The Enigmatic Origins of the Words of the Passover Seder

The origin of the words we use during the Seder can teach a lot about the origin of the holiday. But some, including the word for 'matza', remain oddly obscure.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon.
Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, an 1892 painting by Moshe Maimon.Credit: Wikipedia
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The origin of words can teach us a lot. Take the etymology of the word “etymology” for example: The word is Greek – a concatenation of the word étumon (“true sense”) and logia (“the study of”). It is clear that the Greeks believed that by studying the origin of their words they were peering into their true meanings. And indeed, to glimpse at the true meanings of the traditions of Passover, the etymologies of words we use at the Seder can be helpful.

Let’s start with the name of the holiday itself - Passover. The English word "Passover" is a translation of the holiday's name in Hebrew, Pesach, which means to "skip," "omit," or "pass over". Traditionally the name is believed to have originated with God "passing over" the homes of the Jews when he was killing the firstborn sons of Egypt. That is possible, since the root p-s-kh generally means "to pass over" in Hebrew.

However, for one thing, scholars now suspect that the specific biblical passage connecting between the Passover sacrifice and "passing over" the homes of the Jews in Egypt may be a later addition.

For another thing, the same root, p-s-kh, had another meaning: “to placate.” The Assyrians used it in that way in the ancient Semitic language of Akkadian, which is related to Hebrew, which may indicate that in Hebrew too the word meant just that.. Also, the author of the so-called "Onkelos Translation" of the Bible from Hebrew to Aramaic, in the beginning of the Common Era, seems to have understood "pasach" - the verb behind Pesach - in that way.

It is therefore plausible that originally the Passover sacrifice was originally an offer of placation to the god(s) and only later it was connected to the story of the Exodus.

The mysterious root of matza

Another name for the Passover holiday, in Hebrew, is Chag Hamatzot (“Holiday of Matza”). Yet the origins of the word matza - that unleavened bread eaten on Passover - bemuses rabbis and linguists alike. The key question is what is the Hebrew root at its core.

Some propose that the root is m-tz-tz, which means “to suck”, perhaps because the bread is completely dry, but this is a stretch. Others think the root may be n-tz-y, which could refer to haste - maybe the haste with which the original Passover matzas were made. However, this too seems unlikely, since matza is also mentioned in the Bible as being eaten as just a food, unconnected to Passover (e.g., Lot bakes his guests matza in Genesis 19:3).

Or, it could be that the word is a borrowed from some other language and isn't Hebraic at all. It is possible that in biblical times “matza” meant “barley bread” since Passover falls at the beginning of the barley harvest: wheat is only harvested several weeks later closer to Pentecost (Shavuot).

If this is the case “matza” may have been borrowed from Greek or another related language – “maza” in Greek is barley gruel, which may have been adopted by the Hebrews and turned into a word for barley bread, and later, to barley bread that hasn’t risen.

Herbs and a pig

Let’s move on to to some of the dishes served in the Passover seder. Khazeret or hazeret is a bitter herb that Seder celebrants put on the Passover plate to represent the bitterness of the slavery in Egypt.

The word appears in the Mishnah (Pesachim 10), but is rather enigmatic. It seems to have come from the Hebrew root kh-z-r, but this root usually denotes “returning,” yet in the Mishnah, it is clearly a word related to a foodstuff.

Some other words that share the root have no obvious connection to "return" either, such as the Hebrew word for pig – khazir.

So we don’t know why khazeret is got its name, but what is it? The Talmud states that it is lettuce, and that is how it was understood by later generations too.

But Jews living in Eastern Europe had difficulty getting lettuce to eat, at Passover or any other time, and used horseradish instead. The horseradish tradition spread from Eastern Europe to other Jewish communities around the world, even those that can obtain lettuce. In fact, the practice became so commonplace that the modern Hebrew word for horseradish is khazeret.

Another dish traditionally eaten during the seder is karpas, which gets dipped into salt water to represent tears shed during the years of slavery.

The word appears just once in the Bible, in the book of Esther, where it means cotton, and comes from India through Persian. But this is just a coincidence. The karpas in the seder has a different etymology. It comes from Greek, where karpos means a fresh raw vegetable.

The Jerusalem Talmud says that karpas was patrilasion, which is Greek for parsley. Today however Jews use a range of vegetables to represent karpas, including parsley, celery, and boiled potatoes.

By the way, in Modern Hebrew, karpas means celery. But when asking for celery at the grocery, most Israelis call it by the more cosmopolitan word “celery”.

Then there is kharoset or haroset, a mixture of fruit and nuts, often with apples too, that is eaten during the seder. The Talmud states that the word comes from the Hebrew word for clay – kheres – and for lack of a better theory, we’ll have to take it at its word.

The Passover meal finishes with the eating of a piece of matza called afikoman, but its etymology is so complicated that we have devoted a separate article just for it.

Not all Passover related words are so enigmatic. The name of the ritual meal itself - seder - comes from the Hebrew word for "order," apparently referring to the scripted activities and reading portions it entails.

The name of the book that contains the instructions of this order, the Haggadah, is first mentioned in the Talmud. The name is simply Hebrew for “telling”, and it refers to to the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus on Passover each year to the next generation, for ever more.

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