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Beit Midrash Series Ein Ayah

Who Is an Am Ha’aretz?

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[An am ha’aretz, in rabbinic literature, is a negative phrase, which can refer either to someone who is ignorant or someone who is seriously lacking in the spiritual realm. In the context of this gemara, the latter is the matter at hand.]

Who is an am ha’aretz? Rabbi Eliezer says: whoever does not recite Kri’at Shema both in the day and in the night. Rabbi Yehoshua says: whoever does not put on tefillin. Ben Azai says: whoever does not have tzitzit on his garment. Rabbi Natan says: whoever does not have a mezuza on his entranceway. Rabbi Yonatan ben Yosef says: whoever has sons and does not raise them to be involved in Torah study.

Ein Ayah: There are general elements of service of Hashem and sometimes even more localized elements that bring about general gains in a Jew’s or any human’s morality, which, if a person acquires them properly, will protect him from moral deterioration.
In addition to all of the spiritual realizations that one may have reached, it is still necessary to consistently renew quickly his basic religious perceptions, so that they not be vague in his mind. That is why there is a need for Kri’at Shema twice a day, and this is why the gemara (Berachot 63b) says that if one misses Kri’at Shema one night, it is as if he never said it. When he does not renew the basic principles, perceptions that serve man’s external view of the world can start to grow dangerously.
Even this renewal, though, will not be effective in the long term as long as it is limited to the heart, emotion, and nature of a person. If the emotions are not acted upon, he may build the emotion on top of old content that is antithetical to the truth. For that purpose we have tefillin, which help the human heart and mind put their powers into effect in the proper Torah-based manner. Regarding cases where this is missing, the gemara (Berachot 6a) says that one who says Kri’at Shema without tefillin is like one who says false testimony about himself.
Furthermore, general morality must be connected to the full gamut of specific mitzvot and thereby obtain all of the proper characteristics a Jew eternally requires. That is why tzitzit are needed on the fringes of one’s clothing. A garment is external to the person, and the fringes are further to the edges. Yet, it is a reminder of the precise number of the entirety of mitzvot.
Despite all the above, the essence of man is his internal knowledge and understanding. We have explained that a mezuza is placed on a person’s entranceway to indicate that his restful stay within his home is a preparation for absorbing and deepening his thought, just as a person’s exit to the street and involvement in other people’s lives is for the broadening of his perception. The mezuza helps one focus all of his imagination, related to his activities, toward his internal understanding.
Finally, while all the above are preparations for the intellect, the foundation of everything is a person’s hopes and desires, the most important of which is the success of his children. The spiritual edifice is complete only when he strives to pass on the spirit of understanding and fear of G-d through the Torah he makes sure his children learn. Even if, for a variety of reasons, he has not succeeded in perfecting these values in himself, he should hope and work so that they become the future of his children.
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