The etymology of the word Passover seems obvious. Passover, the English translation of pesach, means that God passed over the houses of Hebrews marked with lamb’s blood so that only Egyptian first-born would be killed. But like so much about the festival, it’s not so simple.
This generally accepted meaning of the word is a “false etymology,” one of many “attempts to connect ancient rituals with the historical narrative of the Bible,” says David Biale, professor of Jewish history at the University of California at Davis. Those ancient rituals, scholars believe, existed before the biblically described liberation from Egypt. In fact, there were two spring festivals to celebrate the renewal of life: one to sacrifice an unblemished animal and one of unleavened bread. Exodus unites the two into one celebration.
The confusion over the English word Passover is sometimes attributed to a 16th century Christian, William Tyndale, who coined it. A Protestant during England’s transition from Catholicism, Tyndale was beheaded in 1536 for his reformist ideas, including wanting to make both the Pentateuch and New Testament accessible to everyone, even, as he is quoted as saying, the “boy who drives the plow.” His translation of the Pentateuch, printed in 1530, marked the first time that Hebrew Scriptures were made available in English.
In examining the biblical spring festival, Tyndale observed that two ancient Hebrew words were pronounced the same: the verb pasach or possach, meaning to skip or pass over, and the noun pesach, referring to the lamb sacrifice. He translated both as “Passover,” thus giving English speakers one explanation for two biblical terms. Passover, as well as many other Tyndale formulations—for example, Jehovah, atonement and scapegoat—found their way into the authoritative 1611 King James Bible, and from there into modern English.
Scholars who hypothesize that the Torah had at least three writers (usually called J, E, and P) from different time periods add that the Hebrew words pasach and pesach have other meanings. Many think that “protection” is the best translation. The Jewish Study Bible published by the Oxford University Press says that in Exodus, the word pesach means that God protected the Israelites from a plague that harmed Egypt’s first-born. “Passing over” is a more primitive translation, because it is associated with magically using an animal’s sacrificial blood to prevent harm.
Ari Zivotofsky, professor of brain science at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, suggests another often cited meaning: “compassion or mercy.” In translating the Torah into Aramaic, Onkelos (circa 100 BCE) was the first to interpret pesach as ve’eychos, meaning, “I will have compassion.” In the Mechilta, the second century CE legal commentary on the Torah, rabbis argue without conclusion over which version is correct: to pass over or to have compassion. By the Middle Ages, Zivotofsky says the meaning “pass over” had become predominant.