One who commits himself to become trustworthy [in observing all of the tithes] must tithe that which he eats, that which he sells, that which he buys . . . and he must not take hospitality from an Am Ha’aretz [i.e., a common person who is presumed to be careless about tithing]. Rabbi
Judah says, “Even one who takes hospitality from an Am Ha’aretz may be considered trustworthy.” [The other sages] said to him, “If he is not yet trusted on his own, how can he be trusted to vouch for others?!”
Jewish society in the early rabbinic period was divided between a scholarly elite known as “members” who were scrupulous in the complicated system of tithing food and maintaining its purity, and the common people, referred to derisively as “Am Ha’aretz” and suspected of violating these dietary rules. Between the elite and the commoners was apparently a middle group who wished to be considered trustworthy, even if they were not scholars. Our Mishnah describes an initiation rite by which one enters this state of trust. It is comparable to the status of kashrut in our day, with a scrupulous elite, a majority that ignores all or nearly all of the laws, and a fuzzy middle group that seeks to be guided by these ancient policies.