1. a. A person unknowledgeable in Torah, the opposite of a “talmid chacham” (a learned student).
b. (During the Second Temple and Rabbinic Period) A simple person who is not scrupulous about commandments, specifically in matters of ritual purity.
2. (pejorative) boor, an uneducated person, ignoramus.
3. In biblical context, the common people (as opposed to the upper classes); including non-Jewish inhabitants of the land of Israel.
From the Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 49a-b:
Our Rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar, for if he dies or goes into exile, he is assured that his children will be scholars. But let him not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-aretz, for if he dies or goes into exile, his children will be ‘amme ha-aretz.
Our Rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar, and marry his daughter to a scholar. This may be compared to [the grafting of] grapes of a vine with grapes of a vine, [which is] a seemly and acceptable thing. But let him not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-aretz; this may be compared to [the grafting of] grapes of a vine with berries of a thorn bush [which is] a repulsive and unacceptable thing.
This condemnation, by the way, was one of the more literary examples of rabbinic disdain. The trash-talking piles on and up as one works their way down the folio page. One can almost imagine the glee of the rabbis (including the ex-’am ha-aretz Rabbi Akiva – hmm…), heaping more derision upon the feckless and wayward boors.
To be one of (or one with) “the people of the Land” could be parsed as being well integrated into the local society, conversant in its ways, and amenable to its core assumptions and values. Some folks might use more modern descriptors/synonyms like “assimilated,” “acculturated,” “initiated”, “blended” or “naturalized” to describe such a person.
For such an individual, there would be no language barrier, glass ceiling or any legal or social obstacles preventing them from acquiring professional training, affluence and influence. In this respect, to be an am ha-aretz is an advantage.
THE PARADOX (in that there is an inherent contradiction, or contra-perception):
Traditional models of Jewish engagement supported by the traditional paradigm (along with its scolds, wags, bobble heads and think-tanksters) regards being an ‘am ha-aretz as pejorative, something to be overcome.
The overwhelming majority of Jews see being an ‘am ha-aretz as a mark of success.