Karet [Heb: Cut Off]

I enjoy being able to sit at Ohr Chadash’s Erev Shabbat’s Oneg and discuss and wrestle with the Biblical text. I miss that as much as I do the collective prayer time and the Drash when I’m not able to attend. One such evening, we had a great discussion that caused many of us to return home and study personally. While the discussion originated with a discussion on corporate or individual application of Biblical curses [a rather woeful dialogue], it finally coalesced into a discussion of the punishment of Karet[1], or being cut off.

Torah accounts for three basic sin types:

  • Accidental: This refers to the misdeed committed without foreknowledge of its consequence. The “Oops, I didn’t know that was wrong,” fall into this category.
  • Premeditated: These are the sins committed with full knowledge of the consequences. This includes uncontrollable urges or habits or deeds performed [or not performed] from fear or some other motivation.
  • Seditiousness: These involve rebellion and sinning because it’s an affront to Hashem.

Along with the three types of sin, there are also three basic ways to deal with sin [sacrifice, lashes, and karet]. When Torah demands sacrifice for sin, there are three types: the Olah [elevation, incl. Minchah], the Shelamim [Peace], and the Chatat [Sin, incl. Asham].

An ecumenical commentary states the following, “the usage [of Karet] suggests… the idiom refers to divine rather than human punishment, viz. an early death through sickness or accident.[2]”

Josephus said, “To those who were guilty of such insolent behavior, Moshe ordered death for punishment[3].” This implies Karet is nothing more than the death penalty. If this is so, why is this term used instead of “he shall be put to death” by the hand of the Court[4]? Perhaps that’s why many scholarly works suggest Karet is “exclusion from the community.” The second, exclusion from the community, seems to be a better explanation because this allows the phrase “the righteous shall live by faith” and “with great mercy I will gather you” to be the reasons for inclusion in the Olam Haba.

In a loose quotation, the Alter Rebbe says of Karet, “It means to sever. It signifies the cutting off of the consciousness of the soul present in the body from its superconscious source which is always at one with G-d.” While we may stop with the explanation that Karet indicates a severing, we must remember Hashem is the ultimate source of mercy and grace. The Alter Rebbe continues, “Nonetheless, it is always possible to do teshuvah [repent] and reconnect – with a stronger bond than before – the finite dimension of the soul with its infinite source[5]” In his explanation, the Rebbe reminds us that even in the pits of our deepest despair and depravity, Hashem still desires reconciliation with creation. Thankfully we can rely upon G-d’s openness continues until the moment of a person’s last gasp.

According to Midrash Yehi Ohr [Midrash R’ Shimon ben Yochai], the highest sephirah [an emanation allowing an infinite G-d to interact with a finite world] is Keter [Crown, or Kingship]. Whenever we say a standard brachah, we begin with “Baruch… Melech haOlam.” By doing so, we confirm Hashem as the King of our lives [because we recite the blessing]. We also perform our part to restore Creation to its perfected state[6] by confirming Hashem’s kingship over the world and universe. By rebelliously rejecting the mitzvot of Hashem, we begin work against the Almighty and crush the coming of perfection [Mashiach].

B.Moed Katan 28a says a lot about the death of both the righteous and those “not so righteous” [tempering the tongue according to the netivah[7] prescribed in b.Pesachim 3a]. One can easily infer what it does not say: “Karet is ultimately death at the hands of Heaven, and people [mostly] are incapable of telling when it’s Karet or just plain mazal hara[8]” (see also j.Bikkurim 11b[9]). Both Talmudic references temper the harshness of death at the hands of Heaven because Shmuel the prophet died at the age of 52[10], from which we all should take a lesson[11].

The Alter Rebbe’s comments are rather profound. Hashem Cut a Covenant [kritat brit] with Abraham. This covenant passed on to us and those who choose to dwell among us as converts. This covenant confirms Hashem, the Ruler of the Universe, as our Master, and we confer Hashem’s Crown/Kingship [Keter] over our lives. When we reject Hashem, we throw off his Crown [Keter], and we subject ourselves to being Cut Off [Karet]. However, the Altar Rebbe noticed it is always possible to do teshuvah and reconnect[12] – with a stronger bond than before; this allows Hashem to circumcise our hearts and our rebellion is cut [kritat] from us! The complete rectification of karet is the renewal of one’s essential covenant to G-d, His Torah, and His People Israel[13].

