Påske; Pesach, the meaning of the Passover holiday

Words about words

The Last Supper- Pesach

Image: Wikimedia Commons
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) depicts the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before or during the time of Passover, just before he was crucified.

In this edition of Words about words, M. Michael Brady and Michael Kleiner explore the origins of the various names for Easter in the European and Hebrew traditions.

Påske, the Norwegian word for Easter

Asker, Norway

Påske, the Norwegian word for Easter, linguistically descends from the Old Norse word páskar, which, in turn, comes from the Latin pascha, ancient Greek πάσχα (“Pascha”), and Hebrew ôñç (“Pesach”). The word and its cognates in most European languages are the most used ones for the great festival of the Christian church commemorating the resurrection of Christ. For example, today the word is Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, and Pasqua in Spanish.

There are exceptions to that prevalent etymology, most notably the English word Easter and the German word Ostern. They descended respectively from the Old English word éastre and the Old High German word ôstara. In turn, those words descend from the Old English and Old Teutonic names of a goddess whose festival was celebrated at the vernal equinox. Her name, from the Old Teutonic word austrôn, is a cognate of the Sanskrit word for dawn, indicates that she originally was the dawn goddess.

Pesach, the meaning of the Passover holiday

The Norwegian American

Pesach is the Hebrew word for “pass over,” which has become the English for the holiday Passover, that happens in the spring. The holiday has become a celebration of freedom, retelling the story (Haggadah) of the Jewish slaves, led by Moses, rebelling against the Pharaoh in Egypt and escaping, the exodus, to the Promised Land. In the 12th chapter of Exodus, God said to Moses (paraphrased): “On the 10th day of the month of Nisan, every household must sacrifice a lamb, and if the family is too small for a whole lamb, it is permissible to join with a neighbor. The animal is to be roasted and eaten with bitter herbs. The meal is to be eaten in haste. And each household must take some of the blood of the lamb and smear it on the two side-posts of the house.”

The Book of Exodus tells us:  “For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night and smite all the first born. When I see the houses with blood on the doorposts, I will pass over them. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial. For that day I brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

Pesach is the name of the sacrifice, pasach is pass over. Many scholars believe a similar spring holiday was observed well before the exodus story. The original command to “eat in haste,” may have been related to the food not spoiling. In the liberation story, the haste was the need to escape, so the unleavened bread (matzo) did not have a chance to rise.

In some Haggadahs, the story is enhanced with references to other liberation struggles by Jews and other people. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on the night of the first seder in 1943. The seder is “order,” symbols and rituals connected to the story. The seder plate has food items that are symbolic to the story of the exodus and are tasted at points during the Haggadah reading. The Haggadah commands that we must remain vigilant in the fight for social justice. “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy share our Passover feast…in every generation you must look upon yourself as if you came out of Egypt.”

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.