The Rabbis and the Common Folk

The evolving relationship between the rabbinic sages and the Jews on the street.

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"This refers to the merchants and seafarers who give a tithe to those who work at (studying) the Torah" (Pesikta deRav Kahana 10:10).

Clearly the rabbis believed that the people should help support their work. Since such stories of non-rabbis--especially wealthy non-rabbis--providing support for rabbis are widespread in rabbinic sources from the land of Israel, it is unlikely that these interactions are merely rabbinic fantasies.

The Amoraic Period in Babylonia

According to Richard Kalmin (The Sage in Jewish Society in Late Antiquity), the rabbis of Babylonia maintained a much greater degree of separation from the non-rabbinic community than did the rabbis of the land of Israel. Babylonian rabbis were more concerned about issues of lineage; in practice, it may have been much more difficult to enter the rabbinic class in Babylonia than it was in the land of Israel.

Babylonian rabbinic interaction with non-rabbis is often described in formal contexts that show disinterest, disregard, and disdain. Significantly, the Tannaitic statements of disdain for ammei ha'aretz described above appear reworked in the Babylonian Talmud as statements of hatred:

"Rabbi Elazar said, 'It is permitted to stab an am ha'aretz on Yom Kippur which falls on Shabbat.'… It was taught, R. Akiba said, 'When I was an am ha'aretz, I said, "I wish someone would give me a disciple of the sages. I'd bite him like an ass!"'"(Pesachim 49b). 

While sources like this--which reflect open hatred by the sage for the am ha'aretz and vice versa--refer to Palestinian rabbis, they appear only in the Babylonian Talmud and probably reflect the worldview of the Babylonian sage.

This distinction, that Palestinian rabbis sought greater influence with non-rabbis in order to secure their position while Babylonian rabbis preserved significant, hierarchical barriers, Kalmin argues, reflect the differences in structure between Roman and Persian culture in which the communities functioned.

Nevertheless, during the fourth generation of Babylonian Amoraim (in the fourth century), one begins to find statements of greater openness towards non-rabbinic Jews. Sources from this generation encourage non-rabbinic support for rabbis. This tendency towards greater interaction in the later strata of the Babylonian Talmud continues the trend which began earlier in the land of Israel.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.