by Adam Kirsch
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It is impossible to study the Talmud for long without learning that the ultimate punishment in Jewish law is karet—literally, being “cut off.” Ordinary sins are punished by lashes, and certain serious crimes such as murder call for the death penalty; but karet is a more fearful penalty than even death, reserved for major transgressions against God and Torah. Last week, Daf Yomi readers began Tractate Karetot, the section of the Talmud dealing with the laws of karet. It opens with a catalogue of 36 sins that are punished by karet, including Shabbat violation, various types of incest, breaking the Yom Kippur fast, eating bread on Passover, and profanation of the Temple sacrifices.
In characteristic fashion, however, the rabbis don’t begin at what might seem like the logical beginning, by defining exactly what karet consists of. If you receive a punishment of karet, what actually happens to you? In the Torah itself, the word is found in the formula “their souls shall be cut off from among their people,” which sounds like a kind of ex-communication. In Jewish law, however, it is interpreted as a punishment inflicted by God rather than a human court. Depending on which authority you are listening to, it can mean either premature death (conventionally defined as before the age of 60), childlessness, or punishment in the afterlife by being “cut off” from God.
The sins that earn karet have in common that they are committed against God rather than human beings, so it makes a kind of sense that they would be left up to God to punish. Yet this also involves a paradox, which is that people who are liable to break God’s laws are precisely those who don’t care about them, and so presumably won’t fear receiving karet. In this sense, karet epitomizes the theory of punishment found throughout the Talmud. As we saw in Tractate Sanhedrin, even capital crimes like murder were almost never punished with death by Jewish courts. Jews are meant to obey the law not out of fear of physical punishment, but out of fear of God; in other words, they are supposed to follow their consciences. This was the theory of Jewish law propounded by the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in his famous book Jerusalem: Jewish law is an individual commitment rather than a political system.