It might seem that the etymology of the word Pesach is so obvious that it doesn't deserve an entry here. Pesach = "pass over", no? Well, until I started researching it, I would have agreed. However, it turns out that the origin and meaning of pesach is one of the most complicated topics I've dealt with yet.
It is clear that Pesach is connected to the verb pasach פסח. But what does pasach mean?
Both pesach and pasach appear for the first time in Shemot (Exodus), chapter 12:
יא וְכָכָה, תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ--מָתְנֵיכֶם חֲגֻרִים, נַעֲלֵיכֶם בְּרַגְלֵיכֶם וּמַקֶּלְכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם; וַאֲכַלְתֶּם אֹתוֹ בְּחִפָּזוֹן, פֶּסַח הוּא לַהשם.
יג וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת, עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם, וְרָאִיתִי אֶת-הַדָּם, וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית, בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
In order not to influence your understanding of pasach, I won’t translate the phrases, but in short, verse 11 states that “you will have a pesach to God” and in verse 13, God says that “I will pasach over (or “on”) you.”
There are three main explanations to the word pasach – “to have compassion”, “to protect” or “to skip over.”
Let’s review each of the opinions.
To skip over - לדלג: This is the most commonly known definition. How did it become so popular? According to Nahum Sarna in Exploring Exodus (page 87), this translation became predominant because the Latin Vulgate version translates pasach as “pass over” – transire in Latin. (Interestingly, it was the 16th century Christian scholar William Tyndale who coined the term Passover. Previously pesach was translated by Christians as paschal or pask.) This understanding explanation was adopted by the Septuagint, Josephus, Rav Yoshaia in the Mechilta (who connects פסח with פסע) Rashbam, and Rashi brings it as one of the options (כל פסיחה לשון דלוג וקפיצה).
To have compassion לחוס : This is the translation provided by Onkelos, an unnamed source in the Mechilta (אין פסיחה אלא חייס) and Rabbi Yonatan in the Mechilta (פסחתי עליכם – עליכם אני חס) and is also offered by Rashi (פסחתי – חמלתי). Sarna feels this is the oldest and most reliable. Dov Rappel and others suggest that Onkelos translated פסח as חוס because it would not be respectful to describe God as “jumping”.
To protect להציל, להגן: This explanation appears in Tosefta Sota (Chapter 4), Targum Yonatan, the Mechilta, and is supported by Yishayahu (Isaiah) 31:5:
כְּצִפֳּרִים עָפוֹת--כֵּן יָגֵן ה' צְבָאוֹת, עַל-יְרוּשָׁלִָם; גָּנוֹן וְהִצִּיל, פָּסֹחַ וְהִמְלִיט.
“Like the birds that fly, even so will the Lord of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting (פסח) and rescuing.”
There is certainly a strong connection between to protect and to have compassion, and one understanding might have developed from the other.
A word from the same root is piseach פיסח - meaning lame. Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra (Shmot) (and earlier the Radak in Sefer HaShorashim) quotes the verse in Yishayahu (35:6):
אָז יְדַלֵּג כָּאַיָּל פִּסֵּחַ, וְתָרֹן לְשׁוֹן אִלֵּם:
“And the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing out loud”
Chacham goes on to say that perhaps the sacrificial lamb itself is called “pesach” because it jumps and skips. However, Samuel Loewenstamm in The Tradition of the Exodus in Its Development rejects that explanation based on the same verse. He points out (page 86) that the verse describing a miraculous state, but it is not the way of the piseach to jump, just as the deaf do not usually sing. (A neighbor of mine suggested that perhaps piseach is related to pasach (to jump), but is used to describe a lame person in a euphemistic way.)
Loewenstamm mentions an Arabic root connected to pasach which means to expand. (He brings the root in Arabic, but unfortunately I can’t read Arabic.) He states that the same verb also has the meaning “to save” (and therefore is another proof for him that the translation “to protect” is the most authentic.)
Rav Uri Dasberg in Shabbat B’Shabbato quotes the same Arabic root to explain a difficult passage in the Hagada Shel Pesach. The Seder opens with the invitation:
כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח
This is generally translated as: “anyone who needs it may partake of the Pesach sacrifice.” However, the law states that the sacrifice is distributed only to those who reserved a portion before it was slaughtered. Once the seder has begun, it is too late to add participants.
Dasberg explains that the entire “invitation” is intended for non-Jewish foreigners. The Talmud states the Jews of Babylon were required by law to invite soldiers of the king into their homes in times of crisis. This is a reason that the invitation is in Aramaic. In order to avoid the prohibition of cooking for a non-Jew on a holiday, the invitation was extended after the meal had begun (since no more food could be added.)
According to Dasberg, perhaps the meaning of ויפסח was to make room (like the Arabic root), so the invitation said “we will make room for anyone who needs” and did not refer to the Pesach sacrifice at all.