AM HA-AREẒ (Heb. עַם־הָאָרֶץ; lit., "people of the land").
In biblical Hebrew, the signification of the term varies in accord with its context. (a) Generally, it denotes "population," whether Israelite (ii Kings 16:15; 25:3; Ezek. 39:13; 45:22) or non-Israelite (Gen. 42:6 – of Egypt; Num. 14:9 – of Canaan; Ezra 4:4 – of the province of Judah). (b) In the plural (Heb. עַמֵּי־הָאָרֶץ/הָאֲרָצוֹת) it denotes foreign (= heathen) populations, e.g., of the world at large (Deut. 28:10; i Kings 8:43 ff.) or of a specific country (Esth. 8:17), but more particularly, in post-Exilic texts, the natives in and about Palestine who threatened and harassed the returning Jewish exiles (Ezra 3:3; 9:11; 10:2; Neh. 10:29, 31–32). (c) Much debated is the meaning of the term in contexts referring to an operative element of the population (e.g., ii Kings 11:18 ff.; 21:24; 23:30; Jer. 34:19). In such contexts the term has been interpreted variously as an ancient Hebrew "parliament"; the landed nobility; the free, male, property-owning citizenry; and the like. Some representative body of the population is evidently intended, though as a general, rather than a specific term (cf. the vague "all the people of Judah" who enthroned King Azariah, ii Kings 14:21).
Second Temple and Mishnah
Some scholars derive the term am ha-areẓ (in the singular) from the plural form found in Neh. 10:29, where it designates the heathen inhabitants of Palestine (Rabin, 61). The rabbinic use of the term, however, seems to derive from the Torah (Lev. 4:27), where it designates ordinary Israelite citizens. The Midrash (Sifra, ḥovah, parashah 7, 6–7) interprets the words me-am ha-areẓ to exclude the nasi (leader) and the mashi'aḥ (priest), on the one hand, and the apostate, on the other. Already here we can see that the term am ha-areẓ does not designate any specific group within the Jewish people. It merely refers to ordinary Jews, who are distinguished neither by any exceptionally positive (nasi, mashi'aḥ) nor by any exceptionally negative qualities (apostate). Contrary to the impression made by later rabbinic and post-rabbinic usage, the term, in its tannaitic beginnings, has no clear pejorative connotations. In Tosefta Avodah Zarah (3:10) *Simeon ben Nethanel (a disciple of Rabban *Johanan ben Zakkai) is mentioned as an example of an am ha-areẓ. In the (unpublished genizah) version of a previous halakhah (3:8) a scribe who is described as an am ha-areẓ is opposed to a scribe who is called an expert (mumḥeh). From this it seems that the term am ha-areẓ is semantically analogous to the term hedioṭ, also used in tannaitic literature in opposition to the nasi, the mashi'aḥ, and the mumḥeh. Like the term hedioṭ, it has no specific content of its own, but rather indicates the absence of some particular quality which is to be found only in some exceptional individual or group of individuals.
In the main stratum of tannaitic literature, the term am ha-areẓ is used regularly to refer to the ordinary Jewish population which did not belong to the religious and intellectual elites of the ḥaverim (companions) and ḥakhamim (sages). The ḥaverim were distinguished as a group by the observance of special restrictions, mostly concerning food. These restrictions fell into two categories: restrictions concerning tithes and restrictions concerning purities. The details of these restrictions, which also govern to a large extent the interaction between the ḥaver and the am ha-areẓ, are spelled out in different tractates in the Mishnah, especially Demai and Toharot. The ḥakhamim were an intellectual elite devoted to the study of Torah and committed to the notion that true piety and true godliness could only be achieved through the study of Torah and personal association with the ḥakhamim. This conviction is reflected throughout tractate Avot, especially in the famous statement (2:5): "The uncultivated man (bur) cannot be godfearing, nor can the am ha-areẓ be pious (ḥasid)." Here, the term am ha-areẓ primarily indicates the absence of education (parallel to "uncultivated"). The saying as a whole is directed against those who would attempt to achieve spiritual excellence (fear of God, piety), without the guidance of the sages and the discipline of their teachings. Another example of this criticism is found further on in Avot (5:10), where the am ha-areẓ is ridiculed for espousing a simplistic communism ("what's mine is yours and what's yours is mine"), in opposition to the enlightened communism of the ḥasid, who renounces selfish exclusivity over his own property while respecting the rights of the other ("what's mine is yours and what's yours is yours").
