flying, so haShem of hosts shall protect over Jerusalem – defending and he will save, passing over and he will deliver.
Unfortunately, the usual translation of גנון GaNoN as defend or protect loses the parallelism in the phrase. A better translation would be to use the literal meaning of this root that is further evidenced in the Akkadian which means “to encircle.” Thus giving us “encircling and he will save, passing over and he will deliver.”
Finally, this root also uses the niphal form to convey a meaning of lameness as in SmII 4:4
ותשאהו אמנתו ותנס ויהי בחפזה לנוס ויפל ויפסח
And his nanny took him up and she proceeded to flee. And it was in her haste to flee that he was falling and he was becoming lame.
Perhaps examining the cognates in Arabic can help to determine the fundamental meaning of this root. However, where Hebrew with its 22 letter abjad (alphabet) had only one letter chaet, other semitic languages such as Ugaritic, Arabic and Sabaic which utilized larger abjads, had two letters representing two variations of the letter chaet. In all likelihood, Biblical Hebrew used the letter chaet ח to represent two semitic phonemes. The voiceless velar fricative is the same phoneme as the common Israeli chet, while the other, a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, is the phoneme of the softer Mizrachi chet. Because the harder of these two phonemes evolved from the softer, in many of these cases (but not all), it can be said that two otherwise identical words that differ only by these phonemes are related to one another. Therefore, Arabic has two potential cognates for the root PaSaCh (פסח). The Arabic cognate of פסח with the softer pharyngeal chet means to be / become / make wide, spacious or roomy. The cognate with the harder velar chet means to dislocate, sever, or cancel. The common factor here is the action of separating. This theme of separating can further be found by examining the two letter root, PaSaH פסה, from which the word PaSaCh פסח evolved. This verb PaSaH פסה means to spread. It is related to the roots PuWSh פוש to spread out, PaSaH פשה to spread out, and PaTaH פתה to open wide.
Taking all of these words into account, it is reasonable to conclude that the initial proto-semitic meaning of the root PaSaCh (of either phoneme) was to separate and spread apart. However in Hebrew, the connotation developed into one of spreading the legs apart broadly in taking a leap. Therefore in the Tanakh, haShem leaps over the homes of the Israelites in Mitsraim, Elijah speaks of the people leaping back and forth between haShem and the pagan gods, and the prophets of Ba’al leap upon the altar built for him. The niphal developed the meaning of limping to describe a lame person’s tendency to walk with a lurching gait as a means of compensating for weakness or poor coordination.
Our sages believed that the Torah was written on four levels represented by the acronym PaRDaeS פרדס (Peshat, Remez, D’rash and Sod). Can this examination of the fundamental meaning of the word PaSaCh inform another way to read the text? Nine times the Torah reminds us of the Pesach offering with either the words Pesach l’haShem or Pesach hu l’haShem (פסח [הוא] ליהוה). There are numerous suggested meanings for the tetragrammaton, the name YHWH referred to as haShem, the name. In Exod 3:13 – :15, G-d makes a clear association for Moshe between his name YHWH and the word Eh’yeh (אהיה) (I was / am / will be) a paal form of the verb HYH (היה) to be / exist. Furthermore, the YHWH is of the piel form of this verb. A reasonable translation of the YHWH could then be “the one who brings forth existence” or “G-d’s bringing forth of existence.” With this definition, metaphorically, Pesach l’haShem can mean “taking a leap for G-d’s bringing forth of existence.” No longer simply an offering brought for the temple service, this new understanding of the text can inspire our daily approach to life. This metaphor of Pesach enjoins us to make a leap to all of what haShem creates for us be it perceived by us as good or bad. In Judaism, haShem is recognized as the creator of all things. In the book of Isaiah can be found:
אני יהוה ואין עוד יוצר אור ובורא חושך עשה שלום ובורא רע אני יהוה עשה כל אלה
I am haShem and there is not another, former of light and creator of darkness, maker of peace and creator of what is bad. I am haShem, maker of all of these. (Is45:6,7)
Does this metaphor comport with this sentiment? The symbolism of the holiday forbids us from eating chamaets. This metaphorically forbids us from embracing an act of getting (negatively) worked up about an experience. The word chamaets (חמץ) is of the same root as the word chomaets (חומץ) meaning a violent person (Ps71:4). Getting all worked up in a way that could be described as violent is forbidden us when enjoined to make a leap to G-d’s bringing forth of experience. The root ChaMaTs is closely related to the words ChaMaS (חמס) meaning violent / belligerent and ChaeMaH (חמה) meaning anger. Instead of chamaets, we are commanded to eat unleavened bread, matsah (מצה), or in the plural, matsot (מצות). Is it a coincidence that matsot (מצות) is spelled the same way as the word mitsvot/ mitswot (מצות)? The singular of the word matsah (מצה) referring to unleavened bread only occurs five times in the entire Tanakh and the singular is never used when referring to Pesach. However, there is another word matsah (מצה) found in the later texts of the Tanakh that appears to have the unrelated meaning of strife and quarrel (Is58:4; Pr13:10;17:19). Are the two words matsah (מצה), one meaning unleavened bread and the other meaning strife / quarrel, related?
