Karayt–The Dreaded Heavenly Punishment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Warning: This week’s Dvar Torah is not for the fainthearted.

In this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, the Al-mighty continues to convey the instructions that Moses is to give to the Cohanim (Priests) regarding the various offerings they are required to bring or to supervise. The list includes instructions concerning the fire for the Tamid–the daily burnt offering, the Mincha–the meal offering, the Asham–the guilt offering, the Shlamim and the Todah–the peace and the thanksgiving offerings. The parasha concludes with a description of the inauguration ceremony for the consecration of the sanctuary and the priests.

In an almost casual manner, the Torah in Leviticus 7:20 affirms the dire punishment that awaits any person who eats a Peace offering in a state of ritual impurity: “V’ha’nefesh ah’sher toh’chal ba’sar mee’zeh’vach hash’lah’meem ah’sher la’Hashem v’toom’ah’toh ah’lahv, v’nich’r’tah ha’nefesh ha’hee may’ah’meh’hah,” But the soul that eats the flesh of a Peace offering sacrifice, which belongs to G-d, while having his impurity upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his people.

To my mind, the phrase, “that soul shall be cut off from his people” is undoubtedly the most frightening expression found in the entire bible. I shudder when I read it, and tremble when I think of it. This punishment, known as karayt–is cutting off or spiritual excision at the hand of Heaven.

The phrase: “Cut off from the people,” is repeated 15 times in various forms in the Five Books of Moses. It makes its first appearance in Genesis 17:14 where G-d tells Abraham of the requirement for all his male descendants and household members to be circumcised, and that any male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people, because he has broken G-d’s covenant.

In Exodus 12:15, the Jewish people are instructed to eat matzah on Passover for seven days and to avoid eating leavened bread. Whoever eats leavened bread, from the first day to the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.

In Exodus 31:14, the Jewish people are warned that a violator of the Sabbath will be cut off from his people.

In Leviticus 7:25, those who eat forbidden fats are liable to be cut off from the Jewish people.

In Leviticus 7:27, those who eat blood are subject to be cut off from the Jewish people.

In Leviticus 19:8, anyone who eats a Peace offering after its designated permitted times will be cut off from the nation.

In Leviticus 22:3, the Torah warns of the holiness of the sanctuary and that anyone who participates in the sacrificial rituals or who partakes of the holy foods in a state of ritual impurity will be cut off from the people.

In Leviticus 23:29, the Torah states that those who fail to fast on Yom Kippur are to be cut off from the people.

In Numbers 9:13, we are told that those who refrain from eating the Pascal sacrifice on Passover will be cut off from their people.

In Numbers 15:30, we learn that those who blaspheme are subject to excision.

In fact, an entire Talmudic tractate–Kritot, is devoted to the punishment of karayt, which lists 36 sins for which karayt--excision, is the designated punishment! We are also taught that karayt--excision at the hand of Heaven, is decreed for those capital transgressors as a substitute punishment in instances where there were no proper and reliable witnesses.

The exact nature of karayt is elusive, and although major rabbinic sources attempt to define the parameters of karayt, the inability to determine its exact definition only enhances the horror of this punishment. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) in Leviticus 17:9, suggests that karayt means the death of one’s children during one’s lifetime and that one’s own life is shortened. Tosafot, in their comments to Yevamot 2a, disagrees with Rashi, contending that, in general, children do not die for their parents’ sins. Only when the Torah specifically states that children are held accountable for a particular sin is that punishment applicable. The Jerusalem Talmud in Bikurim 2 suggests that anyone who dies before age 50 has suffered the punishment of karayt. However, the Babylonian Talmud, in Moed Katan 28a, states that karayt only occurs between ages 50 and 60. The Talmud in Moed Katan, cites the example of Rabbi Joseph who celebrated when he reached age 60 because he felt that he was no longer subject to the punishment of karayt.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) in Leviticus 18:29, notes that karayt takes on different forms depending on the circumstances. Varying degrees of the karayt punishment are meted out according to the merits of the sinner and the severity of the sins. If a fundamentally good person gives in to temptation and commits a karayt-liable sin, that person may die young, but will nevertheless maintain his share in the World to Come. If, however, a person is incorrigibly sinful, that person will not necessarily die young, in fact, he may live a rather long life, but the soul of that person will be cut off from the World to Come. The Ramban also notes that idolatry and blasphemy are particularly despised by the Al-mighty and violators are punished with both early death as well as loss of their share in the World to Come. The Ramban apparently agrees with the Tosafot that childlessness applies only to where it is specified in the Torah and is not automatically part of every karayt punishment.

The Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) maintains in Genesis 17:14, that childlessness is always part of karayt, since as long as a person’s children are alive, the person, in effect, continues to “exist.” Only when a person dies without children is a person’s name truly cut off, which is the literal implication of what the word “may’ah’meh’hah,” means–cut off from its [the soul’s] people.

There is a further difference of opinion between the commentators with regard to karayt. Maimonides, in the Laws of Teshuva chapter 8, says that the entire soul ceases to exist in the punishment of karayt. The Ramban, Nachmanides, disagrees forcefully, claiming that it is impossible to subscribe to the notion that a soul, that is a spiritual element, can cease to exist. He also notes that the very notion of a karayt punishment proves that there is a World to Come, and that a spiritual award awaits those who are righteous and have earned it.

Perhaps it is the ambiguity regarding the true nature of karayt that makes this punishment so dreadful and intimidating. The inability to know what karayt is, and whether what occurred was really karayt, renders it so much more terrifying. It is the fear of the unknown that adds to our terror.

And yet, we speak of G-d as a loving G-d.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin 10:1, maintains that all Israel has a portion in the World to Come and that only the most base and irredeemably evil human beings are cut off. Perhaps it is the dread of karayt that “coerces” many to behave properly. Were it not for this dire fear, much of our world would be reduced to anarchy. In that sense, the threat of karayt, of excision, becomes a gift and a blessing. Because of its intimidating nature, many human beings who would otherwise behave improperly are “whipped into shape.” The Torah teaches us from its very start that we need not fear punishment, but rather fear G-d and there will be no punishment.

May you be blessed.

The first days of Pessach will be celebrated on Monday evening, April 2nd, and Tuesday and Wednesday, April 3rd and 4th, 2007. Wishing everybody a happy and kosher holiday.