Pesach: The Pele(wonder) of Pesach — “And It Makes Me Wonder” ~ Tzvi Abrahams

פֶּלֶא: wonder

נְפִילָה: falling

פִּיל: elephant

תְּפִילָה: prayer

הִפְלָה: separate, distinctive

פֶּלֶא: Wonder

There are foolish people who have gone down to Egypt to find evidence that the miracles of the plagues really happened. They found evidence in hieroglyphics, and then they tried to explain away how all the phenomena could have happened naturally, by cause and effect. They explain that some disease affected the waters in the rivers, which caused the fish to die, the frogs to come out, the lice, etc.

Fools! The real wonder פֶּלֶא/wonder, the peleof Pesach, was how Hashem separated us from the Egyptians; the blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn born did not affect us. We were handpicked for life and they for punishment, to show the whole world the greatness of Hashem — וְהִבְדִילָנוּ מִין הַטוֹעִים/that He separated us from the ones that stray.

פֶּלֶאis a wonder. When we are children, life is full of wonder; a baby can be mesmerized for hours by a plastic cup, seeing things for the first time, examining them, analyzing their textures, shapes, colors, and function. But slowly, as we get older, we get used to things and we lose the aspect of wonderment.

נְפִילָה: Falling

Rivkah, when she saw Yitzchak for the first time, fell off her camel:וַתִּפֹּל מֵעַל הַגָּמָל. The sages say this was because she saw him coming out of Gan Eden upside down. She was in wonderment, and the word used to describe this action is lashonנְפִילָה/falling.

Why do we fall? Sometimes, when we are struck by wonder, it can be so powerful that it can knock us off our feet. We lose our balance and we fall from our ordinary state of seeing the world. Instead, we are in a state of amazement, literally “knock your socks off!”

פִּיל: Elephant

The Gemara in Brachossays: הַרוֹאֶה פִּיל בְּחַלוֹם פְּלִאוֹת נֶעֶשׂוּ לוֹ/if one sees an elephant in his dream, it is a sign that wonders will happen to him.1פִּילis called so because it is the biggest animal and in the times of the Greeks was used in warfare like a tank, causing the enemy to flee and fall.

תְּפִילָה: Prayer

תְּפִילָהis not only called so because we fall down and pray, but it is also related to wonderment. How can it be that when we open our hearts to heartfelt prayer we see transformations happen in our lives? It should leave us awestruck in wonder.

הִפְלָה: Separate, Distinctive

If you survived a plane crash where everyone on board died except you, your wife, and your children, or you were thrown into the lion’s den like Daniel, or thrown into a pit full of snakes like Yosef, or into a fiery furnace like Avraham, and survived, would you not be in wonder?!

Coming back to our exodus from Egypt, in the plague of wild animals, thepasuksays: וְהִפְלֵיתִי בַיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶת אֶרֶץ גֹּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר עַמִּי עֹמֵד עָלֶיהָ לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת שָׁם עָרֹב לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי ה’בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ/and I will separate on that day the land of Goshen where my people are, a place without wild animals, in order that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.2

וְהִפְלָה ה’בֵּין מִקְנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל וּבֵין מִקְנֵה מִצְרָיִם/and Hashem separated between the cattle of the Bnei Yisrael and the Egyptians.3

וְנִפְלִינוּ אֲנִי וְעַמְּךָ/and I will niflinu, I and your people, from all the people that are on the face of the earth.4Rashi comments that the word niflinuhas a connotation of “and you will be separate in this matter from all the people,” just like Hashem separated the cattle herds of Israel and Egypt.

נִפְלָאֹת/And behold I am cutting a brisopposite all your people, and I will make wonders that have not existed in all of the land and all of the goyim, and the people will see that you are within the deeds of Hashem, because awesome is my dealings with your people.5Rashi explains lashonnefilahas being separated from all the nations of star worshippers in that the Divine Presence will not rest upon them.

