The Etymology of Passover
Transcript of speech to be delivered at The George Washington University on 4/6/2010.
Passover is a time of questioning, and the most renowned of the established Passover questions are the four questions that ask why this night–the night of the Seder (be the it first or second)–is different from all others.
Question 2) Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night we eat only bitter herbs?
Question 3) Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip our herbs even once, but on this night we dip them twice?
Question 4) Why is it that on all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining, but on this night we eat in a reclining position?
Useful as these questions are in initiating the retelling of the history of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, their importance in my personal estimate is matched by the question:
Why is the holiday commemorating the Exodus story called Passover?
Owing to the popularity of Charlton Heston’s The Ten Commandments, most Americans can tell you that for his Tenth Plague, God invoked The Angel of Death which spirited from house to house killing the firstborn male child unless the door was marked with the blood of the pascal lamb–showing it to be the home of an Israelite–in which case the Angel of Death would simply pass over the house.
And for most, this phenomenon of the Angel of Death passing over is enough to justify the Passover name.
But the inquisitive Jew–which is to say nearly every Jew–should wonder why this plague should be namesake of the entire holiday. After all, The Angle of Death is just one of ten plagues. Why not call the holiday “jump” in reference to action of the frogs in the second plague, or “swarm” in reference to the flies, lice, or locusts in reference to plagues three, four, and eight? Or else the Holiday could embrace a rotating system like the Chinese calendar and name the holiday after a different plague each year.
Two theories are commonly offered in response:
The first posits that the passing over of the Angel of Death was simply the last plague and therefore assumed the title.
But if it were the fact that the Jewish people were simply at a loss for a title for the holiday and merely reverted to the last major event, then Passover would not have been chosen. After all, the Ten Plagues of Egypt does not conclude the Exodus story. Something like “Red Sea” would have been chosen instead to commemorate the Israelites final step in freedom.
Furthermore, other examples suggest that when in doubt, titles are extracted from the beginning of a story rather than the end. Homer’s Odyssey takes its title from the man referenced in the very first words, “Muse tell me of the man of many wiles, the man that wandered many paths of exile.”
Similarly, Christian songs like Jingle Bells and Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer bear the names of the songs’ respective opening lyrics.
This “opening phrase” precedent is so pervasive that it can even be seen in modern day electronics. The default title in Microsoft Word documents is the first line of text.
It seems then, that the holiday is not named Passover simply because the Angel’s passing was the tenth and final plague.
A second hypothesis suggests that the Angel of Death’s passing merits recognition the Holiday’s name because it is the worst of the Ten Plagues of Egypt.
To be sure, the systematic destruction of first born children was devastating, but whether it deserves the superlative can be debated.
According to one scholarly article, titled “Women In The Ancient World,” “Pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were the three most dangerous times in [Ancient Egypt].”
Most research substantiates that this quote–it is estimated that between 33% and 50% of children in Ancient Egypt died in the first weeks of their lives.
This high rate of infant mortality is not surprising. It is nearly equivalent with other Ancient societies. Furthermore, owing to the absence of an Ancient Egyptian word for midwife, it is likely that Ancient Egyptians did not have midwives to help facilitate a more sanitary birthing process.
But even beyond infancy, the life of an Ancient Egyptian child was precarious. Malnutrition and infection were endemic–not least of all because of the state of the Nile River–and the society’s high economic inequality meant that the majority of Ancient Egyptians worked as hard laborers–an activity not conducive to longevity.
As such, scholars consistently estimate that only 1 out of every 2 Ancient Egypt children survived past the age of 5.
It has also been establish to a high degree of certainty that Ancient Egyptians usually entered into relationships and started their own households during the early teen years. These new households averaged more than six children, thereby ensuring that elderly parents would be ensured a “staff of old age.”
All of these factors limit the intensity of the Tenth Plague. The Angel of Death took the first born male child of each household. But if we consider that there already existed a 50 percent chance that the first born male child would die owing to natural causes, and knowing that once a child made it past the most dangerous years of his life he would only be a few years away from establishing his own household and thereby remove himself from the reaches of the Angel, we can safely estimate that the Angel’s devastation would not be as broad in scope as initially imagined.
The Tenth Plague seems especially forgiving when compared to other events chronicled in the story of Exodus. For instance, the locusts of the fourth plague “devour[ed] what little you ha[d] left after the hail, including every tree that [was] growing in your fields.” (Exodus 10:3 — 10:6) Without food, death would extend far beyond first born male children.
But perhaps the most deadly act of God throughout the book of Exodus was his final destruction of the Egypt armies in the Red Sea. There, Egypt’s strongest and bravest were put to death–a more draconian punishment than that of the Tenth Plague.
And so we can safely conclude that the second hypothesis for the naming of the Holiday–that the Tenth Plague was the most severe–also fails upon inspection.
Fortunately, the sages (through the mediums of Rabbis Teitelbaum and Schwersenski) have offered us a third explanation as to the etymology of Passover. Passover refers not to the Tenth Plague but to a period of spiritual ascendancy that occurs on a yearly basis in accordance with the historical escape from Egypt. During this time (the first two nights–the Seder nights), Jews can make otherwise unmerited leaps in their spiritual journeys–they can “pass over” normal spiritual steps to move to higher planes.
The argument is nuanced, but unlike most academics, especially Fareed Zakaria, I recognize when I’m outside my area of expertise, and, accordingly, I will defer this discussion to Rabbis well-versed in the theory, and until then, I will continue to question the name of Passover in the spirit of Passover.
Note: the sanctimonious tone in which this was written/delivered was assumed only because I thought it would make for a fun/humorous delivery.