The meanings of Passover
Updated: Mar 26
With the Jewish festival of Passover approaching, I take the opportunity to bring some explanations about this important milestone in the Jewish calendar year. The festival starts on the 15th of the month of Nisan. The night before, on the 14th, Jews tell the Haggadah, which is the story of the exodus of their Hebrew ancestors from bondage in Egypt.
The month of Nisan
Hebrews used to call each month by a number, i.e. 1st month, 2nd month etc. (similarly to days: 1st day, 2nd day etc.) and Nisan was the "head" (i.e. the first) of the months, as instructed in Exodus 12:1-2: And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: 'This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.
The name Nisan, and the names of all the other months, was adopted by the Jews during their Babylonian exile, borrowed from the Babylonian calendar. Its meaning is connected to Spring (the similar Hebrew word 'nitsan' נצן means bud). Also, in Hebrew, Spring time is called Aviv (אביב) which can also be understood as acronym for the "head of 12" (א ב-יב). In Astrology (zodiac), this month is represented as a ram because, for the Pagans in the Antiquity, the ram (aries) was symbol of procreation (new lambs being born) and thus signalled the annual renewal of Nature (through the coming of Spring). But, for Jews, the ram is a reminder of the sacrificial lamb, as a sacrifice to God to expiate their sins. Before the Pesach festival, the Jews used to "go up" to Jerusalem in pilgrimage and sacrifice a lamb in the Temple on the afternoon before the start of the festival.
The name 'Pesach'
It is written פסח in Hebrew and can be associated to two words: the sacrificial "lamb" (פסח), and the "pass-over" (פסיחה) by the angel of death (Exodus 12:27) when he struck the first borns of Egypt (the last, 10th, plague). The numerical value of פסח is 148, which is the same value as the word נצח, eternity, because it is said that the covenant that God established with the descendants of the Patriarchs, after freeing them from slavery, is eternal.
The festival of Pesach (Passover)
The festival falls on the 15th of the month of Nisan, which can only occur on a Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday or Shabbat. The actual Exodus, when the Hebrews left Egypt, was on the 14 Nisan at night and the 15th of Nisan, the next morning, was a Thursday. The night between the 14th and 15th of a lunar month always has a full moon. For Christians, as Jesus was crucified on a Pesach Eve, it was necessarily a Friday so that Pesach (the 15th) fell on a Shabbat. On Pesach Eve, in every Jewish home, family members gather to read the Haggadah, the tale of the end of their ancestors' bondage and of the Exodus.
The Hebrews in Egypt
The Hebrews came down to Egypt during a famine in Canaan, a disaster which was foretold by Joseph, viceroy of Egypt. They were a family clan, led by their patriarch Jacob and composed of "70 (men) souls" but, when they came out of Egypt some 216 years later (some say 210 years), they were 600,000 over the age of 20 (census established in the desert after the Exodus). This means that, adding women and young children, the Hebrew people totalled about 2 million at that time.
The Hebrews saw 4 generations in Egypt. For example, looking at the family of Moses, the 4 generations were: 1- their ancestor Levi son of Jacob, part of the 70 souls, 2- Kohath his son, 3- then Amram, and 4- finally Moses, born in Egypt who became leader of the Hebrews.
The Hebrews settled in the land of Goshen, on the Nile delta, a land unused by the Egyptian people who were occupied in agriculture, but suitable for the lifestyle of shepherds as the Hebrews were.
Not all these Hebrew generations were under bondage. Initially, they grew in number and filled the land of Egypt, until arose a new king over Egypt who knew not Joseph (Exodus 1:8). This took place when Jacob and all his sons had already died in Egypt. That new king was Thutmoses IV (easy to identify when one compiles the chronology of the Bible and matches it with the accepted Egyptian chronology). Why was he called a new king rather than a new pharaoh? Because Thutmose IV was not the heir to the throne of Egypt: he usurped it from his brother. With this usurpation and diversion from internal politics to a new focus (the Hebrews), he then became the accepted pharaoh. It is often a repeat in human history: a tyrant who wants to avoid internal fights divert the focus of the people to another goal, another target, another scapegoat. The Jews often found themselves in such situations during human history: their Hebrew ancestors experienced it first in Egypt some 3500 years ago.
