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The Root ‘Resh-Gimel-Lamed’

The basic meaning of the noun רגל is foot. But several other words in Tanach derive from it. The verb רגל means “to spy,” because a spy walked about. The verb רגל also means “to slander” because the slanderer walked around to spread his tales. For this meaning, see Samuel 2, 19:28. See also Psalms 15:3.

Many suggest that the verb רכל, “to go about from place to place (for trade or gossip)” derives from רגל as well. (Similarly, in English, the word “peddler” derives from the word for foot, as any podiatrist can tell you!)

What about the word רגיל, “to be accustomed to?” We do not have this meaning in Tanach, but the word is found many times in Rabbinic literature. It surely derives from our root as well. Klein suggests that the original meaning “go on foot” expanded to “go about frequently.” I also saw the idea that it comes from “running to do something.” (רגיל is not related to the English word “regular.”)

We have תרגלתי at Hoshea 11:3: “veanochi tirgalti leEphraim—I caused Ephraim to walk” (taught him to walk). Here the verb is in the hiphil, causative. (In modern Hebrew, the verb means “to train, to drill.”)

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At Numbers 22:28, Bilam’s donkey asks: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these “shalosh regalim?” Those last two words undoubtedly mean “three times” here. We have these words again with this meaning in the continuation of the story at 22:32 and 22:33.

Now let us look at Exodus 23:14: “ … shalosh regalim tachog li bashanah.” We are all used to understanding those first two words as: “three festivals.” For example, Rav Hirsch translates “regalim” as “pilgrim-festivals,” i.e., festivals that require travel to the Temple. This is how the phrase “shalosh regalim” is used in rabbinic literature, starting with the mishna.

But what does “shalosh regalim” really mean in that verse?: “three times you will keep a feast to me in the year.” See, e.g., Rashi, Shmuel David Luzzatto, Brown-Driver-Briggs, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society of America translation, E. Klein, Daat Mikra and the JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus. The last verse on Exodus 23:14 explains: “Hebrew ‘shalosh regalim,’ synonymous with ‘shalosh peamim’ in verse 17, still has this original meaning in Numbers 22:28,32,33. In post-biblical Hebrew (i.e., the mishna), the phrase came to signify the three pilgrimage festivals; the singular ‘regel’ became interchangeable with ‘hag’ and was used for a pilgrimage in general … ”

Here is Exodus 23:17 referred to above: “shalosh peamim bashanah yeiraeh kol zechurcha … ”

How did “regalim” get the “times” meaning? E. Klein suggests that from the literal meaning “three steps” arose the meaning “three times.”

The same thing occurs perhaps with the word פעם. According to many, it originally meant “foot.” See, e.g., Song of Songs 7:2: “How beautiful are paamayich in sandals?” It then evolved into its “time” meaning. (Others views the original meaning of פעם as “strike, beat.”)

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Another word that some might think has a “spy” meaning is תור. That is the word used in parashat Shelach. See, e.g., Numbers 13:2, 16 and 17. It is only in Deuteronomy that we have וירגלו (1:24). Also, ויחפרו (1: 22, dig, search for). But later in Shelach, in the section about tzitzit, we have the root תור again and it certainly does not have a “spy” meaning. We have: “velo taturu acharei levavchem … ”

The explanation is that the fundamental meaning of the root תור is only סבוב—to go around. This is, for example, how Luzzatto understands it. (See similarly Mandelkern: “halichah vesevivah.”) And in parshat tzitzit, it merely means “rove about or go here and there.” See Luzzatto to Numbers 15:39 (D. Klein’s translation).

Rather than “spies,” a better title for the group, focusing on the repeated use of the word תור in Shelach, would be “scouts.” (This is the translation in the JPS Numbers commentary.)

According to Luzzatto’s final view (his views on this evolved over the years), a “meragel” seeks to discover and make known that which others want to keep hidden, while a “tar” is merely investigating things that are not kept hidden. See D. Klein’s edition of Luzzatto, Numbers 13:2, in the footnote.

In the version of the story in Deuteronomy, the mission was initiated by the people. Perhaps what was sought in that version was more secretive information (ויחפרו and וירגלו). Regarding the story in Shelach, as one commentary has written, the story was only about sending “a cross-section of the tribal leaders so that their positive report would verify the outstanding qualities of God’s land and dispel doubts about the people’s ability to conquer it. The venture was more a test of faith than a military expedition.”

(In the view of Luzzatto, the men whom Moses sent in Shelach were meant merely to observe the country and describe it to the people. The people were supposed to rely on God to fight their battles. See the footnote in Klein’s edition.)

The Tanach never refers to these 12 leaders sent by Moshe as “meraglim.” (“Mergalim” is used elsewhere in Tanach for more secretive missions. See, e.g., Joshua 2:1 referring to two sent by Joshua.) The term “meraglim” for the 12 individuals sent in Shelach is first found only in statements by Tannaim, e.g., Mishna Sanhedrin 10:3.

Support for Luzzatto’s view of תור as סבוב is Kings 1, 10:15. Here “tarim” are mentioned next to “mischar harochlim.” The meaning of this phrase is “traders and the business of merchants.” “Tarim,” like “rochlim,” are people who go around all over. See similarly Chronicles 2, 9:14. Also, in Akkadian, the root cognate to תור has meanings like “to turn back” and “to go around, to circle.” See Hayim Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion to Biblical Hebrew,” page 430. It has nothing to do with spying or military matters.

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In modern Hebrew, we have the word “toranut,” in which people take a turn volunteering. This word is derived from Esther 2:12 and 2:15, where “tor” means a person’s turn. (See, e.g., 2:12: “uvehagia tor naarah … ”) But where did this meaning come from?

Daat Mikra suggests it derives from the biblical word טור, which means “row.” We also have שורה in Tanach meaning “row.” (ת and ש often interchange.) See Job 24:11 and perhaps Jeremiah 5:10. (Mandelkern had taken this approach earlier.) When one is in a “tor,” one is “in line.” Daat Mikra writes that this root originated in Sumerian (a non-Semitic language).

Others suggest that “a person’s turn” in Esther derives from our תור root. For example, E. Klein writes that it is “probably derived from base תור (to go about, turn about).” The type of jewelry, תור, mentioned at Song of Songs 1:10-11 may be another example of a “row” meaning: jewelry where items are placed in sequence. See Daat Mikra.

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I would like to acknowledge the posts at balashon.com on “regel” and “paam” from October 2006, and on “tor” from June 2006, which provided some of the above sources.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. On the subject of the word “turn,” this newspaper is so successful that one must “turn” many of its pages to find my column!

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