“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: The laws of hekdesh, consecrated items; terumot; and ma’asarot, tithes, are the essence of Torah, and they were given over to the amei ha’aretz, the uneducated people of the land” (Shabbat 31a-b).
The laws regarding hekdesh and tithes are amongst the most serious in our tradition. Eating untithed food carries with it the penalty of death at the hands of heaven, and misappropriating hekdesh can lead to karet, excision. And while sins committed unintentionally do not carry the same degree of punishment, it would seem to be gross negligence to entrust such important matters to the ignorant, to those who are likely to err. Nonetheless, these matters “were given over to the amei ha’aretz”. As Rashi notes, “they were not given over to the court to appoint guardians [i.e., a mashgiach] on this matter. The Torah believed all people about these matters, and they are the essence of Torah, that chaveirim (those meticulous about the laws of purity) eat their bread and relying that they separated challah, terumah and ma’asarot. And hekdesh is also entrusted to all people and all people can create hekdesh; and this is the essence of Torah”.
This is amazing. Rashi explains that what makes terumot, ma’asarot and hekdesh the essence of Torah is not their intrinsic importance, but the fact that they were entrusted to the amei ha’aretz, thereby allowing all to eat together. The essence of Torah is Jews of all types being able to sit together in friendship at the same meal.
Yet sadly, we cannot always implement the essence of the Torah. As Rashi himself notes, the rabbis instituted the concept of demai, greatly limiting the ability of chaveirim and amei ha’aretz to sit together. Worried that the amei ha’aretz did not in practice properly set aside ma’asarot, our Sages instructed us that when purchasing food from an am ha’aretz, we re-tithe the produce as a precaution.
Fascinatingly, others interpret this Gemara in the exact opposite manner. The Maharsha explains that this Gemara is explaining (justifying?) the early death of amei ha’aretz. Because they often do not tithe properly, they cause many to eat untithed food and hence, are punished for being the cause of sin.
The explanation of Rashi appears much more faithful to the text. There is no indication that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is being critical of the amei ha’aretz and every reason to believe he is praising them. Furthermore, why would punishment be directed at the amei ha’aretz? It is the chaveirim, who knowingly eat food that may not have been tithed properly, who are at greater fault. Why do they get a pass? May we eat at a restaurant if we have reason to suspect it may not be kosher?
But what is true on a micro level in very different on a macro level.
The Mishna on which this discussion is based teaches that, “Due to three sins, a woman dies in childbirth: because she is not careful with regards to [the laws] of niddah, challah and the lighting of [Shabbat] candles” (Shabbat 31b). The Gemara spends the better part of three amudim, pages, discussing which punishments may occur for which sin.
Just prior to Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s teaching, the Talmud records the teaching of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elazar that, “On account of two sins, amei ha’aretz die [before their time]. Because they call the Holy Ark simply ‘ark’, and because they call the synagogue ‘the house of the people’”. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s teaching is part and parcel of a discussion of punishment for the sins of amei ha’aretz, which in turn is part of a larger conversation on punishment in general.
It is not by chance that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s teaching lends itself to opposite understandings. Our Sages followed the example of the Torah in which there is so much purposeful ambiguity allowing, encouraging, and demanding conflicting interpretations, each appropriate at the proper time. At times, the simple, uneducated Jew reflects the deepest in Jewish piety. Deprived of Jewish education through no fault of their own, their hearts are directed towards G-d. Unlike the great sage, who may be able to “purify the sheretz with 150 reasons” (Eiruvin 13b), the am ha’aretz knew that such is impossible—the sheretz being the cause of impurity in the first place. While a learned rabbi can explain why milk cooked in a meat pot may often still be eaten, the am ha’aretz knows that meat and milk cannot be mixed. The simple Jew often intuited how Jewish law must operate, and it is for this reason that, when the rabbis were stymied as to a proper halachic ruling, they suggested, “Go see what the people are doing”.
On the other hand, at times, ignorance is a poor choice, and is little other than disinterest in learning more. As is the case in secular law, Jewish law cannot accept the excuse of ignorance as an acceptable defence for breaking the law.
There are times we must reach out to the ignorant, welcome them, and even entrust them with key aspects of Judaism. There are other times when the ignorant should criticized and put in their proper place. They surely can have no input into the running of our community. The key, of course, is to know the difference.
 The Mishna in Pirkei Avot quotes the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer Chisma that “The laws of mixed bird offerings and the key to the calculations of menstruation days [for the purposes of sacrifices] are the essence of the Halacha” (Avot 3:18). It is striking to note that the teachings identified as the “essence” of Torah were no longer applicable at that time. The loss of the Temple was so tangible and impactful that these rabbis felt the essence of Judaism had been taken away.
 Regarding terumah, the rabbis retained Torah law, assuming that due to its more serious punishment as compared to ma’asarot, even the amei ha’aretz would properly separate terumah.
 It is this reference to candlelighting which explains why this Mishna is included in the second chapter of masechet Shabbat in the first place. The chapter begins by asking, “With what may we light and with what may we not light [the Shabbat candles]?
 Identifying the specific linkage between sin and punishment is something that, for us today, is both very troubling and very prohibited. While it may appear that our Talmudic Sages did engage in theodicy, I am far from convinced that this is the case. Rather than explaining why something happened, they were teaching us which areas that must be improved upon in the wake of tragedy, and what message must be learned from what has transpired. It is for good reason that both Rav Soloveitchik and the Lubavitcher Rebbe believed that trying to ascribe sin to the victims of the Holocaust bordered on blasphemy.