In all the above pesukimwe see a common thread: that the real נִפְלָאֹת/wonders that Hashem performed in Egypt were how He separated us from thegoyim. They worship the stars and are influenced by them, whereas Hashem compares us to the stars. We are above mazal, we are above the stars in that we arethe stars. We are the chosen nation,אַתָּהבְחַרְתָּנוּ, who shine Hashem’s presence in the world, a light among the nations.

שֶׁלֹּא עָשַׂנִי גּוֹי— We bless Hashem in the morning with the brachahthat He did not make us a goy. A friend of mine told me that when he was coming out of the mikvehone Shabbos afternoon, there were two Chassidim dancing and singing who appeared to be in an extreme state of joy. As he drew closer, he was able to make out the words they were singing and dancing to:שֶׁלֹּא עָשַׂנִי גּוֹי…שֶׁלֹּא עָשַׂנִי גּוֹי. In the prayerעָלֵינוּ לְשַׁבֵּחַ, wepraise Hashem that He did not make us like the goyim,who bow down to vanity and emptiness and to a god that doesn’t hear them. We bow and acknowledge before the King of Kings, HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

This should be our kavanahwhen we make Havdalah. Just like Hashem has made a separation between holy and profane, between light and darkness, so too Hashem has separated us, the Jewish Nation, from the other nations. Just like the sunrise, which separates light and darkness, leaves us in a state of wonderment, so too Havdalah, the separation that Hashem made between us and the goyimin Egypt and continues to do throughout history, should leave us in no less a state of wonderment. The difference is literally light and darkness.

Leaving Egypt is a state of mind. It is to know that we have been set aside by Hashem from all of the nations, using the lashonof pele/wonder. The fact that we are still here, a lone sheep among seventy wolves, is a wonder. The goyimhate us — yes, there might be a few righteous non-Jews here and there, but en masse they have proven many times over who they really are. If not the Egyptians, then it was the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Spanish, the pogroms, the English in York, the Germans, and now the whole world in the guise of the United Nations.

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ,שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ,אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ,וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

And it has stood for our fathers and us that not only one has stood against us to annihilate us, but in every generation they stand against us to annihilate is, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu saves us from their hands.6

“And it makes me wonder.”

1Brachos 56b.

2Shemos 8:18.

3Ibid., 9:4.

4Ibid., 33:16.

5Ibid., 34:10.

6Pesach Haggadah.

Pesach: Is Pesach really Passover? ~ Yehoshua Steinberg


  1. Merciful Skipping


שמ’ יב:יג – וראיתי את הדם ופסחתי עלכם.

Ex. 12:13 – I will see the blood and pass over you.


מכילתא (בא פרשה ז): וראיתי את הדם. היה ר’ ישמעאל אומר והלא הכל גלוי לפניו, שנאמר: ידע מה בחשוכא ונהורא עמיה שרא (דנ’ ב:כב), ואומר: גם חשך לא יחשיך ממך (תה’ קלט:יב), ומה ת”ל וראיתי את הדם. אלא בשכר מצוה שאתם עושים אני נגלה וחס עליכם, שנאמר: ופסחתי עליכם, אין פסיחה אלא חייס, שנאמר: כצפרים עפות כן יגן ה’ צבאות על ירושלם גנון והציל פסוח והמליט (ישע’ לא:ה). ופסחתי עליכם. ר’ יאשיה אומר אל תקרי ופסחתי אלא ופסעתי שהב”ה מדלג על בתי בני ישראל במצרים. שנאמר: קול דודי הנה זה בא מדלג על ההרים (שה”ש ב:ח).



