DEMAI (Heb. דְּמַאי, דְּמַיי), agricultural produce about which there is a doubt whether it has been duly tithed; talmudic tractate. The precise etymology of this word has not been determined with certainty, and it appears that the rabbis of the Talmud were already unclear about it. The Jerusalem Talmud connects it to the root dmy, in the sense of "perhaps" as in: "perhaps he prepared it, perhaps he did not prepare it" (Sot. 9:12 (24b); end of Ma'aser Sheni, as interpreted by H. Yalon, Pirkei Lashon, 346), possibly as a morphological analogy to its opposite vadai, "certain." In practice, the term designates produce regarding which doubts exist as to whether all the "gifts" for the priests, Levites, etc. have been set aside properly, because it was acquired from an am ha-areẓ ("person of the land"), an individual whose trustworthiness on these matters is questionable. Owing to these doubts, the ḥaver is expected to set aside the gifts, though in a manner that minimizes the financial loss. Initially, the produce was subject to terumah for the priests, first tithe for the Levites (a tenth of which must be given to the priest) and, depending on the year in the sabbatical cycle, second tithe which can be consumed by the owner in Jerusalem, or poor tithe. Since the am ha-areẓ is relied on to obey the severe Torah-based precept of terumah, and there is no ritual prohibition against eating the tithes due to the Levites or the poor, the demai procedure involved designating the first tithe only so that the priestly portion could be taken from it and given to the kohen. Because neither the Levites nor the poor could prove their respective entitlement to their tithes (since demai is by definition a doubtful case), these remained the property of the owner. As a result, the actual financial loss borne by the owner by re-tithing demai was modest.
The institution of demai seems to date back to early in the Second Commonwealth era and evidently reflects the fundamental identity of the Pharisees as individuals who distinguished themselves from the less rigid ritual standards of the ammei ha-areẓ. A. Büchler argued that the Mishnah really reflects the clashes between Judean and Galilean cultures in the second century C.E. when the rabbis cited in the Mishnah were active and Judean rabbis were migrating northward in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt; however, his view has not been widely accepted. More recent scholarship has voiced considerable skepticism about the degree to which the conceptual picture that emerges from the Talmudic texts reflects the actual social or religious situation, especially as regards its assumptions about the normative status of rabbinic halakhah.
A rabbinic tradition (Mishnah Sotah end; Tosefta Sotah end of Ch. 13; TJ Sotah 9:11 and end of TJ Ma'aser Sheni) speaks of demai as being in force in the time of Johanan the High Priest; i.e., John Hyrcanus (135–104 B.C.E.), who enforced separation of the required gifts by the producers, thereby exempting the purchasers. The baraita in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 48a), on the other hand, describes Johanan as the person who first instituted demai upon discovering the laxity of tithe observance.
Demai is the tractate in the Mishnah, Tosefta and Jerusalem Talmud (but not the Babylonian) that deals with the halakhic concept of demai, doubtfully tithed produce. An exception to the normal pattern of arranging the sequence of tractates according to the numbers of their chapters, Demai (with seven chapters) appears third in the Mishnah and Jerusalem Talmud, and in most manuscripts of the Tosefta, before tractates with more chapters. The Mishnah tractate contains disputes between the Houses of Shammai and Hillel, sages from Yavneh, as well as much material from the generation of Usha.
Because demai is a rabbinic stringency that was instituted in response to a minority of unreliable individuals, the rabbis tended to interpret doubtful cases in a lenient manner. This is the theme of much the tractate, which deals with exemptions, such as for species of produce that are not normally kept as food (1:1), produce from outside the halakhic borders of Israel (1:3, 6:11), certain types of commercial purveyors (2:4, 5:1–4, 6), etc. Similarly, tithes that were separated as demai are not subject to all the restrictions that would apply to fully sacred produce (1:2), especially where it is used for the fulfillment of religious precepts, such as distribution to the poor (3:1), an 'eruv (1:4), etc.
The Mishnah (2:2) discusses how a person may be certified as a ne'eman (one who is deemed trustworthy with respect to tithing); or as a full-fledged ḥaver who is trusted on matters of purity as well (2:3).
Historians are not in agreement whether the restrictions observed by the ḥaver were considered obligatory or voluntary expressions of extraordinary piety. At any rate, the tractate Demai is addressed to a target audience of ḥaverim who are assumed to be observing the highest standards or tithing and purity. Because the need for demai results from the acceptance by some Jews of stricter standards than those followed by others, the tractate deals extensively with the relationships and interactions between the ḥaver and other segments of the community who are less punctilious about those matters. Thus, it provides instruction for how to proceed when obtaining foodstuffs from non-ḥaverim (4:1), when transferring food to them (2:3, 3:5), when eating in each other's homes (4:2, 7:1), or when operating in partnership, as sharecroppers (6:1–8) or with family relations (3:6). The general tenor of the halakhah is pragmatic, in that it focuses on solutions to specific technical
A. Büchler. Der Galilèaische 'Am-Ha' Ares, Des Zweiten Jahrhunderts, Beitrèage Zur Innern Geschichte Des Palèastinischen Judentums in Den Ersten Zwei Jahrhunderten (1906); idem, Am ha-Areẓ ha-Gelili (1964); A. Oppenheimer, The 'Am Ha-Aretz: A Study in the Social History of the Jewish People in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, Arbeiten zur Literatur und Geschichte des hellenistischen Judentums, 8 (1977); R.S. Sarason, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Agriculture: Section Three, a Study of Tractate Demai (1979); idem, Demai, Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism (1993) [= translation of TJ Demai].