So the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, a name written מצרים with the root מצר meaning distress like in Psalms 118:5 : מִן-הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ from my distress, I called upon God
They built Raamses (Exodus 47:11), written רעמסס which is composed of רע which means bad (evil) and of מסס meaning eliminate gradually (rot). Slavery was went to kill the Hebrews slowly with hard labor and harsh conditions. Unlike previous historians were misled, the use of the name Raamses in the Bible does not mean that the pharaoh of the Exodus was any Ramses (in the past, historians thought it was the powerful Ramses II): Ramses is a generic word/name meaning "Ra bore him". It was a new city built in the Eastern part of the Nile Delta, on the site of an older city called Avaris that was once inhabited by the Hyksos invaders and destroyed by Ahmose I when he expelled them. The name Raamses was later borrowed by the Ramses kings. It is noticeable that the entire period of the Hebrews in Egypt lasted during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt: from Ahmose I who expelled the Hyksos, founded this dynasty and established Joseph as viceroy, until the Exodus under the reign of the last pharaoh of the 18th, Horemheb.
The title 'pharaoh' is written פרעה which is the anagram of פה-רע as 'evil mouth'. And the word 'evil' רע is at the core of his name פ-רע-ה. The numerical value of פרעה is 5+70+200+80= 355, which gives the word 5+50+300 = שנה which means 'change'. It echoes the 'change' that this new king brought to the situation of the Hebrews in Egypt.
The Hebrews were given to eat bitter herbs, called מרור, which contains the word 'bitter' as used in Exodus 1:14: they embittered their lives. The word מרור has numerical value of 200+6+200+6 = 446, and this has the same value as מות= 400+6+40 meaning death. The hidden agenda of Pharaoh was to get rid of the Hebrews who became too numerous. The two words מרור (bitter) and מות (death) are actually connected one to another in Hebrew: they are composed by the same letters when one realises that two letters ר form a letter ת (the numerical value of ת, 400, is also twice the value of ר which is 200).
Moses and Akhenaten
Thutmose IV started the persecution against the Hebrews and decreed against the first borns. Moses was saved from the Nile by Thutmose IV’s daughter (princess Tiaa). The basket in which Moses was put on the waters is called תבה ('ark') in the Bible: the only other occurrence of the Bible using this word is for Noah's Ark. The use of words in the Bible is never a coincidence but rather a way of teaching us something. In this case, the relation between Noah and Moses is that God redeemed humanity through Noah to save His Creation and try it anew, and He redeemed the enslaved people of Moses in order for them to become His messenger in humanity, to give a purpose to His Creation. This makes the festival of Pesach important not only for the Jews but for the entire humanity because of the connection of these two divine redemptions that impacted humantity as a whole.
This princess never married (probably dedicated herself to the cult) and adopted Moses as her son. So Moses and the royal heir grew together in the palace of Memphis as they were de facto 'cousins'. When the heir took the throne as Amenhotep IV, he adopted a new religion based on the cult of one single god: Aten. This was the first occurrence of state monotheism in the world. He changed his name to Akhenaten (meaning "the spirit of Aten") and changed the royal city from pagan Memphis to Amarna (in Hebrew, this name Amar-Na means Please-Speak). Akhenaten composed an hymn to this new god, Aten: O sole God, like whom there is no other ! You did create the world according to your desire while you were alone. (Great Hymn of Aten, ca. 1340 BCE)
It was a shocking unique 'revolution' in Egyptian history, never experienced before and never experienced ever after. But his son Tutankhaten (meaning "the living image of Aten"), after his father's death, re-established the ancient religion and erased the one-god religion that his father had imposed. He even changed his name to... Tutankhamon (meaning "the living image of Amon"). Moses had to flee for his life because he was associated (influencer) with the 'monotheism' of the apostate Akhenaten. When Tutankhamon died, at a young age, with no heir, the power was seized by his chief general, Ay, who was later succeeded by another army usurper, Horemheb. That one was the pharaoh of the Exodus, who brought the 18th dynasty to an end.
The plague of the First Born
This last plague occurred at midnight, the time when the night precisely stops its progress and when the day precisely starts to build up. That moment was also precisely the mid-month of Nisan. The name Nisan is composed with the letters נסנ like a wheel of fortune that turns the letter נ around the round-wheel letter ס; and these two letters form the word נס, fate/miracle
The matzah (מצה) is the unleavened bread and the main symbol of Pesach festival because, during one week, it is forbidden for Jews to eat normal bread and anything made from yeast (leaven). The normal bread is called לחם and the unleavened bread is מצה: the letters are the same except for the letter ח of bread which is written like the letter ה of matzah with the bar of the letter being "up" to join the upper bar: so it symbolizes the difference between leavened לחם (up) and un-leavened מצה (down). In Jewish symbolism of the letters, the ח is closed by all sides except to the lower part, while the ה has an opening in the upper side: this is because bread symbolizes the materialistic nature of man, while matzah represents his spirituality. The matzah has become the symbol of the spiritual redemption of the Jewish people.
Another point about the normal bread and the matzah: the bread has round shapes (a shape found in Nature) and rots (by the power of Time), whereas the matzah is man-made square (to extract oneself from Nature), and never rots (it defies Time). With the matzah, man is not enslaved by the materialistic limitations of Nature and Time.
The Four Sons
The tale of Pesach, the Haggadah, uses the symbolism of 4 sons to describe the entire human nature. The wise person asks but knows the answer. The wicked asks but doesn't want to hear the answer (because he wants to exclude himself). The simple mind asks a naive question, so needs guidance. And the last one can't even ask anything, so it is a duty to teach him so he too is included in the ceremonial of Pesach.
The initials of the words for the 4 sons are ח ר ת ו which make the sum of 8+200+400+6= 614= the whole of the 613 commandments (of the Jews) + God (1)
These initials indicate confusion among the Jews as a mixed-up people. But the wise one (חכם) can change his letter ח (materialism) into letter ה (spirituality) to re-create the new orderly combination of the 4 letters = תורה (Torah). This is the ultimate meaning of the festival of Pesach: escaping materiality and reaching spirituality. The Jewish people is very diverse, not based on colour of skin, genetics, region, etc. But, through spirituality, it can form a cohesion, a One.
The number 4 is used in many occurrences within the Bible and associated with completion. Typical examples are: 4 letters in God's name (the so-called Tetragram), 4 elements in Nature, 4 matriarchs, 4 generations in Egypt, 4 foretold exiles of the Jewish people, and so on. In the context of Pesach, the number 4 represents the 4 steps of exile that lead to redemption (exile, settlement, assimilation, persecution and finally redemption): in the tale of the Haggadah, there are 4 cups of wine (= the 4 steps of exile) leading to the last 5th cup at the end (= the redemption). We drink the 4 cups but not the 5th.
Why the Exodus took place on the 15th?
It is taught that the 9th plague (darkness) fell upon Egypt on the 1st Nisan. At that time, Moses started to teach the Hebrew people about the duties and arrangements they will have to follow when coming out of Egypt. The 1st of a lunar month is always dark, because of the new moon. But the 15th of the lunar month is full moon, so maximum brightness. This is to symbolize the Creation (as explained further below): like Exodus, the Creation always started from darkness and ended, each day, with Light (see narrative of the Creation in Genesis 1: and there was evening, and there was morning). The symbolism in the context of the Exodus is going from dark to light, from slavery to freedom, from oppression to redemption.
