Da Mai? Teshuva!

Demai (1:3) | Yisrael Bankier | 14 years ago

Demai is produce that is purchased from an am ha’aretz - a person not careful with the laws of trumot and ma’asrot - and as such there is a level of doubt regarding whether all the ma’asrot where separated. The understanding that the name Demai is a conjunctive of the words “Da Mai” (“What is this?”) illustrates the point. The masechet deals with what is considered Demai and how such produce can be remedied. 

The Gemara (Sotah 48a) explains the source of this rabbinic initiative:

[Yochanan Kohen Gadol]… instituted Demai. He had sent people throughout Israel, and found that everyone only separated teruma gedola, but only some separated maaser rishon and maaser sheni. He said to them: “My sons! Just as eating truma gedola carries a penalty of death (in the heavenly courts) so too does eating maaser rishon and tevel.” 

The Gemara then continues explaining the decree of Demai.

The interesting point about Demai is that in numerous places, the Gemara (e.g. Shabbat 13a) states that most people actually separated ma’asrot. Consequently, one would ordinarily apply the principle that we follow the majority and not be concerned with a doubt regarding the minority. Nevertheless Yochanan Kohen Gadol found it necessary to initiate Demai. The Tifferet Yisrael explains that even though it was only a minority, it was a common transgression amongst them and therefore a necessary decree.1

The Tosfot(Shabbat 13a) ask that the assertion that most people separated ma’asrot does not appear to fit with the story about Yochana Kohen Gadol from which it appears that most did not separate. We shall focus on the answer of the Tosfot HaRosh, who explains that indeed initially very few amei ha’aretz did. However, the new decree of Demai drove everyone to become chaveirim – to do teshuva. Indeed, the Mishnah (Sota 47b) teaches that during the time of Yochanan Kohen Gadol no one needed to ask about Demai, because everyone become chaveirim!2 It was only after his life, that a minority returned to their original ways.

We find that according to the Tosfot Ha’Rosh, Demai was a decree that drove teshuva. With this we can perhaps understand the importance of having such a decree despite being only a minority concern. It is fitting as well that the masechet gives time to not only discuss the process of how an am ha’aretz can change and become a ne’eman (one trusted with ma’asrot) but also how he can become a chaver as well (a person also trusted with tumah and taharah) (2:2-3). This is because teshuva is at the core of Demai. Furthermore the understanding “Da mai” can now not only be understood as referring to the questionable produce, but also a question to the seller – what are you? 

Let us turn our attention to a Gemara learnt in Daf Yomi today. The point developed above can perhaps reveal a novel understanding of that sugya. The Gemara (Avoda Zara 25b) teaches that if one is travelling, and a nochri asks where he is going, he should tell him a location that is further then his true destination. Rashi explains that this lie will perhaps save him, as the nochri might wait for an opportunity later in the journey to harm him. One such story is told about R’ Akiva’s students, that when asked, said that they were travelling to Akko, yet in fact ended their journey earlier in Cheziv. The bandits, having been tricked, exclaimed: “Praiseworthy is R’ Akiva and his students, for they never met (paga) an evil person.” In other words, they were unharmed.

The Torat Maharitz asks, how could the bandits give such praise? They themselves were evil people! He answers that having met the talmidim, they were inspired by their ways and performed teshuva; they changed their ways.  

Having learnt this week’s mishnayot, one detail in the story immediately catches our attention. They were travelling towards Akko and stopped in Cheziv which is north of their revealed destination. The Mishnah (1:3) teaches that for most foods, Cheziv was the border, north of which (and including it) the laws of Demai do not apply. Consequently it was at this border, at the trigger point of Demai, that they stopped. They brought them to Demai. They bought these bandits to teshuva.

So nu? Da mai?

1 See Volume 1 Issue 13 for a further analysis of this question.

2 This is in contrast to Rashi’s explanation that during his time, no one needed to ask an am ha’aretz whether their produced was tithed,**because he instituted that Demai which required all such produce be tithed.


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