Since the term am ha-areẓ is used primarily in opposition to groups like the ḥaverim and the ḥakhamim, if we wish to define the am ha-areẓ further, we must examine the relationship between the ḥaverim and the ḥakhamim. On the one hand, they do not seem to be identical. On the other hand, they do not seem to be totally distinct. For example, in Tosefta Demai (2:13), we are told that even a disciple of a ḥakham needs to be officially admitted into the ḥavurah. On the other hand, a ḥakham is automatically considered a ḥaver. Similarly in Mishnah Demai (2:3) Rabbi Judah considers "service in the house of study" as one of the formal conditions for acceptance into the ḥavurah. Therefore scholars who have suggested that the am ha-areẓ "with respect to tithes and purities" and the am ha-areẓ "with respect to Torah study" were separate and distinct phenomena have probably introduced an artificial distinction which is not borne out by the sources.
This connection between ritual restrictions and devotion to Torah study in the ideal definition of the rabbinic elite finds confirmation in an earlier stratum of religious tradition still preserved in tannaitic literature. Tosefta Demai 2:11 may be one of those rare cases in which the later tannaitic sources preserve a halakhic tradition from the late Second Temple period relatively intact. There are three considerations which point in this direction. First, this halakhah uses terminology otherwise unknown in rabbinic sources: kenafayim (wings) as a category designating a group of people. Second, this halakhah is the subject of a dispute between the House of *Shammai and the House of *Hillel (2:12), and therefore apparently is older than the earliest literary level of the main stratum of tannaitic literature. Finally, scholars (Lieberman, Rabin) have pointed out similarities between the content of this halakhah and certain parallel passages in the Dead Sea Scroll Manual of Discipline.
This Tosefta sets down two stages for acceptance to the ḥavurah – the first is called "wings" (kenafayim) and the second "purities" (toharot). In the following halakhah toharot seems to be further subdivided into drinks and clothing. As indicated, these phenomena find close but not exact parallels in the Manual of Discipline. The term kenafayim itself has received special attention (Rabin, 19). Various interpretations have been suggested, almost all based on later rabbinic sources. On the other hand, this very term is found in the War Scroll, and Yadin in his edition (p. 176) suggests that it refers to the auxiliary forces which are positioned in the wings, i.e. on the periphery. If this is the meaning here, then this Tosefta represents an early precedent (and an earlier terminology) for the two-tiered structure of the rabbinic elite described in the main stratum of tannaitic literature (Mish. Demai 2:2–3). According to the Mishnah, between the ḥaverim (defined by toharot restrictions) and the am ha-areẓ, there was a third intermediate group – the "trustworthy" (ne'emanim) – who observed the restrictions concerning tithes, but not toharot.
The community described in the Manual of Discipline, while defined formalistically by a rigorous discipline of purity rules and a primitive communism (cf. the ḥasid of Avot 5:10), was at the same time deeply committed to Torah study and other forms of personal piety. It is clearly impossible to isolate the intellectual and spiritual content of membership from the formalistic ritual and economic conditions of membership. So also the attempt to separate the ḥaverim and the ḥakhamim into two separate and distinct ideal elites may be an arbitrary abstraction, posited by scholars to deal with apparent contradictions between different rabbinic sources that will be dealt with below.
Developments in Later Talmudic Literature
We possess no sources which can testify directly to the attitudes or practices of the am ha-areẓ. Moreover, the am ha-areẓ in all likelihood did not exist as an organized or even an identifiable group. As a result, the varying rabbinic descriptions and testimonies which either describe or characterize the am ha-areẓ should be understood as reflecting variations in the self-perception and self-definition of the rabbinic elite. These differences may indeed reflect significant changes in the attitudes or practices of the am ha-areẓ themselves, but we have no way of either confirming or rejecting such an hypothesis.
