What Does “PESAH” Really Mean?


According to Rabban Gamliel there are three words or concepts that must be mentioned in the Seder to fulfill the minimum obligation to transmit to our children the story of our Exodus from Egypt: Pesah, Matsa and Maror. The Maror represents the taste of slavery. The Matsa, as we have already said, the taste of freedom obtained through Divine intervention. What is Pesah? What does the word “Pesah” mean and what does it teach us in our days?

Allow me to share with you two reflections on this point.

MENTAL FREEDOM: Pesah, in Talmudic language, alludes to the sacrifice of Pesah, that originally took place in Egypt. HaShem told the Jewish people to sacrifice a ram, and mark with its blood the doors of their houses. Thus, the Jewish houses would not be affected by the death of the first-born. This sacrifice represents what the Jewish people did to deserve their freedom. Let me explain. Sociocultural changes usually take many years, decades and even centuries to happen. In the case of the Jewish people ALL happened in a few hours. HaShem ordered the Yehudim to take a sheep and keep it with them until the 14th day of Nisan (Pesah Eve). Remember that the Egyptians worshiped many animals, since for them animals embodied the powers of their gods. Animals were worshiped in Egypt far more than today’s cows are worshiped in India. The crocodile or the hippopotamus, for example, were worshiped as sacred beings that embodied strength and ferocity. Sheep, especially males known as “rams”, symbolized  virility and the power of procreation. The Yehudim now faced a great challenge: they had to take one of those sheep, sacrifice it and eat it!  The people of Israel, by taking and sacrificing the ram, proved that they could “free” themselves from the idolatrous culture of the Egyptians. Remember that the Yehudim lived immersed in that society for many generations and we were exposed to all kinds of superstitions and fetishism, typical of an aboda zara (idolatry) society. On the 14th of Nisan, HaShem ordered the Yehudim to sacrifice the ram and expose its blood in the gates, to roast it and to eat it. Imagine the psychological difficulty of sacrificing and eating, an animal that their masters considered it “a god”. Remember that slaves naturally fear their masters, and how much more should they have feared “the masters of their masters”, the animals their masters considered gods! HaShem wanted the Yehudim to “merit” their freedom, proving that they were no longer slaves to idolatrous thinking, and that they already understood that the Egyptian gods were false, products of human imagination and superstitions.  The Yehudim, in a single night were able to unmask idolatry, and be free from its imaginary powers. We left the Egyptian culture and its myths behind and brought ourselves in the hands of HaShem.

PROTECTION: In English Pesah is known as “Passover” (ie, passed over, skipped), which means that when HaShem was killing the firstborn Egyptians, He “skipped”, passed over the house of Yehudim and did not affect them. This is the classic interpretation of the word “Pesah”. However, according to Rabbi Menashe Ben Israel (1604-1677) and many other Rabbis, the idea of Pesah in the Tora is a little deeper, and at the same time, less known. Rabbi Ben Israel explains that the word “Pesah” or the verb “Pasah” should not be understood as “passed over” but as “protected” (that is how  Targum Onkelos translated “pasah” , hayis, cared for, protected). HaShem unleashed the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, what the Tora calls “mashjit,” (destroyer, plague,  see Shemot 12:13 and 12:23), which in nosmal circumstances should have affected, “naturally” all the firstborn of Egypt, Gentiles or Jews, indiscriminately. HaShem, however, “protected” (pasah ‘al) the houses of the Yehudim and did not let the deadly plague affect the first-born Jews. Pesah, then, is the festival in which we celebrate the constant, direct and “supernatural” protection that HaShem grants to the people of Israel. This selective protection (hashgaha peratit) of the Jewish Nation, which began the night of 15th of Nisan (known in the Tora also as lel shimurim, lit. “Night of Protection”) accompanies since then Am Israel through its history and until our days. Since then HaShem protects the people of Israel in a “miraculous” way. The existence of the Jewish People challenges statistics and logical predictions. The Jewish people, the most persecuted and harassed human group in the history of mankind, should not exist, and literally “thanks to HaShem”,  here we are.

Think about this (and watch the video below): Today, 2017, of the 193 states represented at the United Nations, thee is  only ONE whose existence is questioned. Only one state in the world who is permanently delegitimized and credibly threatened. There is only one country in the world that, as the Haggadah says, omedim alenu lekhalotenu, is surrounded by neighbors (and neighbors of neighbors) who seek its total annihilation. Guess what country I mean? No, it’s not North Korea or Honduras …. It is the State of Israel, the “Jew” among the nations. Israel, the people and the state, exist “miraculously”, despite all those who raise their voices and their weapons to destroy us, because as it happened on that night of Pesah (lel shimurim) HaShem continues to protect us.

Prager on IAC
  Dennis Prager at IAC
  As an illustration of the different Minhagim, and to better visualize the process of cleaning for Pesah, we present the following videos.