The following verbs are etymologically related: NiTsaH (נצה) to strive / struggle, TsiWaH (צוה) (strive with) to command, MaTsaH (מצה) (strive with) to wring out, and MaTsaTs (מצץ) (strive with) to drain. The words TsiWaH (צוה) and MaTsaH (מצה) evolved from the former, NiTsaH (נצה). TsiWaH (צוה) evolved from NiTsaH (נצה) by dropping the initial letter nun. Whereas the verb MaTsaH (מצה) evolved from NiTsaH (נצה) by converting the nun to the letter mem. Of the two forms of the noun MaTsaH (מצה), the one meaning unleavened bread comes from either the verb MaTsaH (מצה) meaning to wring out or MaTsaTs (מצץ) to drain, a derivative of the former. The noun MaTsaH (מצה) meaning strife / quarrel comes from the verb NiTsaH (נצה) to strive / struggle. Of course, the noun MiTsWaH (מצוה) commandment comes from the verb TsiWaH (צוה), to command. However, the essential meaning of all of these verbs is to strive. In Hebrew, the essential meaning of words are mostly neutral; a word that means to strive can be applied to the idea of striving against as well as striving for. When the Torah states that included with the making of a Pesach l’haShem is the replacement of chamaets with an eating of matsot, metaphorically understand this as a command to take a leap to G-d’s bringing forth of existence, replacing an act of becoming worked up with anger and belligerence, instead with an act of striving in support of G-d’s bringing forth of existence. Furthermore, in Judaism such striving includes an embracing of commandments, mitsvot/ mitswot (מצות).
Further suggestion of this sentiment of striving can be seen at the end of Ex 12:8
ואכלו את הבשר בלילה הזה צלי אש ומצות על מררים יאכלהו
And they will eat the meat in this night, roasted of fire and matsot upon the bitter herbs, they shall eat it.
In many translations, the preposition aL (על) is translated as “with.” After all, what does “upon the bitter herbs” mean. Rabbi Hillel interpreted this line to mean that we should make a sandwich, a KoRaeKh (כורך), with the meat and the bitter herbs between two pieces of matsah. But the text clearly indicates that the matsot should be upon or above the bitter herbs. Translated metaphorically, however, this anomalous enigma makes perfect sense. For it means, “acts of striving above the feelings bitterness.”
All of this is to occur in the month of Aviv (אביב), a time of springing forth, a time when the earth gives forth its bounty (Ex13:3,4).
זכור את היום אשר יצאתם ממצרים מבית עבדים כי בחזק יד הוציא יהוה אתכם מזה ולא יאכל חמץ היום אתם יצאים בחדש האביב
Remember the day that you went out from Mitsraim, from the house of slavery. Because with a strong hand haShem brought you out from this. And chamaets shall not be eaten. Today, you are those going out in the month of Aviv.
The word for spring Aviv (אביב) comes from the verb AVaH (אבה) meaning to be willing to give forth of oneself. We too are to spring forth and be willing to give forth of ourselves to experience.
Finally, when one makes a leap to G-d’s bringing forth of existence the likely result is to feel emotionally and spiritually overwhelmed. On the second night of Pesach, the day after taking the leap, we begin the Omer count. The Torah commands the people to bring a specific quantity of barley to the temple as a daily offering. This quantity was called an omer (עומר). The Torah also commands that we count the Omer (Lv 23:15-16):
וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת מיום הביאכם את העמר התנופה שבע שבתות תמימת תהיינה עד ממחרת השבת השביעת תספרו חמשים יום
And you will count for yourselves from the day after the Shabbat, from the day of your bringing in the Omer that was waved, seven full Shabbats shall they be. Unto the day after the seventh Shabbat, you shall count fifty days.
As was true for the ancient letter chet, the phonemes ayin and gayin in proto-semitic were represented by the single letter ayin in Hebrew. Also, as was true for the letter chet, the two phonemes ayin and gayin are evolutionarily related to one another in that the gayin was a derivative of the ayin. What can be learned by examining both potential roots of the word omer (עמר) in its broader semitic context? In Akkadian, the root ayin mem raesh (עמר) means “to swell / enlarge.” According to the Hebrew dictionaries of both Jastro and Klein, this root means “to heap up.” The Akkadian and Hebrew definitions are consistent with each other and both provide a conceptual basis for a word of measurement. The essential or fundamental meaning of this root can also be seen in its Arabic meaning of to be full / filled up, to have plenty and to load and fill. However, the Arabic seems to then evolve toward a specific sense with to populate, inhabit, live long, thrive and dwell. Likewise, this root means to settle, dwell and inhabit in Syriac. What is most interesting is the evolution of this root when the ayin progresses into the gayin phoneme in Arabic. Here the initial meaning of to swell, enlarge, and heap up evolves into to overflow, flood, inundate, immerse, submerge, plunge, venture, and take a risk. Did Hebrew ever share this connotation for this root? Unfortunately, this verb only occurs in the Torah in the hitpael form to mean accumulate to oneself or make a profit. However, the absence of documented proof demonstrating its having been used in a similar way in Hebrew does not entirely preclude that possibility.
Let us suppose that the metaphor of Pesach is as follows. In the month of Aviv, a time of springing to life, a time of our being willing to give forth of ourselves, we are to make a leap to G-d’s bringing forth of existence. We may not allow ourselves to become heated, angry, belligerent or overly worked up when this occurs. Instead, we must embrace the commandments and positively strive to make the best of the experience and we must embrace acts of striving over feelings of bitterness. Of course, once we have made the leap to experience, it is likely that we will feel overwhelmed by the inundation of experience once we have ventured forth and taken the risk to plunge in and submerge ourselves. The best remedy for this is to remain aware of what has occurred by recounting the situation each day. So when counting the numbered day of the omer, don’t forget to recount the inundation of the experience, for both utilize the verb S.P.R. (ספר), the first in the paal and the second in the piel verb form. That is the best chance to ensure that by the time shavuot (שבועות) comes along the experience will be fulfilled and satisfied (שבע).
Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company
Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz
Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)
Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press
J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock