Volume 30 Issue 3 12 Feb 2021 30 Shevat 5781

Word of the Week – Rachav

Rabbi Daniel Siegel – Head of Jewish Life

Ride the Wide Road

Rekhav Rechov Rachav

The root word רחב/Rachav, widely employed, as a name, a noun, a verb and an adjective, yields diverse but related meanings and messages.

Rachav, the “wide” one, is the name the Bible cheekily gives to the prostitute who secreted the Israelite spies reconnoitring Jericho before its capture. In her Dictionary of Words About Women, Jane Mills seeks to “take back” the word “Broad”, as referring to a “prostitute” or an “immoral woman”, and instead employs it in reference to a “woman who is liberal…and not limited or narrow in scope”.

Indeed, rachav often counterposes confining circumstances. In our prayers, we call out for help, echoing the words of Psalms, “Out of the narrow places (מצר/meitsar), I called upon Yah (the Lord), Yah answered me in a wide-open space (במרחב/BeMerchav)”. We might remember that the Israelites, out of the straits of מצריים/mitsrayim (Egypt), did not think they could gain the Promised Land when the first scouts reported back to Moshe. Here Rachav speaks supportive words to the Israelites spies, broadening their perception of the possible in winning Jericho.

Many of us have heard of the Jerusalem neighbourhood, רחביה/Rechavyah, named after Moshe’s grandson. This name, meaning the wide-open space of Yah (the Lord), in recalling the above-cited prayer ending with the words במרחב יה/BeMerchav Yah, also can be understood as a call by its founders to have their fortunes answered in the wide-open space of the Lord.

The word רחוב/Rechov, street, understandably derives from the root word רחב/Rachav, as they were the wide(r) thoroughfares making possible vehicular/commercial traffic.

רחובות/Rechovot, the plural form of Rechov, is a city 20 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, named after the Biblical site of the same name: “And they called it רחובות/Rechovot,saying ‘For the Lord has made an expanse (הרחיב/Herchiv) for us’”. One can see this biblical verse inscribed on the city’s logo.

It is not surprising that the root word רכב/rakhav, to ride, is often employed with the word רחוב/rechov, street. Regarding Mordechai (in the Purim story), we read וירכיבהו ברחוב העיר/VaYarkiveihu BiRchov Hair – “He (Haman) caused him to ride (led him on horseback) through the street of the city (square)”.

רחבעם/Rechavam, was the son of Solomon and the fourth King of Israel. Though his name means “He enlarges (רחבעם/Rechav) the people (am)”, his reign saw the diminishing of his kingdom. The ten northern Israelite tribes revolted, forming their own kingdom, leaving him with only the tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin. Not a virtuous king, he too took a ride, as depicted by Dante, but not one of honour as we find with Mordechai.

In Canto twelve of Purgatorio, we read:

O Rehoboam, here no threatening head
Your image shows; but a chariot now
Hurries you away, ere chase come, full of dread.

Dispatched in a word-play, רחבעם/Rechavam is hurried away on a chariot, which Hebrew word is רכב/rekhev (from the verb רכב/rakhav), down the pathways (רחובות/rechovot) of purgatory.

Rachav, too, is depicted by Dante. She, however, resides in Paradiso: “Know that within there Rahab is at peace…”. One might say that רחב/Rachav, having lived up to her name, in generosity and broadmindedness, has merited riding (רוכבת/rokhevet) the wide road ( רחוב רחב )  of honour and glory.