How the Earthy Have Fallen

By Philologos

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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Diana Muir Appelbaum writes about the word am-ha’aretz, the “people of the land,” a biblical term commonly translated as “boor” or “ignoramus” when it occurs in Yiddish or in modern Hebrew:

“How did the am-ha’aretz lose their stature? The group known by that name that emerges to put Josaiah on the throne in the Book of Kings sounds very respectable. [The Hebrew University historian] Mordechai Cogan has described the am-ha’aretz in this chapter as ‘that influential segment of the population of Judah, mostly the wealthy, who appeared in times of dynastic crisis to protect the succession rights of the House of David… this conservative grouping of landowners and merchants… continued to manage the affairs of state [during Josaiah’s minority].’

“Hardly what we mean when we use am-ha’aretz today! When did the phrase change its meaning?”

Actually, am-ha’aretz — pronounced “ahm-ha-AH-retz” in Israeli Hebrew and “ah-MAW-retz” in Yiddish — has changed its meaning more than once in the course of its long history. We first encounter it in the Book of Genesis, where we are told how Abraham purchased the Cave of the Machpela from the “children of Heth” — that is, from a group of ethnic Hittites living in Hebron — so as to bury his wife, Sarah, in it. In the course of his negotiations with them, we read, “Abraham stood up, and bowed to the people of the land, the children of Heth.”

Here, as in many other places in the Bible, am ha’aretz simply refers to the indigenous population of an area. It may have the same meaning, too, in the verse referred to by Appelbaum (“And the people of the land [i.e., the Kingdom of Judah] slew all them that had conspired against King Amon; and the people of the land made Josiah his son king in his stead”), since there is nothing in the text of Kings itself to support Cogan’s interpretation of the term. On the contrary: In other biblical passages, am ha-aretz refers to the lower classes of the population, as in the account, in the same Book of Kings, of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of the Temple, after which, “He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor… and all the craftsmen and smiths — none remained save the poor of the people of the land.” Here, am ha’aretz refers to the common folk as opposed to the social and economic upper crust.

It is this latter meaning of am ha’aretz that yielded the early rabbinic sense of the term, in which an am ha’aretz is anyone not belonging to the rabbinic elite — that is, anyone who is not a properly educated Jew. Thus, we find in the Mishnaic tractate of “The Ethics of the Fathers” the remark, attributed to Hillel the Elder: “An uncultivated man [bur] does not fear sin and an unlearned man [am ha’aretz] cannot be a pious person [hasid].” Parallel to this shift of meaning is a shift in grammar, too, for from now on in Jewish discourse, am ha’aretz is treated as a singular noun that denotes an individual Jew. If we wish to refer to many unlearned Jews, we have to use the plural form: Amei aratzot in Hebrew and amarotsim in Yiddish.

And yet in later rabbinic literature, as well as in popular Hebrew and Yiddish usage, an am ha’aretz is not just any uneducated Jew. In fact, the ordinary uneducated Jew who does not pretend to be otherwise would hardly qualify as an am ha’aretz and would never be labeled with so pejorative a term. An am ha’aretz, rather, is someone with boastful pretensions to learning, someone who thinks that he is more of a scholar than he actually is, even though he may possess the requisite credentials. You can be a rabbi and still be an am ha’aretz in rabbinics, just as by extension you can be an am ha’aretz in physics, sociology or French literature, provided these are fields in which you claim to be well versed. The sin of the am ha’aretz is not ignorance; it is rather the delusion of being knowledgeable, which causes him to make ridiculous mistakes. In the words of a Yiddish proverb, “Az got vil shtrofn an amorets, leygt er im a loshn-koydesh vort in moyl arayn,” “When God wishes to punish an am ha’aretz, He puts a Hebrew word in his mouth.”

Amarotsim are the butts of many jokes in Jewish folklore. One of these tells of an argument between two Jews about whether on the holiday of Purim — which falls on the 15th of the month of Adar, when the moon is always full — one says the Hallel prayer as on Hanukkah, or omits it as on Rosh Hodesh, the day of the new moon. The two are interrupted by a third man, who disdainfully proclaims:

“You’re both amarotsim! It all depends when Purim comes out in a given year. If it’s on Hanukkah, you say Hallel, and if it’s on Rosh Hodesh, you don’t!” Now that’s an amorets!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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