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What Does Pesach really mean? Is our holiday name in English based on an incorrect translation? Parashat Bo

Rabbi Arie Hasit
| 22/01/2023

Rabbi Arie Hasit expounds on a different meaning of the word ‘Pesach’ in this week’s Parashat Bo and how this affects our celebration of the ‘Passover’ holiday.


This week we will be reading from Parashat Bo. One of the Torah portions that is really at the center of our entire Torah.

In fact, Rashi asks at the beginning of the Torah why the Torah does not start during Exodus (Chapter 12) at this place in our parashah this week? That is how central this parashah is.

In fact, this parashah discusses perhaps what is the most central holiday celebrated by Jews around the world, even the least observant Jews partake in the Passover seder. And the source of Passover, in fact, is in this week’s parashah.

But what I would like to suggest is that Passover is the wrong name for this holiday that we call in Hebrew: Pesach פסח

As other scholars have noted before, the Hebrew root ‘pey’ ‘samech’ ‘het’ which we translate in English as Passover appears in a few different places in the Bible. In some of those instances it appears to mean: to skip or jump, which is why פיסח is somebody who means has a limp.

Here they suggest that it is ‘pass over’ that God ‘passed over’ the houses of the Jewish people.

But in fact there are other places in the Tanach including the book of Jeremiah (Yirmeyahu) in which ‘Pasach’ ‘pey’ ‘samech’ ‘het’ means to ‘watch over’ or ‘to guard.’ Therefore, it seems that what God is doing (Shemot 12:27):

 שהוא פסח על בתי בני ישראל

When God is doing the ‘pesach’ over the homes of Israel is not that God is skipping over them, but rather that God is guarding those homes.

In this entire portion of Bo is really about guarding the people of Israel. This in fact that we might remember that the Israelites put the blood on their doorposts which reminds us today of the Mezuzuah.

The Mezuzah which has a ‘shin’ for God’s name of ‘shaddai’ which we understand to mean to mean in the Hebrew:

שומר דלתות ישראל

Guarding over the doors of Israel

But this parashah also is the place in which two times we are told to wear these words as a memory on our arms and as a reminder on our heads. And of course observant Jews world round do this by putting on tefillin every day other than Shabbat.

That we take these signs that God gave us because Passover is all about the signs that God gave us, the signs of the plagues, the signs of the Jewish people. We have signs to know that we are being saved.

And what I believe what we are learning of Pesach in this parashah of Bo, we are learning about this holiday and about God’s relationship with our people is that in fact even in our moments of greatest strength that we are always in need of some protection.

And all the more so as we learn in this Torah portion this week that in moments of great struggle, in moments of oppression, at those moments we can remember that there is something that we can do, that we have God’s protection with us. And God’s protection does not mean that things will always be easy, that things will always be good, but that we are reminded, that it is natural and it is good to be vulnerable.

It is natural to recognize that we have weaknesses. It is natural to call out and say:

“God we need your support.”

So as we learn this week, we can learn every single week – there is no shame in needing that extra support, that we can trust in God according to this Torah portion: That God will protect us.



Rabbi Arie Hasit, Associate Director, Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, was ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in 2016 and was in the second cohort of the Mishlei program. Prior, he served six years as the founding rabbi and CEO of 70 Faces — Mazkeret Batya, a unique community that promotes the values of Masorti Judaism and religious pluralism in the public sphere.

Rabbi Hasit volunteers as co-chair of the Masorti Movement’s Youth Committee and as a member of the Law Committee for the Israeli Rabbinical Assembly.

He lives in Mazkeret Batya with his wife, Sara Tova Brody and their two children.

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