Returning to m.Keritot 1.1, the discussion on the 36 transgressions, since it’s not given in the name of a rabbi, is defaulted as a Mishnah of R’ Meir [his name is mentioned in 1.2]. The Mishnah refers to 19 Torah passages that, when listed out, appear to be in a random order. However, there is a rhyme and reason to their placement:

  • Sexual Perversion: Lev 18.6ff
  • Blaspheming: Num 15.30, Num 15.31, Lev 18.21, Lev 20.6, Ex 31.14, Lev 22.3, Num 19.20
  • Consumption: Lev 7.25, Lev 17.14, Lev 19.6-8, Lev 19.7-8, Lev 17.9, Ex 12.19, Lev 23.29-30, Ex 30.23-33, Ex 30-32
  • Transgression of Positive Commandment: Num 9.13, Gen 17.14[14]

Rashi states that Karet means a person’s and his offspring’s days are shortened. Ramban, on the other hand, leans more toward another perspective. Ramban noticed three basic phrases:

  • …that man shall be cut off…
  • …and the souls that do them shall be cut off… –or– …that soul shall be cut off from before me…
  • …that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him…

Ramban said, “Excision is mentioned in many places in Scripture, but I do not know what it is. Now that it says, ‘I will destroy[15],’ it teaches that excision means ‘destruction’ [of the soul].” Ramban gives examples:

  • Where someone is incapable of controlling his desire for a forbidden substance [eating blood, fats, etc.], this sin would be the death of the man – and he would die [most likely] before he reaches 60 years of age. This indicates karet[16] as being a punishment against the body.
  • In the case of one who gravely sins [i.e., his sins outweigh his Mitzvot], the punishment of excision for weightier transgressions affects the soul after it separates from the body[17].
  • For those who throw off the yoke of Hashem and despises the Word of the Eternal[18], Ramban reserves the ultimate karet[19].

The Talmud continues Ramban’s thought. The positive precept [for transgression for which the scapegoat atones] — how is this [to be understood]? If he did not repent, [why should the scapegoat atone? Surely, it is written] the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination! If he did repent, [why do we require the scapegoat? Repentance on] any day avails, for it was taught, if he transgressed a positive precept and repented, he does not move from there until he is forgiven! R’ Zera said [it refers to a man] who persists in his rebellion; this is in accordance with Rabbi’s view, for it was taught, Rabbi said, for all transgressions of the Torah, whether he repented or not, the Day of Atonement brings atonement, except in the case of one who throws off the yoke, perverts the teachings of the Torah, and rejects the covenant in the flesh — [in these cases,] if he repented, the Day of Atonement brings atonement, and if not — the Day of Atonement does not bring atonement. What is Rabbi’s reason? For it was taught, “because he despised the word of the L-rd.” This refers to one who throws off the yoke, or perverts the teachings of the Torah, and hath broken His commandment. This refers to one who rejects the covenant in the flesh; that soul shall utterly be cut off: to be cut off before the Day of Atonement; he shall be cut off, after the Day of Atonement. I might think that [this is the case] even if he repented, therefore Scripture says, “his iniquity shall be upon him. I did not say [that the Day of Atonement does not bring atonement] except when his iniquity is still on him.” And the Rabbis? [They may reply, Scripture means] to be cut off, in this world; he shall be cut off in the world to come. His iniquity shall be upon him: if he repented and died, death wipes out [the sin][20].

One may ask, “How does one suffer a death at the hands of Heaven?” This seems to be accomplished by pursuing a lifestyle of rebellion against the commandments of G-d. By performing acts with the punishment of Karet purposefully, unknowingly, or even high-handedly, this does not provide one the punishment of Karet. We gain Karet by rejecting the Ketar of Hashem. The stick gatherer in Numbers gathered with a high hand, but more importantly, he rejected the Keter of Hashem. He was a member of a growing rebellion that eventually lead to Aaron rushing through the camp with a fire-pan to catch the plague. Scripture says, “And the goat [seir] shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land which is cut off.” Such being the case, G-d has provided for us a redeemer to redeem us out of the hands of the destructive angels, to wit, his brother who is near him [Midrash R’ Simeon ben Yochai, Bereshit 1:187a]. Thank G-d for Yom Kippur and Messiah who takes away the sin of the World.

