Prior to reading today’s page of Talmud, I had always understood the common rabbinic phrase am ha-aretz (literally: people of the land, though it usually refers to one person) to refer to a poorly-behaved, unknowledgeable individual. The am ha’aretz is something of an opposite number to the rabbi himself — rustic, unlearned, unmannered. Marcus Jastrow’s dictionary defines the phrase as “ignorant person,” the Jewish English Lexicon includes among its definitions an “uneducated person” and “country bumpkin,” while The New Joys of Yiddish throws in “vulgar” and “ignoramus.” In all these definitions, at the very worst, an am ha’aretz is someone who is quaintly rude, but mostly harmless.
But today’s page takes a far more sinister view of the am ha’aretz — and is rather graphic about it. Our daf starts by laying out a hierarchy of preferred marriage candidates, starting at the top with “daughter of a Torah scholar.” At the other end of the spectrum, we have the daughter of an am ha’aretz, described his way:
He should not marry the daughter of an am ha’aretz because they are vermin and their wives are similar to a creeping animal, as their lifestyle involves the violation of numerous prohibitions. And with regard to their daughters the verse states: Cursed is he who lies with an animal (Deuteronomy 27:21), as they are similar to animals in that they lack any knowledge or moral sense.
Perhaps a tad hyperbolic, but still, yikes! And this is not the only outpouring of loathing for the am ha’aretz found on today’s page.
The text goes on, enumerating prohibitions on amei ha’aretz (the plural form), who cannot be trusted to serve as an orphan’s guardian or oversee a charity fund. It’s recommended not to travel with them for fear they’ll do you harm, and if you find an am ha’aretz’s lost item, some authorities say you have no obligation to return it (which is a big deal since the rabbis were quite concerned about the return of lost property as we will see in much more detail in Tractate Bava Metzia). You shouldn’t even study Torah around an am ha-aretz, although you’re explicitly (in more than one meaning of the word) permitted to “gut them like a fish” and stab them to death on a Yom Kippur that falls on Shabbat.
These actions are justified because an am ha-aretz is not just incompetent or ignorant — but downright malevolent and violent. For example:
Rabbi Meir would say: Anyone who marries off his daughter to an am ha’aretz is considered as though he binds her and places her before a lion. Why is this so? Just as a lion mauls its prey and eats and has no shame, so too, an ignoramus strikes his wife and then engages in sexual relations with her without appeasing her first, and has no shame.
Again, the vitriol is palpable — this depiction is a far cry from the simple country bumpkin of the Jewish English Lexicon.
It’s hard to know exactly why the rabbis had so much loathing for this class of uneducated, non-practicing Jews in their midst. Nor do we know how numerous they were, or if the feeling was mutual. But today’s page leaves no room for ambiguity and can serve as either a basis for, or a warning against, demonizing those with whom we disagree. Subjectively, though, one can only imagine that something about the am ha’aretz terrified the rabbis, even if this does not seem to be true for later generations, as the semantic drift in the meaning of the term makes clear.