Apr 14 2011

What’s in a Name, in the Case of Passover, a Lot!

What’s in a Name? In the Case of “Pesach,” a Lot!

Rabbi Joel Zeff


The holiday of Pesach is known in English as “Passover.” Though English translations of Hebrew terms are occasionally imprecise, in this case the translation seems appropriate, after all, in the Haggada itself we say, “Because the Holy One, blessed be He, passed-over the houses of our fathers in Egypt.”  It may be news to many that this reference in the Haggada is not to the name of the holiday, but to the name of the special offering, the Paschal lamb, enjoyed by all in Temple times on Passover. But this is not the big surprise.

The famous Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Onkeles renders the Hebrew term “u’phasachti,”  (Exodus 12:13- a verb from the same root as Pesach) with the Aramaic word, “ve’achus,” which means  “I will have compassion.” The Talmudic sages also suggest such a meaning in a midrash found in the collection Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, “As a reward for the mitzvah that  you are doing I will reveal myself and have compassion on you, as it is said, “u’phasachti over you,” and this term means nothing other than compassion.” Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, quotes this rather unknown translation of the term Pesach suggested by Onkeles and the midrash, only to emphatically reject it, insisting that the term does indeed  mean  “to  pass over.”

These two schools of thought can be reconciled, with a profound insight, through another midrash from the collection entitled “Pesikta Rabbati.” Let’s examine the text:

The voice of my beloved is coming, skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills (Song of Songs 2).

Rabbi Yehuda explains, This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed, did not the Holy One, blessed be he tell Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years, and only 210 years have passed?! Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your calculations, but rather will skip-over them…”

Rabbi Nachman explains… This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed, is not the land of Egypt filled with our idolatry?  Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your evil deeds, but rather will skip-over them…”

The rabbis explain… This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed when we have no good deeds?  Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your evil deeds, but rather will skip-over them…”

The Song of Songs is a romantic poem describing the loving relationship between God and Israel which is expressed particularly through the exodus from Egypt. The verse referenced in the central text of the midrash “skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills” is understood as an allusion to the Pesach of the exodus from Egypt in which God skipped over. But the passing over is not being interpreted solely with the conventional meaning of the passing over the Jewish homes during the plague of the killing of the first-born. The passing over here is God’s passing over of consideration of all the many reasons not to redeem His nation: the appointed hour had not yet arrived, we were full of idolatry, and we lacked positive good deeds. In other words, God skipped and passed over his attribute of justice and expressed his attribute of pure loving kindness, his unlimited grace, like that of a mother who loves her children unconditionally. Indeed, the same Hebrew root that means “womb” also means “mercy.”

This midrash unites both meanings of the name Pesach.  It does mean to “pass over,” as Rashi explains, and it does mean “compassion” as Onkeles explains. Pesach is a powerful reference to God’s passing over his attribute of reasonable and just considerations (in Hebrew, din) in order to redeem Israel through his unconditional loving compassion (in Hebrew, rachamim). We often feel unworthy of God’s love and perhaps rightfully so, but Pesach is the great reminder that ultimately we rely on a wonderful Jewish notion of divine grace.

The prophet Micah tells us, “As in the days when you left Egypt, I shall show you wonders [during the final Redemption].”  Though we dare not desist from our unending obligation to grow as Jews, we must never despair because of our shortcomings, for ultimately the final redemption will be a “passover” just as the first. May it be soon, in our days!





Mar 28 2011

Months and Meaning

Months and Meaning

Rabbi Joel Zeff

In addition to the reading of the Torah portion of “Tazria,”, this coming Shabbat we will add a segment from the book of Exodus which begins, “This month shall be for you the head of the months; it is the first for you of the months of the year.” This special reading was established in honor of the month being referred to, now called Nissan, which has a unique status in the calendar. While the Holy Temple in Jerusalem still stood the public recitation of this passage served as a reminder to prepare for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, when all Jews were required to participate in the bringing of the Paschal lamb offering.  Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, in his very first comment on the Torah, paraphrases the Talmudic sages who suggest that, were it not for other considerations, this sentence should have been the first verse of the Torah, since it is the first commandment given through Moses to the newly born Jewish nation. What is this mitzvah which merits such a singular place of honor?

Rashi explains that the simple meaning of the verse is the commandment to have the month of Nissan be the reference point for the naming of the months in an ordinal fashion such that what we now call Nissan will be called “the First Month,” Iyyar by the name “the Second Month,” Sivan as “the Third Month,” and so on. Indeed, in the Torah itself, the months are given no other names than these ordinal designations.  At first glance it seems that this point is technical and certainly does not justify the seemingly inordinate attention given to this mitzvah.

Ramban, the greatest of the medieval Spanish commentators reveals the secret. Time references are generally a convenient but arbitrary way of making our lives more manageable.  Not so is the path of Torah, which seeks to infuse everything with meaning. Designating the months with ordinal names (the First Month, the Second Month, etc.) starting with the anniversary of the exodus from Egypt makes that great act of Divine redemption as the reference point for all dates. If we say, “I was born in the Third Month,” we are also reminding ourselves of God’s saving grace, since the Third Month, by its very semantic nature is only meaningful relative to the First Month-  which is the month of deliverance.  Every time we write a date, we are not simply marking time. We are heightening our consciousness to have an on-going awareness of God’s loving and active concern for us.

The Talmud tells us that the present names we use for the months (Nissan, Iyyar, Sivan, etc.) were imported into our Hebrew lexicon when we returned to the Holy Land from the Babylonian exile after the fall of the Babylonian empire and the ascension of the Persians. If so, doesn’t this undermine the meaning of this wonderful mitzvah? The Ramban again provides the answer. No, he argues, in fact it deepens the meaning of the idea behind this commandment. When we use the Babylonian names for the months we are further reminded of God’s redemptive presence in history, which was not just a one-time act with regards to Egypt. The second great exile, this time to Babylonia, came to end, as well, through the ever-present action, even if somewhat hidden, of Divine Providence.

It is noteworthy that in Modern Israeli Hebrew, the English names of the months are often used, transliterated into Hebrew consonants and vocalization.  Could it be that this is yet another, and this time ultimate, reminder of God’s abiding faithfulness to us?  When we utter the Prayer for the State of Israel we refer to it as “the first-flowering of our redemption,” redemption from the current dispersion of our people, mostly in the lands of Western civilization, where these names of the months are in universal use. When the process of redemption will be fully actualized and we all make aliya to Israel, then the use of these names by our Modern Hebrew speaking children will serve, yet again, to remind us of God’s abiding faithfulness to his promises.