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Is “Passover” a mistranslation?


Josefa de Ayala | WikiMedia Commons

Daniel Esparza - published on 04/12/23

An ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible sheds light on the meaning of the Exodus story and its many religious and moral implications.

The Jewish Passover commemorates the exodus of the enslaved Israelites from ancient Egypt. In the Hebrew Bible, this feast is called Pesach. In English, it is known, among Jews and Christians, as “Passover.” But, as Deep Shtetl’s Yair Rosenberg asks in a recent newsletter, what if that’s a mistake?

According to original ancient Jewish sources, “Passover” is not necessarily the most accurate (nor the most intuitive) translation of the holiday’s name. Besides the obvious academic implications — biblical scholars have been arguing over this matter for centuries — alternative translations have spiritual, moral, and perhaps even political and economic implications.

Rosenberg summarizes the use of the term Pesach in the Hebrew Bible as follows: It appears for the first time in Exodus 12. There, Moses tells the Israelite slaves to sacrifice a lamb and mark their homes with its blood, so that they will not be harmed by a plague that kills Egypt’s first-born males. He then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Pesach offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pasach on the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”

Rosenberg then remarks how the text goes on to direct the Israelites to commemorate this moment by making a regular sacrifice, thus establishing the holiday that Jews now observe:

“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants, and when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, ‘It is the Pesach sacrifice to the Lord, because He pasach on the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’”

Given the context, it is easy to assume that pesach translates “passing over:” the Lord’s “Destroyer” passed over the Israelite’s doors and did not enter it, as they were marked with sacrificial blood. Indeed, this is what Jerome did in the Vulgate. But there is a whole tradition of Jewish commentary that finds a different meaning in the word.

Rosenberg reminds the reader that “one of the most ancient and foundational Jewish translations of the Hebrew Bible is the Aramaic Targum Onkelos, which dates to approximately the 3rd century. For many Jews of that era, it was the only way they could access the Bible, as they did not speak Hebrew. Indeed, after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem around 70 C.E., it became common practice for synagogues to read the Torah in both Hebrew (the language of the learned) and Aramaic (the language of the masses).” The Targum Onkelos was indeed for centuries the most influential of the latter translations of the Hebrew Bible — so much so that it is still printed alongside the Hebrew text in many traditional Jewish Bibles. “Simply put,” Rosenberg summarizes, “Onkelos reflects how ancient Jews understood the Bible. And Onkelos did not think Pesach meant ‘Passover.’” The Onkelos’ translation reads “compassion” where other translations see “passing over.”  

“God will appear to strike the Egyptians, and He will see the blood upon the lintel and upon the door posts, and God will be compassionate on your threshold and not permit the destruction to enter your houses to smite […] [When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?”] You shall say, “It is the sacrifice of compassion before God, who had compassion upon the houses and children of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians and spared our houses.”

Now, there are similarities between passing over and being compassionate in the ancient world. Ancient understandings of forgiveness found in early texts compare forgiving and being compassionate with “looking away” – as if turning a blind eye to harm or evil, as if “passing over” harmdoing. Scholars agree that most of these ancient legal systems influenced later moral and religious codes, the Hebrew Bible included. For example, §169 of the Code of Hammurabi already contemplates an instance of forgiveness-compassion: “If he [the son] be guilty of a grave fault, which should rightfully deprive him of the filial relationship, the father shall forgive him the first time; but if he be guilty of a grave fault a second time the father may deprive his son of all filial relation.”

Where modern translations read “forgive,” the original Akkadian expression “pānīšu ubbalū” literally means “to take one’s face away,” implying not taking something into consideration, overlooking it, passing over it. The Akkadian-Babylonian “taking one’s face away,” some scholars have shown, reverberates in several Hebrew terms used to refer to forgiveness and compassion. Gary Anderson’s Sin: A History shows how the Bible maintains one can throw out, lose sight of, cover, turn one’s back to sin – as much as to any kind of harm one has suffered, as God does. All these expressions, scholars of the ancient world explain, share the same moral implications of the “taking one’s face away” found in the Code of Hammurabi – and can thus be considered instances of compassion.

In other words, the traditional Jewish understanding of Pesach found in Onkelos makes Pesach “a celebration of divine compassion,” as Rosenberg explains in his conclusion: “the holiday celebrates a deliberate act of compassion toward an enslaved people, and calls on us to emulate that divine conduct ourselves […] When we commemorate Pesach, we commemorate compassion, and remind ourselves that without it, none of us would be here.”

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