A term used in common parlance in the sense of "ignoramus," applied particularly to one ignorant of Jewish matters. Compare Gamaliel's maxim (Abot, ii. 5): "No 'Am ha-Areẓ can be pious [Ḧasid]; also Lev. R. xxxvii.: "Jephthah, the judge, who failed to obtain release from his rash vow, was an 'Am ha-Areẓ"—that is, "one of the multitude which knows not the Law" (see John, vii. 49). According to the Tannaim of the second century an 'Am ha-Areẓ is "he who does not eat his ordinary food in a state of priestly purity" (R. Meir); or, according to the majority of rabbis, "he who does not give his tithes in due manner"; according to R. Eliezer, it is "he who does not read the Shema' evening and morning"; according to R. Joshua, "he who does not put on the phylacteries [tefillin]"; according to Ben 'Azzai, "he who does not wear fringes [ẓiẓit] on his garments"; according to R. Nathan, "he who has no mezuzah on his door-post" (Deut. vi. 9); according to R. Nathan ben Joseph, "he who has children and does not educate them in the Law"; and according to others, "he who has not associated with the wise in order to learn the practise of the oral law" (Ber. 47b; Soṭah, 22a; Giṭ. 61a). Ishmael b. Eleazar says: "The 'amme ha-areẓ [the vulgar crowds] incur the penalty of death by the disregard with which they treat the sacred Ark and the synagogue, calling the one simply 'chest' and the other 'the people's house'" (Shab. 32a).
'Am ha-Areẓ meaning literally "the people of the land" or "the rural population," this appellation, like pagan from "pagus" or heathen from "heath" in the early Christian centuries, came to denote the country people inaccessible to, or untouched by, the influence of the teachings offered by the religious community—in a word, by the Synagogue.Historical Origin.
The history of the term 'Am ha-Areẓ leads us back to the beginning of the second commonwealth, or rather to the time of the exile, when "none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land" (II Kings, xxiv. 14): these had mingled with the rest of the surrounding people and lost their specific character as Jews. Then Ezra and Nehemiah made "separations from the peoples of the lands ['amme-ha-araẓot] the condition of admission to the congregation (Ezra, ix. 1; Neh. x. 31). Henceforth separation from the lawless multitude became the watchword, and the result was the formation of the party of the Separatists ("Ḥasidim" = the pious; like the Aramæan "Perushim" = those that separate themselves from all impurity). United in associations (Ḧaberim) in every town for common worship and common meals, as well as for communal works of charity, the faithful observers of the law (Pharisees) shunned any contact with an 'Am ha-Areẓ, any one of "the vulgar crowd," as defiling, because such a one failed to observe conscientiously the Levitical laws of purity, or to give the portions of his produce due to the priest and the Levite. Moreover, he was regarded as a transgressor of the law, since he neglected to fulfil all those duties which the religious practise of the synagogue had in the course of time introduced as means of the sanctification of life. The very touch of his garment was defiling to the members of the Pharisaic brotherhood (Ḥag. ii. 7), nor was he trusted in matters of Levitical purity or of tithes even as a witness in court (Dem. ii. 2 et seq., Pes. 49b). As a matter of course, no marriage relations with him were entered into by the Pharisees.Antipathy of the Pharisees.
Such exclusiveness naturally tended to intensify the hatred between the masses and the Pharisees, and bitter expressions were used on both sides which can scarcely be taken literally. "When I was one of the uneducated, I used to say, 'Give me one of the learned scribes that I may bite him like an ass,'" said R. Akiba. R. Eliezer says, if they were subject to the 'Am ha-Areẓ, they could not be sure of their lives. Accordingly it is declared that an 'Am ha-Areẓ is so dangerous a man that he may be killed on the "Sabbath of Sabbaths"; or says another, "torn like a fish" (Pes. 49b). Such expressions have been taken perhaps too seriously by Montefiore ("Hibbert Lectures," 1892, p. 499); on the other hand, Lazarus ("Ethics of Judaism," i. appendix, note 48a, p. 258, English translation) goes too far in the other direction, taking them as mere jests. That a hostile feeling prevailed, is shown by the expression in John, vii. 49: "this people who knoweth not the law are cursed." Even more animosity is shown in the halakic dictum of Joshua ben Levi in the name of Antigonus: "The claim of the Ḧaber upon the charity-treasury to provide his wife with raiment is greater than that of the 'Am ha-Areẓ for the support of his life" (Yer. Hor. iii. 48a; compare also B. B. 8a).
There can be no doubt that it was this contemptuous and hostile attitude of the Pharisaic schools toward the masses that was the chief cause of the triumphant power of the Christian church. In preaching the good tidings to the poor and the out-cast, Jesus of Nazareth won the great masses of Judea. The Pharisaic schools, laying all stress on the Law and on learning, held the 'Am ha-Areẓ in utter contempt. The new Christian sect recruited itself chiefly from the ranks of the untaught, laying special stress on the merits of the simple and thehumble. As Montefiore well says: "The 'Am haAreẓ was probably the creation of the burdensome agrarian and purity laws." Still it is hardly correct to say that "after the destruction of the Temple the 'Am ha-Areẓ slowly disappeared." Nor is it more than mere conjecture of Hamburger that during the war of Bar-Kokba the 'Am ha-Areẓ furnished the informers and traitors. R. Judah at the close of the second century still points to the gulf separating the 'Am ha-Areẓ from the learned, and Judah ha-Nasi refuses him a share of the communal charity, probably because his disciples required it all for their own support (B. B. 8a). Now and then hatred gives way to love, as in the following: "A man should not say, 'Love the pupils of the wise but hate the 'Am ha-Areẓ'; but one should love all and hate only the heretics, the apostates, and informers, following David, who says: 'Those that hate Thee, O Lord, I hate'" (Ps. cxxxix. 21; Ab. R. N. ed. Schechter, xvi. 64). Again, "he who teaches the son of an 'Am ha-Areẓ the Law, for him the Lord will annul every misfortune decreed upon him" (B. M. 85a).
- Geiger, Urschrift, p. 151;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. ii. 54-56;
- Rosenthal, Vier Apocryphische Bücher aus der Zeit und Schule R. Akiba's, 1885, pp. 25-29;
- Bacher, Ag. Tan., index 'Am ha-Areẓ;
- Monteflore, Hibbert Lectures, 1892, pp. 497-502;
- Schürer, Gesch., 3d ed., ii. 400.