This week, in Bereshit 37:3, we read about Yosef and his ketonet passim כתונת פסים. We've already discussed how ketonet means "coat" (and is related to tunic). But what does the additional word passim mean? It appears only here, and in Shmuel II 13:18 in the phrase ketonet passim, so we can't guess based on other contexts.
Perhaps influenced by the play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, most English speakers probably assume that it was "coat of many colors". Israelis, on the other hand, would probably say "striped coat", since passim means "stripes" (among other similar words, like track and strip). Who's right?
Well, perhaps neither. Sarna in the JPS Genesis writes that
Radak took passim to mean "striped". The Septuagint and Vulgate rendered the Hebrew "a robe of many colors".
However, he also adds that
In 2 Samuel 13:18-19 the garment is mentioned as the distinctive dress of virgin daughters of royalty. Josephus describes it as "a long-sleeved tunic reaching to the ankle." In Aramaic and rabbinic Hebrew pas means the palm of the hand and the sole of the foot.
The Living Torah shows how the debate continued within the commentaries:
The word passim can be translated as 'colorful' (Radak; Septuagint), embroidered (Ibn Ezra; Bachya; Ramban on Exodus 28:2), striped (Ibn Janach; Radak, Sherashim), or with pictures (Targum Yonathan). It can also denote a long garment, coming down to the palms of the hands (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Baaley Tosafoth; Bereshith Rabbah 84), and the feet (Lekach Tov). Alternatively, the word denotes the material out of which the coat was made, which was fine wool (Rashi) or silk (Ibn Janach).
Drazin and Wagner, in Onkelos on the Torah, explain Radak's position as being based on "the plural form of the word" which would indicate the robe was made of patchwork. They quote Ehrlich as saying that
Jacob gave Joseph such a royal garment, one that was unsuitable for shepherds, because Joseph was exempted from work.
This would seem to support the theory of a long sleeved garment, as Shadal also wrote:
The length of one’s clothing is a sign of liberation and prominence, [indicating] that one does not have to do manual work.
Klein, although saying the phrase probably means "tunic composed of variegated stripes", notes that according to most commentators it means "tunic reaching to the palms and the soles". He connects both pas meaning "stripe, strip" and the Aramaic pas meaning "palm of the hand" (Daniel 5:5) to the root פסס - "to be broad, spread". This root also gives us פיסה pisa, which in Talmudic Hebrew also meant "stripe, strip" but by Medieval Hebrew took on the current meaning of "piece", and perhaps payis פיס - "lot", as well.
While Klein (and earlier Jastrow) indicate that the meaning "strip, stripe" goes back to Talmudic times, Tur-Sinai (in a note in Ben Yehuda's dictionary) says that this sense is not found in those sources at all. He feels that this meaning came from foreign influence, via the Slavic "pas" (like in Polish), which made its way into Yiddish, and from there to Hebrew.
Whether pas פס as strip/stripe came from the Radak or from Polish, everyone agrees that the use of pas as a document that lets a soldier get a vacation from the army comes from the English "pass"...
(The Daat Mikra on Shmuel II gives this picture from the paintings in Beni Hasan in Egypt as an example of ketonet passim.)