Would you please explain the Torah punishment of “karet”?
The word karet means to be “cut off”. According to the classic Torah commentator Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher ibn Halawa 1255-1340 (not to be confused with R’ Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda, author of Duties of the Heart, who lived earlier, in the first half of the eleventh century), there are three types of karet: one affects the body only, one affects only the soul, and another affects both.
The first category of karet which affects only the body, applies primarily to otherwise righteous people who transgressed one of the serious transgressions related to karet such that they are cut off from this world through physical death, but their souls continue to exist and receive reward in the spiritual realm.
This premature death can occur in two ways: by cutting off one’s years, or one’s days, depending on the age of the person when he committed the offence. Since karet is associated with dying before the age of sixty, karet of years would apply to someone younger than sixty and karet of days would apply to someone older. In either case, the person does not reach the age that was designated for him.
An example of the former, karet of years for a younger person, is found in the Talmud (Shabbat 13a), where a certain Talmudic scholar suffered premature death on account of behaving overly-familiar with his wife in nida before she became fully purified by immersing in a mikva. Since he had no sin other than this breach of nida, the karet was only a physical cutting off of years. But his soul was rewarded for his overall righteousness in the Soul World.
An example of the latter, karet of days for an older person, is derived from a teaching in the Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) where Rav Yosef made a celebration upon attaining the age of sixty because he “outlived” the age of karet. His disciple Abaye countered that even after sixty one’s life may be shortened due to karet of days. To this Rav Yosef replied that since he left the realm of karet of years, that was reason enough to celebrate.
Regarding these scenarios the Torah states (Lev. 7:14), “And that person shall be cut off from the midst of his people”. Since there is no reference to the soul being cut off, this means that his body dies but his soul merits going to the World of Souls and later experiencing Resurrection and the World to Come.
The second category of karet which affects only the soul, applies to someone whose transgressions are very numerous, and include the very severe sins for which one is liable for karet such as intimate transgressions. Since it is this person’s soul that is so damaged, the karet is mainly spiritual and not necessarily physical, such that he might live long and tranquil years in this world. This is as in the verse (Ecc. 7:15), “There is a wicked man who lives long in his wickedness”. But when this person dies, his soul leaves his body and is cut off from the Soul World and the World to Come. Regarding such sinners the Torah states, “And that soul shall be cut off from its people”, where the specific mention of the term soul in this verse refers to spiritual karet.
The third category of karet which affects the body and the soul together is reserved for the most serious offences of all – idolatry and cursing G‑d. Regarding these extremely severe transgressions the Torah states (Nu. 15:31), “That soul shall surely be cut off”. The term “surely” is denoted by a two-fold mention of karet, “hikaret tikaret”, from which the Talmud derives that hikaret refers to being cut off in this world and tikaret refers to being cut off in the World to Come. This then is the source for karet of the body and soul alike.
Some commentators, namely Ibn Ezra and Rambam, maintain that karet of a soul is akin to the death of the soul, and it is described as being cut off because it ceases to exist at all. However, Rabbeinu Bachya and others disagree and maintain that the soul of such a person who dies without repenting would not be properly punished by ceasing to exist. Rather, just as the reward for the righteous is eternal, so too the punishment for such brazen sinners is eternal. Regarding these completely wicked sinners the Talmud teaches (Rosh Hashana 17a), “They suffer in gehinom for generation after generation.”
That being said, the above applies only if the sinner died without repenting. But if he did teshuva, our sources teach that no sin, not even the most severe illicit or idolatrous transgressions, stands in the face of teshuva (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 49a; Rambam, Teshuva 3:26).
- HaRav Eliezer Chrysler, Midei Shabbos Beshabbato, Vol. 18 No. 29.