World of the Sages: Enfranchising the unlearned

The 7th chapter of tractate Berachot deals with the zimun, the invitation to recite Grace After Meals as a quorum.

The seventh chapter of tractate Berachot deals with the zimun, the invitation to recite Grace After Meals as a quorum. The Mishna begins outlining the rules for the zimun - the text of the call to recite the blessings, the quorum requirements and limitations, and importantly who may join in the zimun. Although amei ha'aretz, the unlearned, are required to form a zimun, the Talmud records that Torah scholars should not join in a zimun together with the unlearned (B. Berachot 47b; Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, 16th century, Egypt-Jerusalem). Thus if three unlearned peers are eating together, they must use the zimun formulation to introduce the Grace After Meals. Similarly, if unlearned people are sitting with three scholars who are about to recite the zimun, they cannot excuse themselves before responding to the preparatory blessing. This rule excluding the unlearned is rather unexpected. There is no such limitation on the unlearned being counted in a prayer quorum. Some halachists recast the unlearned as a public sinner (see Mishna Berura 199). Thus a person who publicly eats pork - a known and stigmatized prohibition - should not be dined with nor should such a person be included when the after blessings are recited. While this approach may explain the harsh ruling, the original wording used is am ha'aretz, the unlearned, a far softer term. It appears that the rule is not merely referring to those who never had the opportunity to study. It is unbecoming for learned Torah scholars to join with those who have negligently not exerted the effort to study (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain). The identification of an am ha'aretz, however, was no simple matter and the Talmud offers a plethora of opinions as to who falls into this classification and should therefore be excluded. One opinion sets a high standard: An am ha'aretz is anyone who is not particular to eat even unconsecrated food in a state of ritual purity. Another opinion suggests that the law, not added stringencies, should be the benchmark. Thus an am ha'aretz is one who does not properly tithe produce. Other yardsticks that were not food-related were also suggested. One sage felt that a person who does not recite Shema in the evening and in the morning is categorized as am ha'aretz. Another sage referred to one who does not don tefillin. A third opinion proposed that an am ha'aretz is one who does not wear the fringed tzitzit, while a fourth sage cited the mezuza requirement as the defining parameter. Other approaches looked not at fulfillment of specific commandments, but a general attitude to Torah study. Thus one sage suggested that people who do not provide Torah education for their children are to be classified as amei ha'aretz. A final opinion suggests that an am ha'aretz is even one who studied Bible and learned the oral tradition, but did not take this education to the next level of standing by Torah scholars and acquiring true comprehension of the material. A later talmudic sage ruled that this final approach is the accepted normative parameter when excluding an am ha'aretz from the zimun. Despite discussing who might be considered an am ha'aretz and excluded from a zimun with the learned, the commentators cite a tradition dating back to Rav Hai Gaon (10th-11th centuries, Pumbedita) that this rule is not applied today. Indeed Halacha no longer prevents the learned and the unlearned from joining together to form a zimun quorum (Shulhan Aruch OH 199:3). The talmudic rule seems to be clear, undisputed and even codified. Why then was it rejected by later scholars? The commentators offer a number of explanations for this change of direction. A first approach focuses on the negative externalities of such a rule. In a different context in the Talmud, an opinion is expressed that amei ha'aretz should not be excluded for this may cause enmity (B. Hagiga 22a). Barring segments of the population from the zimun ritual is likely to arouse the animosity of the unlearned. Such acrimony could translate into hostility directed at the community with possible dire consequences for communal institutions. A second approach highlights the decision of a group of individuals to exclude another person on the grounds that that person is an am ha'aretz (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). Such a determination is made not only upon the assessment of the barred person. More importantly, this resolution involves a statement about the group's standing as individuals, declaring that they are learned scholars and therefore permitted to bar the unlearned. Are they really positioned to make such a judgment about themselves? A final approach suggested by one of the halachists looks at the communal consequences of this rule: If the learned exclude the unlearned, it is likely that the unlearned will entirely withdraw from the community (Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland). Expanding on this approach: The goal of the talmudic law was not to prevent the unlearned from participating in the zimun; exclusion was the result, the purpose was to encourage wider participation in Torah study and eliminate the phenomenon of the am ha'aretz. By barring the unlearned from the zimun, they would be goaded to study so that they could be included. Indeed, the aim of promoting Torah study for all is an objective with which we strongly identify today. It is not hard to imagine, however, that this rule may have had the opposite effect: Instead of aspiring to join the ranks of the learned, amei ha'aretz were excluded and disenfranchised from the Torah enterprise. The gulf between the scholarly and the unschooled may have widened as they did not eat together nor did they join together for the recitation of the Grace After Meals. Neglecting the talmudic rule sends an inclusive and encouraging message of shared membership and participation in a joint venture. Halacha conveys that we are no longer a people divided into two classes - the learned and the unlearned, the educated and the illiterate - rather we are one people, one community. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.