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Karet: A Biblical Punishment

What does it mean to be 'cut off' from the Jewish people?

Karet (pronounced KAH-rate), also known as excision, is a biblical punishment imposed for a number of offenses, including sexual immorality, eating leavened products on Passover, performing work on the Sabbath and failing to circumcise males. The word itself comes from the root meaning “cut off,” but the particulars of what this punishment entails are not specified in the Torah and are subject to debate. 

The Bible employs the root of karet to describe the consequence for a range of sins. Exodus 12:15 states that anyone who eats leavened bread during the week of Passover “shall be cut off [v’nichr’tah] from Israel.” Leviticus 20:18 states that if a man has intercourse with a woman while she is menstruating “both of them shall be cut off [v’nichr’too] from among their people.” Exodus 31:14 states that anyone who does work on the Sabbath “shall be cut off [v’nichr’tah] from among kin.” The Mishnah lists 36 offenses for which a person is liable for karet, about half of which are sexual in nature and the rest ritual infractions, several of which concern the service conducted in the ancient Temple. (Keritot 1:1)

The Torah’s repeated mentions of being cut off from the community implies a kind of social ostracism, but much rabbinic commentary suggests that karet literally meant death. In his commentary on Leviticus 17:9, which states that anyone who offers a sacrifice and does not bring it to the Tent of Meeting for God shall be cut off, Rashi says this means both “his days” will be shortened and his offspring shall die off. Similar notions are found in the Talmud. According to a passage in Moed Katan 28a, death prior to the age of 60 was understood to be a result of karet. One sage in fact made a party on his 60th birthday to celebrate the fact that he had escaped death from karet. The implication of these and other sources are that karet is a punishment meted out by God, not by the rabbis or the wider community.

But other authorities understand karet as more akin to spiritual death. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides suggests that karet refers to losing the eternal life of the soul in the World to Come. “The reward of the just is, that they will acquire the sweetness thereof, to be in such goodness; and the punishment of the wicked is, that they will not share in such life, but will suffer excision and eternal death,” Maimonides writes. “And, whosoever does not earn such life, is to be dead, without coming to life forever; for he is severed from life by his iniquity and goes to oblivion like an animal.” In this view, karet is akin to what animals face after death — having one’s soul fade into nothingness rather than partake of eternal life in the World to Come. 

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Nachmanides, the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist, sought to bridge these two views by suggesting that the nature of karet differs according to the specific language utilized in the Torah. Verses that say “a person” will be cut off refer to someone who was generally righteous, but sinned due to overwhelming desire. Such a person’s lifespan will be shortened, but they will still retain their portion in the World to Come. Verses that say a “soul shall be cut off” — which we find concerning the punishment for eating leavened products on Passover (Exodus 12:19) and violating the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14) — refer to sins so weighty that the soul is denied eternal life. And verses that use the most stringent language — “the soul shall utterly be cut off [hikaret tikaret]” (Numbers 15:31) — refer to both early death and the loss of eternal life. This form of karet pertains specifically to the sins of idolatry and blasphemy.

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