How then do our rabbinic sources describe the relations between the rabbinic elite (ḥaverim and ḥakhamim) and the general community (am ha-areẓ)? Different answers emerge from different sources. Even within a given source, radically differing opinions may be expressed. Within tannaitic literature we find a strict approach which tends to exclude the am ha-areẓ almost totally from any significant social contact with the rabbinic elite. We also find within tannaitic literature a much more lenient, inclusive approach. Most early amoraic literature reflects this lenient, conciliatory attitude. In the later literary levels of the Babylonian Talmud, however, we find a new and radically different attitude. This attitude goes far beyond the strict approach found in early tannaitic literature, reflecting a new and virulent contempt and even hatred for the am ha-areẓ, going so far as to describe the am ha-areẓ as subhuman, as an animal – even less than an animal – who may be slaughtered without even the courtesy of a blessing (tb Pes. 49b). In order to define the place of this approach in the history of rabbinic tradition, it is necessary to take into account a methodological principle of talmudic criticism.
By now it is fairly well understood and accepted that the anonymous literary stratum of the Babylonian Talmud – the stam ha-talmud – often radically alters the original intent of the amoraic statements which form the foundations of the talmudic sugya (discussion). It is therefore crucial for the correct understanding of the development of the talmudic sugya to isolate the amoraic literary level and to interpret it in its own right before proceeding to examine the way in which the anonymous editors of the Talmud interpreted it. It is not so well known that the anonymous editors of the Babylonian Talmud often integrated their interpretive comments into the very fabric of the older traditions. In such cases, it is only possible to separate tradition from commentary by comparing the version of a tradition found in the Babylonian Talmud to an earlier or at least an independent version of the same tradition, found, for example, in the Tosefta or the Jerusalem Talmud.
Thus we find that in the Babylonian Talmud statements of amoraim who favored the lenient and conciliatory attitude toward the am ha-areẓ are reinterpreted by the stam ha-talmud, so that they now seem to reflect the strict and exclusionist approach. Older traditions which are either neutral toward or merely mildly critical of the am ha-areẓ are reformulated by the later editors of the Babylonian Talmud, thereby putting into the mouths of tannaim and early amoraim positions and attitudes that they never dreamed of, and which sometimes even stand in direct contradiction to their explicit statements as preserved in earlier Palestinian rabbinic traditions (Wald, Pesahim iii; Wald, Sin'ah ve-Shalom).
Most historians who have written on this topic (see bibliography) have taken these traditions at face value, without seriously questioning their historical authenticity. In order to reconcile the blatant contradictions between different families of sources describing the same historical period (Palestine in the second to third centuries), some have posited a distinction between two different kinds of am ha-areẓ – the am ha-areẓ "with respect to tithes and purities" and the am ha-areẓ "with respect to Torah study." Others have attempted to assign these different traditions to different geographical locations, positing a special form of "Galilean" am ha-areẓ. Understanding these violently hate-filled traditions to reflect early Palestinian tradition, some have seen in them evidence of late Second Temple period class struggle, and others repercussions of the rise of Christianity. After determining, however, that this unique and particularly virulent strain of anti-am ha-areẓ polemic in all likelihood reflects a much later Babylonian tradition, it is possible to outline the development of the rabbinic traditions concerning the am ha-areẓ in a somewhat more straightforward fashion.
As stated above, within tannaitic sources we can detect two distinct tendencies. One reflects an almost separatist, even a sectarian, ethos. Shared meals are forbidden, not only between the am ha-areẓ and the ḥaver, but even between the am ha-areẓ and the ne'eman (Mish. Demai 2:2; Tosef. Demai 2:2, Rabbi Meir). One may not say a blessing, nor participate in a zimun (cf. Mish. Berakhot 7:1), nor answer amen to an am ha-areẓ who does not observe the rules of purity with regard to food (Tosef. Demai 2:22, 24). Marriage between ḥaverim and amei ha-areẓ are virtually banned (Tosef. Avodah Zarah 3:9, Rabbi Meir). A ḥaver who leaves the ḥavurah is treated as a traitor, and may never be readmitted (Tosef. Demai 2:9, Rabbi Meir), a view reflected also in the Manual of Discipline (vii, 22–25).
