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

Karet (‘excision’) is the biblical penalty, for certain offences, of being ‘cut off from the people’; for example, for failing to be circumcised (Genesis 17:14); for eating leaven on Passover (Exodus 12:19); and for committing incest (Leviticus 20:17). The Mishnah (Keritot 1:1) lists thirty-six offences for which the penalty is karet.

The Problem of Definition

The chief problem here is the meaning of karet. Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.12:1) remarks: ‘To those who were, guilty of such insolent behavior, he [Moses] ordered death for his punishment’, implying that karet is identical with other death penalties in the Pentateuch.

This view is accepted by many biblical scholars but fails to explain why this term is used instead of ‘he shall be put to death’, that is, by the hands of the court. Other modern scholars hold that karet denotes some kind of exclusion from the community, the offender being ‘cut off’, that is, excluded from the community.

But, as Milgrom has rightly pointed out, the penalty of karet is limited to purely religious offences and is never enjoined for offences such as murder, the penalty for which is judicial execution. Consequently, the unanimous Rabbinic view, as stated in the Talmud, has much to commend it, that karet is a form not of human but of divine punishment, though it is unclear how karet differs from the other divine penalty mentioned in the sources, ‘death by the hand of Heaven.’

Divine Punishment and Providence

In one view, karet means a divine punishment of death before the age of 60, which is why a Talmudic Rabbi had a party on his sixtieth birthday. In another version karet means that the offender will die childless. In the confession of sin on Yom Kippur one sentence reads: ‘For the sins for which we are liable to the penalty of karet and childlessness.’

The medieval philosophers endeavor to explain how the penalty of karet fits into the scheme of divine providence. Maimonides (Teshuvah, 8:5) identifies karet for the worst sinners as total annihilation of the soul in the Hereafter.

This whole area is very obscure and is largely ignored in present-day Jewish theology.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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