It was a special occasion. The Rosh Yeshiva’s father, the original founder of the yeshiva, was visiting from Eretz Yisroel and was going to address the bochurim. I and my fellow students at the small yeshiva where I went to bais medrish sat at the tables waiting respectfully as the elderly rabbi made his way to the shtender at the front of the room.
For the next half hour he regaled us with anecdotes, witticisms, and quotes from Torah sources on the importance of learning. Drawing up to his conclusion, he leaned forward on the shtender.
“Rabosai, what you are doing here, sitting and learning, sustains the world. There may come a time when you are no longer able to sit and learn, when you have other responsibilities. Make sure that you always have a seder, and that learning remains your focus. Don’t become ballei baatim. Make sure that learning remains the ikkar.”*
I was disturbed. Not by the assertion that learning sustained the world and was of utmost importance: that was standard yeshiva rhetoric and while I didn’t like learning I still implicitly accepted that this was true. What bothered me was the characterization of baalie baatim, the members of the community who juggled jobs, families, and mitzvos, as “less than.”
This was an attitude I had encountered numerous times in the yeshivish world. Baalie baatim were the nebachs who couldn’t sit and learn. They were less intelligent than those who sat and learned - simple seforim and shiurim were called “ballei baatish.” It is a term that seems to be the modern equivalent of the gemara’s am haaretz.
The gemara portrays the am haaretz, the simple farmers who were the average Jews of the period, as unintelligent ignoramuses. While insulting to these people, this probably at least had some basis in truth. Most people of that period were uneducated. The baalei baatim of today, however, are by and large former yeshiva bochurim. Many of them continue to learn when they have the time. They are also the ones who financially support the yeshiva world.
I found the sneering condescension directed towards those who didn’t spend their lives sitting and learning reprehensible. A decade later I can add elitist and psychologically scarring for those who do not spend their lives learning. Even now, when I am around a yeshivish person, there’s a little voice in the back of my head telling me that I need to convince them that I too am a talmid chochem.**
*This happened a long time ago, and I don’t remember most of what he said, let alone word-for-word. This is an approximation which relays his main points.
**A voice I try to ignore, and which has gotten quieter and quieter over the years.