What's in a Word?

For the week ending 17 June 2017 / 23 Sivan 5777

Spy versus Spy

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Conventional linguists trace the origins of the English word “tourist” to the Old French word tourner (“to turn”). However, Dr. Isaac Elchanan Mozeson — an unconventional linguist — finds the etymology of the word “tourist” in the Hebrew word tor. The infinitive form of that word la-tor (“to scout”) is used, inter alia, to describe the actions of the twelve spies which Moshe sent to scout the Holy Land. They are known in the Bible as tarim (“scouts” or “spies”). The conceptual similarity between “tourists” and tarim is striking: the Hebrew word refers to one who scouts a land to gather information, and the English word refers to one who explores a land for ostensibly recreational purposes. Nonetheless, the twelve spies which Moshe sent are generally known as meraglim — not tarim. What then is the difference between the words le’ragel and la’tor if both refer to spying/scouting a foreign land?

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that la’tor denotes the act of searching for the good, while le’ragel denotes searching for the bad. La’tor seeks to identify the positive attributes of that which is being spied upon, while le’ragel seeks to find its weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

When Moshe sent spies to scout the Holy Land, he did not do so for conventional military reasons. G-d had already promised the Jews the Holy Land, and they were destined to conquer that Land no matter what. So why did Moshe dispatch spies to scout out the Land? He did so in order to strengthen the nation’s conviction. He hoped that the spies would observe all of the good of the Holy Land and report it back to the people, who would then be more excited to help realize G-d’s promise. However, ultimately, the spies betrayed their mission and instead began to gather information about the perceived disadvantages of the Holy Land, dashing the nation’s hopes for a “good Land”.

Because the spies were originally commissioned to investigate the positive aspects of the Holy Land, they and their actions are always described in Numbers as tarim. However, in the hindsight of Deuteronomy — which Moshe orated at the very end of his life (about forty years after the incident of the spies) — the actions of the spies are described as vayachperu (Deut. 1:22), or le’ragel (Deut. 1:24). The former word is the verb form of “digging” and refers to the deliberate mining of damning information. Rabbi Mecklenburg points out that the word chafirah (“digging”) is related to the word cherpah (“disgrace”), and in the case of Moshe’s spies refers to them “digging” for negative information about the Holy Land. Perhaps we can add that the second word, le’ragel, is derived from the Hebrew word regel (“foot”), which is the lowest part of the body. It is thus appropriately applied to refer to the spies’ searching out the lowest elements of the Holy Land to describe in their testimony.

Moshe’s spies are traditionally referred to as meraglim. That term is never used by the Bible to describe these people, but is rather derived from the verb le’ragel that Deuteronomy uses to describe their actions. The word mergalim does, however, appear in the Bible in the context of spies when Yosef-in-disguise, as viceroy of Egypt, accuses his brothers of being spies. In that situation, the term mergalim is used, and appears seven times in a decidedly negative context (Gen. 42). Besides the story of Joseph and his brothers, the term meraglim also appears in the Bible to describe the two unnamed spies whom Joshua sent to scout the vulnerabilities of the Canaanite city Jericho before the Jews arrived there (Josh. 2:1). These and other instances of the word megalim/meragel in the Bible denote people sent to expose the susceptibilities and weaknesses of an enemy. (Interestingly, the popular Midrashic understanding is that the two men whom Joshua sent were Calev and Pinchas. However, Pseudo-Philo identifies them as Kenaz and Seenamias, the sons of Calev. Another Midrash says that they were Peretz and Zerach — Judah’s twin sons.)

In short, meraglim are spies who focus on their enemy’s weaknesses and points of vulnerability, while tarim are, so to speak, “tourists” who explore enemy territory for the purposes of collecting positive information about their land. Fascinatingly, David Curwin notes that the Hebrew words tor (“scout”) and tor (“dove”) have a conceptual link, because doves are first mentioned in the Bible when Noah sent such a bird from his ark to explore the land and see if the waters of the deluge had yet subsided. The dove which he sent was expected to report something positive about the land outside of Noah’s ark.

  • Author’s note: Le’Zechut Refuah Shleimah for Bracha bat Chaya Rachel

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