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Acharei Mot – Kareit, Crime, and Punishment

Acharei Mot – Kareit, Crime, and Punishment

By Rav Jeremy Koolyk

Many of the most severe Mitzvot carry with them the punishment of Kareit for those who violate them wilfully. Between the prohibitions against sacrificing outside of the Mikdash, eating animal blood, serving Molech, and engaging in illicit relationships, there are 19 instances in Parashat Acharei Mot of Kareit transgressions.  This represents more than half of the total 36 transgressions found in the Torah for which the punishment of Kareit applies. It’s therefore a ripe Parasha to reflect on the meaning and nature of Kareit.


What is Kareit? The literal meaning of the root of the word is “cut” or “detach,” indicating that the punishment has something to do with being cut off. But from where, and in what sense?

There are two classical approaches in the Rishonim. One views Kareit as principally a physical punishment. A person who receives Kareit meets an early demise, and is thus cut off from this world. This is the position of Rashi (in our Parasha and elsewhere) and Tosafot (Yevamot 2a). While within this camp there are differences in opinion as to whether the punishment also includes childlessness and at what age the punishment is meted out, there is general agreement that Kareit is a physical death sentence.

The Rambam (Hil. Teshuva 8:1, 5), on the other hand, understands Kareit principally as a spiritual punishment. Kareit means that a person’s soul is cut off from experiencing the ultimate goodness of Olam Haba, the World to Come. Whereas the souls of righteous people proceed to the spiritual bliss of comprehension of the Almighty, a person who receives Kareit is served the ultimate retribution of being denied life in Olam Haba.


Both explanations of the Rishonim indicate that Kareit is a severe punishment for grave sins. However, a Halachik discussion in Masechet Shabbat (68b-69a) about the difference between unintentional transgression (Shogeg) and intentional transgression (Meizid) reveals that there is another component to Kareit. Shabbat is an example of a Kareit transgression, but, as with all Kareit transgressions, only one who intentionally violates Shabbat receives Kareit. If Shabbat is violated mistakenly (but avoidably), the transgressor brings a sin offering to atone for the sin.


The Gemara records a dispute about the exact parameters of what is considered Shogeg (which requires a Korban) and what is considered Meizid (which deserves Kareit). Munbaz is of the unique opinion that even if one intends to violate Shabbat, if he did not know that Shabbat is a Mitzva which at times requires one to bring a Korban, he is considered Shogeg and not Meizid. The Sages disagree with Munbaz, ruling that mere ignorance of the possibility of an obligation to bring a Korban does not categorize one as Shogeg. Rashi explains that the Sages hold that in order to be considered Shogeg, the mistake must be in the transgression itself, not in something extraneous like the Korban. What is puzzling, though, is that the Gemara proceeds to explain that the Sages hold that even if a person intentionally violates Shabbat, if he did not know that one who violates Shabbat receives Kareit, he is considered Shogeg and not Meizid.


If it’s true that the reason the Sages argue with Munbaz is because one cannot be considered Shogeg if the mistake one makes is extraneous to the prohibition, how can they then rule that one who is mistaken about Kareit is considered Shogeg?The obvious implication of the Gemara is that Kareit is not merely a punishment, but rather is part and parcel of the violation. Indeed, the Maharal concludes based on this Gemara that the main part of the violation for which one must bring a Korban is the Kareit.


This Gemara gives us a new perspective on Kareit. Kareit is not just a punishment, but rather incurring Kareit is part of the violation of Hashem’s Mitzvot. This is logical both according to the positions of the Rambam and Rashi. Causing one’s soul to be cut off from Olam Haba and thus distanced from knowledge of God is certainly a grave sin. Similarly, causing one’s early demise and thereby shortening  his opportunity in this world to engage in Torah and Mitzvot is also a grave sin.


This new perspective which blurs the line between violation and punishment with regard to Kareit sheds new light on how to view this Torah punishment. A simple understanding of punishment sees no compelling causality between the crime and the punishment; there is merely an arbitrary penalty attached to the infraction, sort of like a fine for a parking violation. A more sophisticated approach sees the “punishment” as an inevitable consequence of the action. Violating Mitzvot that carry with them Kareit is severely toxic to the soul, and inexorably preclude one’s soul from joining the bliss of Olam Haba, in the opinion of the Rambam. The difference between this and a parking ticket is clear. While people may look down on you for parking illegally in a handicap-only parking spot, they won’t be angry with you because of the fine you have to pay. Conversely, the Torah views as sinful not only the violation of Shabbat, but also the spiritual desolation which is caused by such a violation. In this way, Kareit is both the consequence and an integral part of the sin.


In Pirkei Avot (2:1), we are exhorted to weigh the cost of a sin against the benefit gained by committing it as a way of distancing ourselves from sin. Calculating the cost of a sin should include not only the “punishment” which will follow, but also the spiritual ruin caused by sin. Indeed, some explain the word “Ashamnu,” “We have become guilty” which we say in the confession prayer (Viduy) as being related to the word “Shemama,” “desolation.” We thus repent not only for the sin itself, but also for how it desolated us spiritually. May Hashem help us find ways to grow closer to Him and avoid distancing ourselves from Him through sin.


Shabbat Shalom Umevorach!

Rav Jeremy Koolyk –

On behalf of The Selwyn and Ros Smith & Family MANHIGUT TORANIT PROGRAM

2020 Sandton Shul Batmitzvah Ceremony