Mechilta (Bo, Parsha 7): And I shall see the blood – Rabbi Ishmael said, is not everything revealed to Him, as it is written:  in the merit of the Mitzva which you perform I will reveal Myself and spare you, as it is written: He knows what is in the dark, and light dwells with Him (Dan. 2:22), and furthermore: Even darkness will not obscure [anything] from You (Ps. 139:12); Wherefore then, “And I shall see the blood”? Rather, in the merit of of the Mitzva that you have performed  I reveal Myself and pity you, as it is written: and pass over you   (ופסחתי). This term denotes mercy, as it is written: Like flying birds, so shall the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem, protecting and saving, passing over and rescuing (Is. 35:5). And pass over you – Rabbi Josiah said, read not ופסחתי (pass over) but ופסעתי (skip over), for the Holy One, blessed be He skipped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. As it is written: The sound of my beloved! Behold, he is coming, skipping over the mountains (Song 2:8).


Rabbi Josiah employs the Rabbinic tool of  אל תיקרי to support his exposition that  פסחתי (passing over) is similar in meaning (and close linguistically) to  פסעתי (skipping), and an אסמכתא (quasi-proof) from the verse in the Song of Songs, which refers to skipping, which his tradition taught him referred to the Israelite houses which were skipped over. This is, after all the common understanding of the word  פסחתי.


Rabbi Ishmael’s discourse on the other hand, is somewhat puzzling. What is the practical difference between “showing mercy” on the one hand and “skipping over” on the other – is the end result not the same… the Israelites’ houses will be skipped over, i.e. spared.

And what is the purpose of quoting the verse in Isaiah; the word פסוח does not appear to add anything to our understanding of  פסחתי – if both mean skipping, then why quote it? And if the point is to demonstrate that the word means “mercy” – how does this verse prove it?


Rashi paraphrases the two views from the Mechilta:


רש”י שמ’ יב:יג – ופסחתי – וחמלתי, ודומה לו: פסוח והמליט (ישע’ לא:ה). ואני אומר כל פסיחה לשון דלוג וקפיצה ופסחתי מדלג הי’ מבתי ישראל לבתי מצרים שהיו שרוים זה בתוך זה.


Rashi Ex. 12:13 – hˆT‰j‹xŠpU [is rendered] and I will have pity, and similar to it: “sparing ‹jIxŠP and rescuing” (Isa. 31:5). I say, however, that every [expression of] vŠjhˆx‰P is an expression of skipping and jumping. [Hence,] hˆT‰j‹xŠpU [means that] He was skipping from the houses of the Israelites to the houses of the Egyptians, for they were living one in the midst of the other.


By saying “and I say”, Rashi implies that he prefers the opinion of Rabbi Josiah over that of Rabbi Ishmael (and Onkelos, usually favored by Rashi). What is it that troubles Rashi about this opinion?


It must first be said that we English speakers are automatically prejudiced to the view of Rabbi Josiah by the mere use of the term “Passover.” This name presumes that the meaning of the word פסיחה is “skipping,” as Rabbi Josiah says. However, Rashi’s comments remind us that this definition is not accepted universally, and the literal definition may be completely different.


Rabbi Ishmael is troubled first and formost by the image of Hashem (Himself, and not through an angel or messenger, as the Haggadah reminds us) “skipping” from house to house to check for evidence of blood, since there is no need whatsoever for G-d in His Omniscence to do so. Therefore Rabbi Ishmael believes that the word  פסיחה may mean something different entirely. But why “mercy” specifically and how does he derive this from the verse in Isaiah?


  1. Benignly Sheltering


Let’s examine  the word  חס, here translated as mercy. This term is actually the source of the word  מחסה (refuge), as in:


תה סא:ה – אחסה בסתר כנפיך.

Ps. 61:5 – I will take shelter in the cover of Your wings forever.


תה ה:יב – וישמחו כל חוסי בך לעולם ירננו.

Ps. 5:12 – And let all who take refuge in You rejoice.


According to this, Rabbi Ishmael would be saying that  פסיחה means refuge and shelter, a definition that indeed provides  a very different understanding of the mechanism of the salvation of the Israelites on that fateful night. The  conventional image is that of death skipping from house to house and passing over those houses with the blood smeared on the doorposts; this  leaves the impression that the blood is somehow itself  imbued with a measure of power to ward off evil. But R. Ishmael asserts that since ועברתי denotes that Hashem Himself  is carrying out the deeds, the word  וראיתי cannot mean seeing the blood. Rather the word וראיתי here is like the הָפעל, i.e. like הראית בהר – I  revealed myself  to spare, to shelter your household.


