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In Tana'ch, the term "am ha'aretz" meant either "the tribal counsel" as we see when Abraham wanted to purchase the Cave of Machpela, he bowed down to the "am ha'aretz". It also meant "the nation" or "people of the land" as we see this term used in Yeshayahu among other places in Tana"ch. In the mishnah and gemarah (Avot, for example), the term "am ha'aretz" means "ignoramus". When and why did it become a derogatory term, when it never was meant that way, originally?

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I imagine in the weird gap in between the writing of the Book of Maccabees and the writing of the Mishnah, where it is used in the way that you describe. – Tatpurusha May 8 '14 at 20:09
The mishnaic usage is not unique to Hebrew, the English usage (albeit there is a 1000+ year gap) means exactly the same thing. – Noach MiFrankfurt May 9 '14 at 1:00
I always read "am haaretz" (the one Avraham bowed to) as meaning "the locals", as you cite from Y'sha'yahu. – msh210 May 9 '14 at 6:00
up vote 4 down vote accepted

עם הארץ literally means "people of the land" or natives.

In Avraham's time the natives were the Bnei Cheis, but in the time of Ezra, when the Jews returned from Babylonia to the land of Israel, עם הארץ referred to the current natives, many of whom were Jews who were not scrupulous in their observance of mitzvos. In fact, many of them intermarried (Nechemiah 13:23) and did not even speak Hebrew (24).

The Mishnaic period began shortly afterwards and the term עם הארץ continued to be used to distinguish the unlearned from the learned and those meticulous in mitzva observance.

Note: This is simply a conjecture and I have no hard evidence for this theory.

Also see the Wikipedia article on "Am ha'aretz"

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While Wikipedia sources do leave their doubts, I acceot this answer as credible. I have to view the story in Nechemia to get a better picture. Thanks for the great explanation, @Yoni. And, while I'm at it, thanks for thoroughly answering a few of my other previous questions, as well. – DanF May 9 '14 at 15:11
@DanF My pleasure...I liked your question! – Yoni May 9 '14 at 15:21

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