Am Ha’aretz Collectors

Taharot (7:6) | Yisrael Bankier | 12 years ago

The Mishnah moves from doubt regarding actions to doubt regarding people with respect to tumah. The personalities that catch most of our attention are the chaver (a person particular with the laws of tumah and tahara) and the am ha’aretz. It is important to note that unlike the more familiar colloquial meaning, the am ha’aretz can refer to one that is observant in Torah and mitzvot (Rambam Mishkav U’Moshav 10:1). The problem is that since he is not proficient in the laws of tumah and tahara he is assumed to be tameh. Consequently many of the cases involve an am ha’aretz left unattended in a chaver’s house in varying capacities.

One case concerned an am ha’aretz tax collector. The Mishnah teaches that if the collector enters the house (for the purpose of taking a guarantee) a fair portion81 of the contents around the entire house would be tameh. The Mishnah continues stating that if the collector was accompanied by a goi, then the am ha’aretz is believe to say that he did not enter the house, but is not believed to say that he entered the house but did not touch anything.

The Rash and Rosh explain that the goi acts as a supervisor so that the am ha’aretz will be frightened, perform his job correctly and search thoroughly. Consequently if the am ha’aretz admitted he entered the house, he certainly would have touched items within it.82 If however the am ha’aretz enters alone, then he could be believed.

Two questions arise according to this explanation. The Mishnah initially taught that if the collector entered the house, the contents are tameh. Since the Mishnah only then added that the case is where he was accompanied by the goi, it suggests that the opening case is referring to the collector alone. The Tifferet Yisrael therefore combines both parts of the Mishnah and teaches that it should not be read “if the collector is accompanied by a goi…” as introducing a new case, but rather “even if” thereby adding a further detail to the first case.

The second problem is that in many of the other cases cited previously the Chachamim ruled that everything within arm’s reach of the unattended am ha’aretz is tameh. Why in this case do we simply trust the am ha’aretz if he says he did not touch anything. The Mishnah Achrona explains that in the previous cases the am ha’aretz was not allowed to touch anything. Consequently the am ha’aretz would be reluctant to admit that he was freely touching the chaver’s property. In this case however, since he was allowed to enter by government authority, such a concern does not exist.

The Rambam however, based on the Tosefta, provides a different reading of our Mishnah. He explains that it is only in the presence of goi that collector is believed that he did not touch anything. According to this understanding, the fear inflicted by the presence of this supervisor ensures that the collector does not touch anything he should not. If however the collector was alone he would feel free to roam around the house and everything should be assumed tameh.

The Rambam’s understanding does require a change in the text of our Mishnah. Nevertheless it preserves the separation between the first and second parts of the Mishnah (the first problem above). Furthermore, why the unattended collector is treated harsher than the previous cases is readily understood.

The Rambam however adds that if the collector was not witnessed entering the house, then he is believed when he says that he entered the house but did not touch anything. The reason is based on the principle known as migo. To explain, since if the collector wanted to lie he could have said he did not enter at all – a better claim – we believe him when he says that he did not touch anything.

The Mishnah Achrona notes that we find many cases where an am ha’aretz is not believed through a migo. One such example is where the am ha’aretz says that the fruit went through hechsher (made liable to contract impurity) but did not become tameh. Even though the am ha’aretz could claim that they never went through hechsher, he is not believed. The Mishnah Achrona explains that in those cases the migo does not work as they would rely on sufficient knowledge of the law of tumah and tahara, which the am ha’aretz simply does not have.

81 See the continuation of the Mishnah.

82 The Tifferet Yisrael explains that because of this certainty, the am ha’aretz does not have the benefit of applying a migo.


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