But there is also a more lenient view in tannaitic literature. For example, Rabbi Judah relates that a ne'eman may eat in the house of an am ha-areẓ without compromising his official status (Mish. Demai 2:2; Tosef. Demai 2:2). The Mishnah in Berakhot (7:1) states unequivocally that one may perform a zimun with one who has eaten demai, i.e., an am ha-areẓ. The sages mentioned in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:9 accept in principle that marriage between ḥaverim and amei ha-areẓ may be subject to some restrictions, but these restrictions are minimized as much as possible. Further on in the same source (3:10), another view (also referred to as of "the sages") totally rejects the assumption that there are any limitations whatsoever on marriage between a ḥaver and one who does not observe the rules of purity concerning food. To the extent that they recognize the halakhah transmitted above by Rabbi Meir, they interpret it as referring to marriage between members of the community at large and those few who "do not tithe their food" at all. Food which has not been tithed is considered tevel, and the punishment for eating it is "death by the hands of heaven." In the main stratum of tannaitic literature, the am ha-areẓ is only suspected of eating demai, not tevel. Therefore the position of the sages in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:10 removes all limitations on marriage between ḥaverim and amei ha-areẓ (as the term is ordinarily understood). This lenient view is reflected also in the anonymous position found in Tosefta Demai 2:16–17. Finally, in Tosefta Demai 2:9 Rabbi Judah seems to have heard the tradition which forbids readmission of ḥaverim who leave the ḥavurah, but limits it to those who by their deceitful behavior undermine their credibility. Rabbi Simeon and Rabbi *Joshua ben Korḥa reject this tradition in its entirety. All three of them, as opposed to Rabbi Meir, view the ḥavurah as a voluntary organization that one may openly leave if one wishes, without compromising eligibility for readmission in the future.
We find therefore two very different views of the rabbinic religious elite in tannaitic sources. One is separatist, exclusivist, unconditional, allowing for virtually no social interaction between insiders and outsiders. The other assumes a much larger degree of social interaction. According to this latter view, there are no prohibitions on sharing common meals, beyond the technical ones of assuring that the insiders' food has been properly tithed and prepared in accordance with the rules of purity. There are no insurmountable obstacles to marriage between insiders and outsiders, and perhaps no such limitations whatsoever. The elite is structured in a way which permits movement across the boundary lines which separate insiders from outsiders in both directions, without fear of recriminations.
These two views may represent competing tendencies, current during the end of the tannaitic period. On the other hand, the separatist position is found primarily in anonymous halakhot and in halakhot transmitted in the name of Rabbi Meir, and may reflect an older tradition whose roots lie in the sectarian atmosphere of the late Second Temple period. In any case, the more lenient, socially integrated view predominates in the later strata of tannaitic literature, as well as in the main body of Palestinian amoraic literature and in the early strata of the Babylonian Talmud. The situation begins to change in the fourth generation of Babylonian amoraim. Two examples will suffice: tbBerakhot 47b quotes a brief and anonymous *baraita, which states: "One may not participate in a zimun with an am ha-areẓ." This baraita is probably a paraphrase of the anonymous halakhah found in Tosefta Demai 2:24, which concerns an am ha-areẓ who does not observe the rules of ritual purity. As stated above, this apparently contradicts the tendency of the halakhah in Mishnah Berakhot to permit a zimun not only with one who has eaten demai (= am ha-areẓ), but even with a Samaritan. *Abbaye (fourth generation Babylonian amora) accepted the strict opinion of the baraita. *Rava affirmed the lenient position of the Mishnah. He reinterpreted the baraita in line with the lenient position of the sages in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:10. By so doing, Rava limited the prohibition in the baraita to one who ate tevel, not demai. In Rava's view it is permitted to participate in a zimun with an am ha-areẓ, as that term is ordinarily understood.
