What’s in a Name?
Hazzan Marcia Lane

Like all three pilgrimage festivals, Passover has several names. It’s called Hag ha-Pesah, the ‘passing-over’ holiday, in Exodus 12:11 and in several other places in the Torah. That name refers to the fact that when the Angel of Death comes to kill the firstborn in the land of Egypt, he skips, passes over, the houses of the Israelites which are marked with blood on the doorposts. In acknowledgement of the connection of the holiday to the cycle of the agricultural year, it’s also called Hag ha-Aviv, the Springtime festival, alluded to in Deuteronomy 16:1.

It seems obvious that this holiday, during which we are prohibited from consuming or even possessing hametz, leavened foods, should also be called Hag ha-Matzot, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That name occurs in Exodus 12:8 and in several other places. The rabbinic name for Passover is Z’man Heiruteinu, the time of our freedom, a phrase first found in the prayerbook of R. Amram bar Sheshnah (9th century Babylonia). If I were looking for a biblical passage that epitomizes this name, I think I would pick Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15:1-21. It is the triumphal outpouring of a people celebrating liberation.

All of these are the names by which we humans describe this holiday. But there is another name that is specified in the Torah, in the narrative of the events of the night when God strikes down the firstborn of Egypt. The voice of the anonymous narrator describes the events of that night, and the leave-taking of the Israelites. He tells us that this night was exactly 430 years to the day that the Israelites had sojourned in Egypt.

Now, the sojourning of the people of Israel who dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years. And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even on that very day, it came to pass that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. (Ex. 16:40-41)

And then in the very next verse, we have the following description of the night that is Erev Pesah, the evening of the first seder.

It is a night of watchfulness (Leil Shimurim) for the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt. This is a night of watching kept for the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. (Ex. 16:42)

That word, shimurim, can be translated as watchfulness, but also as anticipation, as preservation, as guarding. The implications are of a vigil. Perhaps it refers to the watchfulness with which we are told to eat the Pesah meal “… motneikhem hagurim, na’aleikhem b’ragleikhem, u’makelkhem b’yedkhem; va-akhaltem otoh b’hipazon ….” With your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand; eat it in haste…. (Ex. 12:11) And yet, the syntax of the sentence clearly states, “it is a night of shimurim for the Lord.” So perhaps it is God’s name for this holiday! The medieval philosophers see these two passages, the one emphasizing the years of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt (or other lands) and the one indicating that the night of Pesach was a vigil for God, as being connected.

Rashi comments that 430 years refers to the promise of redemption that God made to Abraham (then Abram) at the time of the covenant between the pieces (Gen. 15:13). “Know for certain that your offspring will be strangers in a land not their own, and will serve them and will be afflicted by them for four hundred years. And the nation they serve, I will judge them and after that I will bring them out with great wealth.” (The additional 30 years is the time until the birth of Isaac.) That total of 430 years implies not just the time in Egypt, but all the years that the Israelites had dwelled in different lands, in countries not their own. It also implies that even the eventual land of Israel, then Canaan, was in a way a temporary sojourn. And from the moment that God makes the promise, from the moment of his first covenant with Abraham, God is in a watchful mode.

Concerning the designation of Leil Shimurim, the Night of Watchfulness, Rashi writes, “(this was the night) for which the Holy One, blessed be He, was waiting and anticipating; to fulfill His promise to take them out of the Land of Egypt.” The Mekhilta comments, “… from that time onward Israel is guarded (m’shumar) from harmful spirits, as it is said, ‘He will not permit the destroyer to come….” That is, God’s guardianship of Israel takes two forms; on the one hand, God has been anticipating this night ever since the night of the covenant with Abraham. And on the other, God is Shomer Yisrael, the One who guards the people Israel from harm on this night of nights.

In the Zohar, in the commentary on Parashat Emor, the phrase Leil Shimurim is given an additional, mystical layer of meaning. It represents the moment when the male and female aspects of the divine unite. Because on the fourteenth night of the month the moon (which symbolizes the Shekhinah, the feminine) is completely full – “imbued by the radiance of the sun (masculine) … the holy powers of the King are aroused. Then it is written: it is a night of watch for YHVH (Exodus 12:42), for holy coupling occurs, and it is total watchfulness.” (Zohar, trans. by Daniel Matt. Vol. 8, 3:95 and note #176.)

As if that didn’t give us enough to fire the imagination, this year the night of April 14th, which corresponds to the 14th of Nissan, will bring us a total eclipse of a full moon, a phenomena called a Blood Moon. Just as on that night so many centuries ago, when the cries of pain and loss rang out from every Egyptian household, when blood became both a symbol of death and of freedom, this night is Leil Shimurim, a night of anticipation and promise. May your sedarim be meaningful and joyous, and your week of Passover be a week of freedom from all hametz.


Hazzan Marcia Lane has served congregations in New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. She currently lives in Nashville.