Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version


Publication Source

AJS Perspectives


A literacy divide runs deep in Jewish society. The scribes, the priests, and the prophets who wrote the Bible referred to the folk on the other side of the divide as ha-'am (the people), and the sages, who taught the books that followed, called them 'olam (the world population). Both terms resonate in subsequent Jewish languages. The Yiddish word 'amkha (all the people), and its analogue in Judeo-Spanish, povlacho, have their roots in the Bible where the concept of the "people" is ubiquitous. It occurs in a variety of forms as kol ha-'am (all the people), 'am ha-'arez (the people of the land)—a term which already in the Bible, and certainly later, had furthered its semantic scope—and in supplications to God as 'amkha Yisra'el (Your people Israel). In some dialects of Judeo-Arabic the terms that draw upon postbiblical usages are 'amah, 'olam, or 'al-'olam 'al-kul. In the Bible the term refers to mindless multitudes, immense crowds, or a general population mass. While the writers of these texts shaped Judaism as we know it, the 'am, the folk, experienced Jewish life in a way that we had—and still need—to discover.

Copyright/Permission Statement

Originally published in AJS Perspectives © 2014 Association for Jewish Studies. Reproduced with permission.



Date Posted: 22 September 2017