We should remember the Teachings of Messiah who stated we should be careful before excising someone from the community for their sin[21]. When excised, we are not to completely blackball the individual. Instead, we are to keep lines of communication open in order to continue talking and encouraging the person to make teshuvah and return to Hashem with [as the Alter Rebbe said] a stronger bond than before.

There is an interesting fact to notice in the list of verses from m.Keritot. Every book of Torah is represented except one: Genesis has one verse, Exodus has four passages, Leviticus has 10 passages, Numbers has four verses, but Deuteronomy has none. I tried to find a reason for this within the writings of our Rabbis, but my efforts were fruitless. However, in light of what we know, the reason should be academic. In the previous books, the Scroll is clear that the commands are uttered from the voice of Hashem[22], transmitted to his Prophet, the most trusted of his household, and relayed to us by Moshe. However, in the book of Deuteronomy (also called Mishneh Torah[23]), Moshe provides us with the first of the Oral Traditions of our people. He relays to us the commands our forefathers heard from the mouth of Moshe over the course of 40 years. He adds commentary to many of the commands [from their original revelation], but most importantly, Moshe further adds restrictions and mercy to the commands. He doesn’t remind us of the harsh decrees [that we will be cut off] IF we disobey, but he reminds us of the blessing we will receive WHEN we listen and obey. Yes, one can argue that Moshe spends a lot of ink telling us of the curses for disobedience, but these are the curses that we share as a community; shared hardships are always easier to handle. Moshe seems to share the same ideal as the opening of Pirkei Avot: All the people of Israel have a share in the World to Come, as it is said, “And all your people will be righteous; they will inherit the land forever; they are My plants, the work of My hands, wherein I glory.”

[1] M.Keritot 1:1, delineates the 36 transgressions in Torah subject to Karet and many Mishnayot that follow temper the harsh decree.

[2] The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Copyright ©1971 Abington Press, Nashville, TN. ISBN 0-687-19299-4

[3] Antiquities 3.12:1

[4] Mavet [death] is used in many instances for putting people to death for ill deeds [cf. Lev 16.1, Num 16.29; Deut 13.9, 17.7, 22.26. Mut [to die], cf. Num 35.31

[5] Igeret haTeshuvah Chapter 5

[6] Tikkun Olam

[7] Netivah [personal path] is purposely used here and not derech [public route] – but that’s a drash all in itself.

[8] Translated as “bad luck”

[9] Since the punishment is divine, and the fact that it is deliberate is known only to God, it does not require witnesses or previous warning. [This passage of j.Bikkurim is also known as j.Bikkurim 2:1]

[10] By noting the righteous Samuel, we see an exception to a general rule and the non-systematic approach of theology within Torah.

[11] See also Sifra Emor 14:4

[12] Do not be like some who look for additional reasons to throw people into the scissure of Gehinnom by keeping this very important fact alive.

[13] Gal Enai Institute of Israel

[14] Rashi, while unpacking the term Karat within the passage, states, “Who will not circumcise: When he reaches the age when he becomes liable for punishment, then [his soul] will be cut off (b.Shabbat 133b), but his father [who does not circumcise him] is not punishable by “Karet” (spiritual excision), but is guilty of transgressing a positive commandment (b.Yevamot 70b); that soul will be cut off; he remains childless (b.Yevamot 55a) and dies prematurely (b.Moed Katan 28a).”

[15] In reference to working on Yom Kippur

[16] i.e., …that man shall be cut off…

[17] i.e, …that soul shall be cut off from before me…

[18] Torah reserves the double expression of hikaret tikaret [that soul shall utterly be cut off, his iniquity shall be upon him] for sins of blasphemy and idolatry.

[19] i.e., …that soul shall be utterly cut off, his iniquity shall be upon him…

[20] b.Shevuot 12b-13a

[21] Matthew 18.1-20

[22] “Vayedevar Adonai el Moshe lemor al b’nei Israel lemor.” [Hashem spoke to Moses saying Speak to the children of Israel saying.] In an uncounted number of times, Torah passages begin with this phrase or one similar.

[23] Repetition of the Torah

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