Behaalotacha: Pesach Sheni, Absent-Minded Passover? ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
This week's Torah portion discusses the highly unusual opportunity to fulfil a
biblical precept -the Passover offering- who's prescribed time has passed. This
article dissects the Hebrew word פסח, comparing it to the range of words
containing the two Hebrew letters ס-ח, with interesting findings. Read it to the
end without getting distracted, if you can sacrifice a few minutes.
If any man will become contaminated through a human corpse or on a distant road, whether you or your generations, he shall make the pesach-offering for God (Numbers 9:10).
There are more instances of the root פסח in the weekly portion of B’haaloscha than in any other Scriptural portion. As famously suggested by Arizal (Shaar HaTefillah, Ksav Yad, pg. 81b), this root alludes to the compound word פֶּה סָח, “the mouth utters,” an allusion to the requirement that one recount in great detail the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt during the Passover seder in which he consumes the pesach-offering.
Thus, according to this definition, the term סָח is understood in the sense of שִׂיחָה (conversation, discussion), by way of exchanging the similarly sounding letters ס and שׂ. Using the root סח instead of שׂח to mean conversing is quite common in the Talmudic vernacular, as in, for example (Gittin 28b): “It is an established principle that a heathen’s testimony is viewed as truthful if he speaks (מסיח) innocently” (i.e., if he is unaware that his testimony is being used as evidence, hence eliminating the possibility of ulterior motives).
However, it should be noted that the Sages used a similar word to mean an action that is performed without intent, as if one’s mind is utterly removed from it. For example, it is stated in Sanhedrin 97a: “Three things come about with (היסח) diversion of the mind. They are: the Messiah, a find, and a scorpion.” It is interesting to note that common to both of these terms is the notion of lack of concentration; speech or action performed with diverted thought. Likewise, we find numerous instances of the term שִׂיחָה (using the letter שׂ) that also connotes a conversation with complete lack of focus, such as the expressions שִׂיחַת חוּלִין, commonplace speech, or שִׂיחָה בְּטֵילָה, insignificant speech. We also find instances in which the term can be understood according to either of the two meanings. For example, the Talmud teaches that, “we may not speak (מַסִיחִין) over a cup of blessing” (Berachos 51b), and that “one may not speak (מַסִיחִין) during a meal, lest his windpipe precede the esophagus [in receiving the food]” (Taanis 5b). Thus, in addition to the simple meaning of “do not speak,” both instances can also be interpreted as warning against diverting one’s attention — in the former case from the cup, due to its sanctity, and in the latter case from the food, due to the physical danger.
Now one might indeed wonder why the Sages chose to describe speech of this nature with the specific words שִׂיחָה or מֵסִיחַ, rather than one of the multitude of alternative expressions for speech such as סיפור, דיבור, אמירה, etc. Yerios Shlomo (Vol. 2: 12a, explanation 2) explains that indeed the original meaning of the term stems from the notion of diversion and removal, as in the verse, and you will be torn (וְנִסַחְתֶּם) from upon the ground (Deut. 28:63). Radak (root ‘נסח’) similarly defines the expression ‘היסח’ to mean diversion of attention, as in the verse (II Kings 11:6), Be careful to keep the watch of the palace מַסָח, which means that they must diligently keep their watch of the palace, and keep from diverting your attention to other matters. Similarly, the Talmudic phrase היסח הדעת, diversion of the mind (see Pesachim 34a) means that one diverts his attention from this matter, and focuses his mind and desire on an alternate matter. Pri Megadim, in the second of his series of letters published as a foreword to his work, cites Tishbi (root נסח) as including the term נוּסַח (text version) under this root as well, since it is based on copying from one book to another, and is thus linked to the removal from the land (ונסחתם) cited above.
However, if the root of this term is indeed diversion of the mind, we must understand the purpose of alluding to our recounting of the Exodus from Egypt in the term פֶּסַח. Can it be that we were commanded to relate this story with a diversion of the mind or lack of attention?
Before we try to answer this question, let us focus on a collection of words in Biblical Hebrew that include the root ‘סח’: 1. ‘נסח’, 2. ‘סחה’, 3. ‘סחב’, 4. ‘סחף’, 5. ‘סחר’, 6. ‘סחש’, 7. ‘כסח’, 8. ‘פסח’. I would like to propose that common to the definition of all of these terms are the notions of uprooting, removal, sweeping/dragging away. Let us explain each case individually.
1) נסח: As we have already demonstrated, this term always connotes uprooting and removal, as in, and you will be torn (וְנִסַחְתֶּם) from upon the ground (Deut. 28:63); I will scrape away (וְסִחֵיתִי) her soil from her (Ezekiel 26:4); He will break you and tear you away (וְיִסָּחֲךָ) from the tent (Psalms 52:7); and the faithless uprooted (יִסְּחוּ) from it (Proverbs 2:22); God will uproot (יִסַּח) the house of the arrogant (ibid. 15:25); and in the Aramaic verse, shall have a beam torn out (יִתְנְסַח) of his house (Ezra 6:11).