The symbolism of Pesach
The word פסח can be read פס-ח where פס means 'erase' and the letter ח represents materialism: in other words, this festival is made to forget one's materialism for a week, and focus on the spiritual. This spiritual redemption is symbolised in many ways but often by use of the number 40. And the positions of the 3 letters of פסח in the Hebrew alphabet are 8th, 15th and 17th; and the sum 8+15+17 = 40. Other examples of the use of 40 in the Bible: 40 days of the Flood, 40 days of Moses in Mount Horeb (Sinai), 40 years of the Hebrews in the wilderness, 40 days for a fœtus to receive a soul, 40 years to reach potential wisdom in man's life. All references to the number 40 means reaching the right time, or maturity. And this is the message of Pesach: after being a family clan, the Hebrews became a nation in number, but had yet to achieve maturity of a nation in spirit.
Pesach is a Covenant
The word פסח has value of 8+60+80=148, and adding these three digits we get 1+4+8=13. The number 13 happens to be the value for the word אחד 'One' as 1+8+4=13, and also for the word אהבה 'Love' as 1+5+2+5=13. With same numerical value, both words One and Love are connected (bonded). These words are connected in the verses: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all... (Deut. 6:4-5). So, with the number 13, Pesach internally represents the 'bonding' between God and His chosen people (for a purpose). It may be noted that 13+13 = One + Love = 26 which is the numerical value of the name of God, from the 4-letters so-called the Tetragram. The number 13 is also the age of Bar-Mitzvah for a boy, which represents his personal 'bonding' with God. And 13 is also the number of letters in the Hebrew names of both the 3 Patriarchs (אבראם יצחק יעקב) and the 4 Matriarchs (שרה רבקה לאה רחל). So the number 13 is all about bonding with God and this is found in the symbolism of Pesach which leads to the covenant between God and His people.
Pesach is the next Creation
With Pesach, God accompanied the Hebrews to forge them as a nation to serve His plan of the Creation. The Creation would not have been executed without a divine purpose. Where can we see an evidence of it in symbolism? The word פסח is composed of letters that have the numerical values of 6,60,80. If we take the smaller count (not the ten's), it is 6,6,8 and its sum is 22 which represents the number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which is God's "verb" (there is a tradition that says that God created the world through these letters). In addition, the structure of the word פסח itself starts with פ (representing the word פה which mean 'mouth', hence wording/verb) and ends with ח (which represents materiality, as seen above). In other words, Pesach symbolizes that God used the verb (mouth) to create the world (materiality). In the New Testament, there is an expression that illustrates the same: and the word became flesh (John 1:14). For the Jews, Pesach is the next step from the Creation: there was the Creation of the materialistic world, and, with Pesach, there was the Creation of the spiritual world. Before Pesach the world was entirely materialistic. After Pesach, the seeds of the spirituality were sawn into the world through the Hebrew people who were chosen by God to convey His message. Three monotheist religions have ultimately derive from that first Pesach, an event of universal scope in fact.
Pesach and the Blood Libel
Unfortunately, this universal event did not echo very well in the Gentile world. For generations and generations in Christendom, Jews have suffered of an accusation that rose at the time of Pesach: the blood libel. The accusation was to say that Jews killed a Gentile person (often a child) as a sacrifice and used his blood to bake the unleavened bread !
The origin of the blood libel is in the Hellenistic world. It was carried to Christendom by monks and scholars who knew the Greek writings. The first blood libel of Europe was made in Norwich, England: a young boy called William was found dead on 22 March 1144, one week before the festival of Pesach. The libel then spread everywhere in Europe. The next occurrence took place in 1171 in Blois, France. For centuries, at many comings of Pesach festival, Jews were murdered in the Christian realm based on this false accusation. The last accusation of the blood libel was a public trial that took place in Russia in 1913 against Menahem Mendel Beilis, just about 100 years ago !
Pesach was meant to be a blessing for all humanity because God, for the first time since Noah's time, was prepared to intervene in His Creation and change its evil course by, instead of destroying it again, assigning to a group of "chosen" people the task to carry out His word. And His chosen people has paid a heavy toll for it. But this divine strategy was more successful than the ones assigned to Adam and Noah, when one looks at the number of people in the monotheist faith in the world today. And invariably, the Jews have carried out His task, despite the successive persecutions and thanks to His necessary redemptions, since that full moon night, one particular 14th of Nisan over 3400 years ago.
26 March 2020, 1 Nisan 5780