Further on in the same passage, Rami bar Ḥama refused to participate in a zimun with Menashya bar Taḥlifa, because Menashya bar Taḥlifa did not "serve in the house of study." Mishnah Demai (2:3) lists "service in the house of study" as one of the formal conditions for acceptance into the ḥavurah, perhaps the only one still applicable in Babylonia. Rami bar Ḥama's actions therefore should be seen as putting into practice the strict position articulated by Abbaye. Thus it is not surprising that Rava again rejects this position. Rava's strong language is indicative of his vehement disapproval of Rami bar Ḥama's actions: "Rami bar Ḥama died [as a young man] because he refused to participate in a zimun with Menashya bar Taḥlifa!" If we relate only to the amoraic component of the passage we must conclude that in the fourth generation of amoraim in Babylonia the older tannatic or pre-tannaitic separatist or sectarian view was revived, first theoretically by Abbaye, then put into practice by Rami bar Ḥama. However, Rava (at least on the amoraic literary level) had the last word, rejecting Abbaye's theoretical position and condemning Rami bar Ḥama's actions.
Some time later, the stam ha-talmud added an additional interpretive layer to the end of the sugya, turning Rava's words on their head. According to the stam ha-talmud even Rava agrees that one may not participate in a zimun with one who does not "serve in the house of study," i.e. one who is not a member of the inner circle of the rabbinic elite in Babylonia. We are now to understand that Rami bar Ḥama was criticized for not participating in a zimun with Menashya bar Taḥlifa only because Menashya bar Taḥlifa actually did "serve in the house of study," and so was indeed an active adherent of the Babylonian rabbinic elite. Rami bar Ḥama foolishly and wickedly misjudged Menashya bar Taḥlifa, and for this he was punished. This interpretation clearly is not consistent with Rava's own position, and reflects a not uncommon phenomenon in the Babylonian Talmud: a minority view which is raised and rejected by the amoraim themselves is then adopted by the stam ha-talmud, and used to reinterpret the words of the amoraim.
A similar phenomenon occurs in tbPesaḥim 49a. The Talmud relates a lively discussion between amoraim concerning the advisability of marriage between the families of ḥakhamim and kohanim (priests). Some amoraim are in favor, others against. Examples are given in favor and against. None of the amoraim and none of the examples even mention the topic of marriage to an am ha-areẓ. Nevertheless, the stam ha-talmud manages to reinterpret the entire passage such that all the amoraim agree that marriage between families of ḥakhamim and kohanim is unquestionably appropriate and advantageous, whereas marriage between families of ḥakhamim and amei ha-areẓ is an abomination. Here again the latest literary level of the Babylonian Talmud has resurrected an ancient tradition, presented in one source (Tosef. Avodah Zarah 3:9) as a minority position, explicitly rejected by the other sages there and simply ignored in another source (Tosef. Demai 2:16–17). It then reinterprets the words of all the amoraim appearing in the sugya, as if they all explicitly agreed with the notion that marriage to an am ha-areẓ is an abomination.
The evidence thus points to the latter half of the amoraic period in Babylonia as the time and the place in which ancient separatist traditions began to be revived, when rigid social boundaries preventing ordinary interaction between members of the rabbinic and social elite and "outsiders" began to form. It points also to the end of this period and the early post-amoraic period as the time in which these tendencies first gained the upper hand, at least in those circles responsible for the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud.
But, as indicated above, this later editorial approach did not limit itself merely to "reviving" authentic ancient positions, nor did it limit itself to augmenting the authentic statements of amoraim with editorial comments of its own. Two examples will suffice in order to clarify this point.
Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:9 relates the following simple halakhah: "It is forbidden to give them [= am ha-areẓ] daughters [in marriage], irrespective of whether they are grown up, or still children – these are the words of Rabbi Meir." This halakhah probably provided the ideological foundation for the radical reinterpretation of the amoraic statements quoted in tbPesaḥim 49a. In fact, on the very next page (49b) we find the following baraita: "Rabbi Meir used to say: Anyone who marries his daughter to an am ha-areẓ is as if he has bound her in front of a lion – just as a lion attacks and devours without the slightest bit of shame, so also an am ha-areẓ beats [his wife] and has intercourse [against her will] without the slightest bit of shame." Boiled down to its halakhic "essentials" this baraita corresponds exactly to the simple statement of Rabbi Meir found in Tosefta Avodah Zarah 3:9. But in its present form it reflects an interpretation which is quite unwarranted in the original context. Indeed most of the many extreme statements concerning the am ha-areẓ found in Pesaḥim 49b can be shown to be late Babylonian interpolations of earlier tannaitic and amoraic material (Wald, Pesahim iii). Thus we read there: "Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: It is permissible to tear an am ha-areẓ open like a fish; Rabbi Samuel bar Yiẓḥak added: And from the back." When one compares these brutal lines to their original form and context in tb Ẓullin 21a, one can only conclude that these two amoraim never dreamed of the use to which some later anonymous editor would eventually put them. A similar process of tendentious reinterpretation and interpolation is evident in another important sugya (tb bb 8a), concerning Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and his refusal to support an am ha-areẓ during a time of famine (Wald, Sin'ah ve-Shalom).
The present state of scholarship probably does not permit a convincing explanation for this radical turn of events toward the end of the talmudic period. It is clear that by the geonic period and the early period of the *rishonim, most of the excesses of this late literary level were largely repudiated, (Alfasi, Pesaḥim, ed. Hyman, pp. 88–93, 327–34). It is possible that it reflects the internal social development of the Babylonian Jewish community, or perhaps the external influence of certain social changes which may have been going on in Sassanian society at the same time (Cambridge History of Iran, 3(1), pp. xl–xlii, 3(2), pp. 632–33).
[Stephen Wald (2nd ed.)]
In Later Times
The term came to designate a person without adequate knowledge of the Scriptures and of traditional Jewish literature and consequently one who is ignorant of the rules of Jewish ritual and ceremonial customs, as opposed to the talmid ḥakham ("disciple of the wise") or ben Torah. In common usage, am ha-areẓ is the equivalent of ignoramus or boor (pl.: amaraẓim).
In ḥasidic folktales the am ha-areẓ tends to mean a naive, but God-loving simpleton. God Himself "wishes his heart" (Sanh. 106b), because it is full of good intentions, and his prayer is more efficacious than that of many a learned scholar.
bible: M. Sulzberger, Am-Haaretz in the Old Testament (1909); M. Weber, Das Antike Judentum (1921), 30–31; S.E. Wuerthwein, Der 'am ha'areẓ im Alten Testament (1936); Nicholson, in: jss, 10 (1965), 59–66; S. Talmon, in: Beit-Mikra, 31 (1967), 27–55. second temple and mishnah: L. Finkelstein, Pharisees, 2 (19623), 754–62 and index; Geiger, Urschrift, 121 ff.; A Buechler, Der galilaeische 'Am ha'Areṣ des zweiten Jahrhunderts (1906); idem, Political and Social Leaders… Sephoris (1909), index s.v. 'Amha'areṣ; Zeitlin, in: jqr, 23 (1932/33), 45–61; Klausner, Bayit Sheni, index; C. Rabin, Qumran Studies (1957), index; Kaufman Y., Toledot, 4 (1957), 183–5; Alon, Meḥkarim, 1 (1957), 148–76; Alon, Toledot, 1 (19583), index; 2 (19612), 80–83; Baron, Social 2, index; S. Klein, Ereẓ ha-Galil (19672). add. bibliography: S. Lieberman, Texts and Studies (1974), 200–7; A. Oppenheimer, The 'Am Ha-Aretz (1977); S. Wald, Pesahim iii (2000), 211–39; idem, in: A. Bar-Levav (ed.), War and Peace (2005); J. Rubenstein, The Culture of the Babylonian Tamlud (2003), 123–42. folkfore: Heller, in: huca, 4 (1927), 365–407; A. Scheiber, in: Yeda Am, 4 (1956), 59–61; Noy, in: Maḥanayim, 51 (1960), 34–35; Schwarzbaum, ibid., 55 (1961), 116–22; S. Talmon, in: Papers of the Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies, 1 (1967), 71–76.
"Am Ha-Areẓ." Encyclopaedia Judaica. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/am-ha-arez
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