2) סחה: Ribag and Radak assigned the word סְחִי to the root “סחה”. According to Rashi, it is derived from the word וְנִסַחְתֶּם. In his commentary on the verse, You made us filth (סְחִי) and refuse (וּמָאוֹס) among the nations (Lamen. 3:45), Rashi explains that “סְחִי וּמָאוֹס refers to what the Mishnah calls כיחו וניעו, phlegm (see Bava Kama 3b), which one discharges (שניסח) from the lungs and expectorates through the throat.”
3) סחב: Connotes dragging something to a different location, and thus its uprooting and removal from its original site: and we will drag (וְסָחַבְנוּ) it to the ravine (II Kings 17:13, w. Metz. Tzion); I shall appoint over them … the dogs (לִסְחוֹב) to drag off [corpses] (Jer. 15:3, w. Rashi); if the youngest of the flock will indeed (יִסְחָבוּם) drag them off (ibid. 49:20).
4) סחף: Connotes a thorough uprooting and washing away, as in the following examples: Why are all your warriors (נִסְחַף) swept away (Jer. 46:15, see Rashi); a rain that (סוֹחֵף) washes away (Proverbs 28:3, see Metz. Tzion); and in the Mishnah, “one’s field (נסתחפה) was washed away” (Kesubos 7b).
5) סחר: a merchant/trader — he is dragged from site to site, wandering around in every location that contains customers and clients, and dragging along his wares. For example: the king’s traders (סֹחֲרֵי) bought them (I Kings 10:28); (for) the seafaring merchant (סֹחֵר) of Sidon (Isaiah 23:2). We also have a slight allusion to this link in the fact that the Aramaic word for a merchant is תַּגַר (see Targum Yonasan to both of the verses), which is close to the word “גרר” (dragged).
6) סחש: Fruits in the field that were planted in the previous year are called סָפִיחַ. The fruits that grow in the subsequent year from the leftover seeds that were “dragged along” from the previous year’s סָפִיחַ are called the סָחִישׁ: And this shall be the sign for you; You will eat this year of the (סָפִיחַ) aftercrop, and in the second year from the סָחִישׁ (II Kings 19:29, see Ralbag, Metz. Tzion). This verse is also repeated verbatim in Isaiah 37:30, with the word סָחִישׁ appearing in a permutated form of the original, שָׁחִיס (with Radak explaining that this is one of a number of examples of this nature in Scripture, such as כֶּבֶשׂ and כֶּשֶׂב, or שַׂלְמָה and שִׂמְלָה).
7) כסח: This word has various related meanings. In Psalms 80:17, we find: consumed by fire, כְּסוּחָה, with Rashi explaining that כְּסוּחָה means razed by fire, and is linked to the word זמר, prune, as we find that in the verse, and your vineyard you shall not (תִזְמוֹר) prune (Lev. 25:4), Onkelos translates תִזְמוֹר as תִכְסָח. In Isaiah 5:25, we find: and their corpses will be כַּסוּחָה. Ibn Ezra interprets it as thrown away, and links it to the aforementioned כְּסוּחָה. However, Rashi treats the first letter כַּ not as part of the root, but simply as the prefix “כ”, which means “like.” He thus interprets כַּסוּחָה to mean “like the spit and phlegm (which as we already noted earlier, is referred to by the Sages as סִיחַ), which is expectorated from the person’s body and is repugnant.
8) פסח: In our verse, it is simply a noun, the name of the offering brought on the eve of Passover. However, elsewhere in Scripture it appears in verb form, meaning to pass over. For example, I shall see the blood, (וּפָסַחְתִּי) and I shall pass over you. Now, in his commentary to that verse, Rashi first notes that some interpret it to mean I will have mercy on you, as we find in Isaiah (31:5), פָּסוֹחַ וְהִמְלִיט, meaning having mercy for and delivering. However, he then adds, “But I say that every instance of פסח in Scripture is an expression of leaping and passing over. [Here,] וּפָסַחְתִּי means that God passed over the Israelite homes to enter the Egyptian homes, as they lived interspersed among one another [the two interpretations originate in a dispute between R’ Yishmael and R’ Josiah in Mechilta]. The second interpretation is indeed the far more accepted one; hence, the name “Passover” for the festival of the Exodus from Egypt.
Thus, according to Rashi, the rescue of the Israelites occurred through the uprooting and diversion of the destroying angel from his intended route, which is defined here as a leaping and passing over. I would like to propose that this may also be alluded to in the alternative exposition of פֶּסַח suggested by Arizal, פֶּה סַח” (the mouth speaks),” albeit with an alternate vowelization and meaning of פֹּה סַח, meaning, here I diverted. In other words, God says: “Here I diverted the destroying angel, causing him to leap over his original path of destruction.” In this manner we can also answer the question we raised earlier: Why does the word פֶּסַח allude to פֶּה סַח, which seemingly implies that we must not only relate the tale of the Exodus, but we must do so with a “lack of attention”? For the diversion alluded to by the word סַח is not meant to imply that we should relate this story with a “diverted mind,” i.e., a lack of attention. Rather, it is intended as an allusion that, in relating the story of the Exodus, we should be sure to stress the diversion of the destroying angel that was at the heart of the Passover miracle.
In closing, let us raise our voice in prayer, that the Almighty shall constantly divert (יסיח) and sweep away (יסחף) our enemies and foes from their evil schemes, and may He uproot them (יכחסם) and leave them lame (פיסחים), and cause the Final Redemption to leap forward speedily in our times, Amen.