Demai (Mishnaic Hebrew: דמאי) is a Halakhic term referring to agricultural produce, the owner of which was not trusted with regard to the correct separation of the tithes. There are several opinions concerning the word's etymology. According to Maimonides and Rabbi Obadiah ben Abraham, the word originates from a contraction of the two Aramaic words דא מאי meaning "doubtful" (literally, "what is this?"). Another possibility is that the word originates from a corruption of the Hebrew word דמע, "things holy", in this case referring to something which may still contain the elements of "things holy".
The tribe of Levi, having been excluded from participating in the division of the land, obtained as compensation a share in its produce (Numbers xviii. 24). As the tribe included two elements, priests and Levites, the compensation was given in two forms: "terumah" (heave-offering) and "ma'aser" (tithes) for the Levites; and the latter gave the tenth part of the tithe to the priests as "terumat ma'aser" (heave-offering of the tithe; ib. xviii.26). In addition, a second tithe had to be separated from the produce in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the year-week. This tithe had to be taken to Jerusalem and consumed there, in accordance with certain regulations; while in the third and sixth years it was given to the poor. In the former case it was called "ma'aser sheni" (second tithe); in the latter "ma'asar 'ani" (the tithe for the poor). The produce of the seventh year was free from all these dues.
Terumah and ma'aser
The heave-offerings, both terumah and terumat ma'aser, could not be eaten by non-priests; the second tithe, unless redeemed with "silver," which was to be spent on food in Jerusalem, could not be eaten outside that city; while the first tithe and the tithe for the poor were not subject to any restrictions. Conscientious Jews would not partake of the produce of the land unless they had first satisfied themselves that the heave-offering and tithes had been duly separated. The owners of land in the Land of Israel were divided into three classes; (1) non-Jews, to whom the Jewish laws about tithes did not apply; (2) the trustworthy Jews ("ne'emanim" or "chaberim"), who were sure to separate from the produce all that was due according to the Law; and (3) the Am ha-Aretz, who was suspected of neglecting these laws. Produce bought of any person of the first class was considered as unprepared—i.e., as produce from which heave-offering and tithes had not been separated; that bought of the second class was "m'tukkan" (prepared); and that bought of the third class was "demai" (doubtful, or suspected).
The conscientious never partook of demai without first separating the tithes due thereon. It was not necessary, however, to separate all the dues enumerated above, as no one was suspected with regard to the heave-offering, for two reasons: first, it was not burdensome, as the minimum quantity satisfied the Law (Hullin 137b); and, secondly, the offense of neglecting it was considered very serious (Sanhedrin 83a). It was therefore only necessary to mark out the first tithe and the second. Of the former, one-tenth was separated as "the heave-offering of the tithe," and the remaining nine-tenths were retained by the owner, as the Levite was unable to prove his claim. The second tithe could be redeemed without the addition of one-fifth of its value (Lev. xxvii. 31). These regulations concerning demai are ascribed to Johanan, the high priest (John Hyrcanus, son of Simeon), who inquired into the matter and discovered the fact that most people only separated the heave-offering and neglected the tithes (Sotah 48).
- Maimonides (in Hebrew). פירוש הרמב"ם על ברכות ז. Wikisource.
- Obadiah ben Abraham (in Hebrew). ברטנורא על ברכות ז. Wikisource.
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: S. S. M. F. (1901–1906). "Demai". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved June/11/13. Check date values in:
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- See Kohut, Alexander. דַּמַאי (in Hebrew). Retrieved June/25/13. Check date values in: