Let’s NOT Talk About It
Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman? No,a not the one with the farmer’s daughter. This one has to do with the Hebrew root ר–כ–ל (resh, khaf, lamed) and its derivatives, רכְלִים (rokhlim), biblical spice and perfume merchants, and הלְכֵי רָכִיל (holkhei rakhil), rumormongers and scandalmongers.
In the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Book of Proverbs, a holekh rakhil is described as a “base fellow, one who cannot keep a confidence to himself.” Leviticus (19:16) has a more forbidding use for our root, commanding, לֺא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ (lo telekh rakhil be-amekha), “You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people.”
Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, likens רְכִילוּת (rekhilut), gossip, to the shedding of blood. Rekhilut is often juxtaposed with שִׂמְחָה לְאֵיד (simhah le-eid), the pleasure taken in somebody else’s misfortune, schadenfreude. Rekhilut is also used synonymously with לְשׁן הָרָע (leshon ha-ra)—often pronounced loshon horeh—the evil tongue. Semantically speaking, and more to our point, rekhilut should be distinguished from רְכִילָה (rekhilah), the peddling of רְכֻלָה (rekhulah), merchandise, at the מַרְכּלֶת (markolet), market.
According to some linguists, however, the words רכֵל (rokhel), itinerant peddler, and רֶכֶל (rekhel), slanderous gossip, are related to, of all things, the word רֶגֶל (regel), foot. A hint: Are not the biblicalמְרַגְלִים (meraglim), a group of Israelites who spy out the Land of Israel and bring back a slanderous report, also מְרַכְלִים (merakhlim), defamers? An even stronger proof is found in Psalms (15:3), which insists that only a person who has לֺא רֶגֶל עַל לְשׁנ (lo regel al leshono), “no slander upon his tongue,” may dwell in the tent of the Lord.
In the Song of Songs, the expression אַבְקַת רכֵל (avkat rokhel), literally, merchant’s powder, refers to sweet-smelling spices and perfumes. The Talmud, in a lyrical mood, takes avkat rokhel metaphorically to refer to a great scholar.
In rabbinic Hebrew, the word רכְלת (rokhlot) denotes “success” on mercantile journeys. The prophet Ezekiel, however, uses our root four times to berate successful businessmen for their arrogance and self-importance. Reprimanding one who has grown haughty בְּרֺב חָכְמָתְךָ וּבְרְכֻלְתְךָ (be-rov hokhmatekha u-ve-rekhultekha), “by your great shrewdness in trade,” Ezekiel prophesies that one day “foreigners” will come to “strike down your splendor.”
Today, life is more casual. When asked how last evening’s gathering of friends went, one may be heard to reply, laconically, רִיכַלְנוּ (rikhalnu), “We just shot the breeze.” And for 30 years, that’s what you and I have been doing.
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