Pesach or Passover?

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.


I always call Pesach, well, Pesach. I use the original vocabulary for various names – i.e., t’phillin, tallit, and siddur (instead of the awful phylacteries, prayer shawl and prayer-book) — in part to reinforce Jewish vocabulary, in part because the English “translations” are often contrived and foreign, and in part because I do not subscribe to the notion that we are unable to learn the original. We now routinely use all sorts of foreign words that at one time were too technical to keep in our active vocabulary: “cardiac arrest,” “downloading,” and “DVD”—all part of our new familiarity with technology.

The most egregious translation is “phylacteries” for t’phillin. Not only does this Greek-based word provide no help whatsoever (is “phylacteries” a helpful translation?), but the meaning of “phylacteries” is an amulet, a good luck charm, which t’phillin are most assuredly not. T’phillin are personal affirmations of God, as is the mezuzah on our door posts.  But using “Pesach,” rather than “Passover,” offers another reason to use original vocabulary. Pesach may not mean “pass over.” The so-called “traditional” interpretation that “God passed over the houses of Israel” comes from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Greek translation (Septuagint) by the Church Father Jerome in the 4th century.

Modern scholars of the Tanach see a parallel in Isaiah 31:5 “Like the birds that fly, so too will God shield Yerushalayim, shielding and saving, pesaching and rescuing.”

Pesach here means “protecting,” and surely not “passing over.” And the ancient Pesach lamb offering, which we symbolically recall with the shankbone on the seder plate, may have been an offering recalling past protection and invoking protection in the future.

Does it mean that we should now call the holy festival “Protection?” Hardly. It would sound odd and even pretentious to the several generations of English-speakers who have become used to “Passover.” 

I still opt for the original, for all the reasons I offered above, and so that we do not inadvertently misrepresent our heritage.  May God, who protected us in and redeemed us from Egypt, protect us and redeem us from our modern enemies, and bring about the ultimate redemption.

May you have a kosher, happy, and meaningful Pesach.