This, then  is what is learned from the verse in Isaiah; the entire context there:גנן, הציל, המליט instills an  iron-clad confidence that no harm could possibly come to the city – as if it is utterly surrounded by an impenetrable spiritual forcefield, a fortified and indestructible refuge – מחסה.


III. How a Garden Grows


This is also reinforced by the etymology of the terms of salvation used in in the verse in Isaiah. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains the interrelationship between the root  גנן and its derivatives:


רש”ר הירש בר’ ב:ח – גן בעדן – ‘גן’ משרש ‘גנן’, ומכאן: ‘הגן’. נמצא ‘גן’: מקום גדור ושמור לצורך אדם (מצינו יחס זה גם בלע”ז: “garden” מיסוד  “guard”).


Rabbi S. R. Hirsch Gen. 2:8 – A garden in Eden –  גן (garden) is from the root גנן, from which derivesהגן  (protecting) as well. Therefore גן  means: an area enclosed and guarded for the enjoyment of people (this relationship exists in other languages as well: garden from guard).



  1. Shade me, O L-rd



The next word used in the verse is הציל. According to the 10th-century grammarian Menachem Ibn Saruk, the root of  הציל  are the two letters צל, the same word as shade or shadow. The implication is that the type of salvation specified by הציל is not e.g. extrication or destruction of the enemy, but simple shelter from danger, in the comforting shadow of the savior[1].


  1. From Rescuing to Cementing



The final word used in the passage in Isaiah, המליט, is usually  translated as rescuing or deliverance, as in:


יר’ יח:לט – כי מלט אמלטך ובחרב לא תפל.

Jer. 18:39 – For I will surely deliver you and you shall not fall by the sword.


Many commentators point out the similarity between the two words מלט and פלט, also meaning rescuing:


תה’ יח:ג – ה’ סלעי ומצודתי ומפלטי.

Ps. 18:3 – The Lord is my rock and my fortress, and a rescuer to me.


The early 20th-century linguist, Rabbi S. J. Shteiger, suggests a link to the word שלט as well, meaning shield[2] in the Tanach:


ש”ב ח:ז – ויקח דוד את שלטי הזהב .

II Sam. 8:7 – And David took the shields of gold.


And I humbly suggest adding the following word meaning refuge to the list:


במ’ לה:יא – ערי מקלט.

Num. 35:11 – Cities of refuge.


All of these words have two things in common: 1. the concept of protection and salvation.2. the letters לט.Indeed, we find the root לט in a similar sense as well:


מ”א יט:יג – ויהי כשמע אליהו וילט פניו באדרתו.

I Kings 19:13 And as Elijah heard, he wrapped his face in his mantle


The underlying concept of protection and salvation are actally illustrated by the seemingly unrelated noun form of the root מלט:


יר’ מג:ט – קח בידך אבנים גדלות וטמנתם במלט.

Jer. 43:9 – Take in your hand large stones and hide them in the mortar.


Mortar? Yes, mortar was used not only to hold bricks together, but to cover and protect them from the elements, or even to hide precious items when necessary to safekeeping, as here.


In short, Rabbi Ishmael looked at the context of the verse in Isaiah, and examined the context in which the word פסוח was used. Since all the other terms point to salvation though shelter, so too must פסוח  mean shelter, which he refers to as חייס, as in  מחסה – refuge.


Let us pray that the Hashem’s everlasting assurance to the Jewish People and His Eternal city continue to be fulfilled, that we be sheltered and protected even as evil is purged from the earth.


במהרה בימינו אמן.




[1] This is also the source of the Aramaic term for prayer: צלותא .

[2] This is why a government is called a שלטון – its principle purpose is to shield the population from harm.