In a number of places in the Bible an individual who commits an offense is to be punished by being cut off (Hebrew karet) from Israel. The nature of the punishment prescribed by the phrase is not clear and is disputed among scholars.
The following offenses call for karet:
- Neglecting circumcision (Gen. 17:14)
- Eating leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:15, 19)
- Duplicating or misusing the tabernacle perfume (Ex. 30:33)
- Duplicating or misusing the tabernacle incense (Ex. 30:38)
- Working on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14)
- Eating of a peace offering while in an unclean state (Lev. 7:20-21)
- Eating fat from a species of animal that could be sacrificed to God (Lev. 7:25)
- Eating blood (Lev. 7:27; 17:10, 14)
- Slaughtering an animal for sacrifice but not bringing it to the tabernacle (Lev. 17:4, 9)
- Engaging in prohibited sexual behaviors (Lev. 18:29; 20:17-18)
- Eating of a peace offering beyond the permitted time frame (Lev. 19:8)
- Worshiping Molech (Lev. 20:1-5)
- Turning to spirits of the dead or familiar spirits (Lev. 20:6)
- Approaching the holy offerings while in an unclean state (Lev. 22:3)
- Working or not fasting on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:29-30)
- Failure to observe Passover (Num. 9:13)
- Sinning in a defiant manner (Num. 15:30-31)
- Defiling the tabernacle by not purifying oneself after touching a corpse (Num. 19:11-20)
Pre-modern Jewish exegetes unanimously held that karet was a divine penalty but differed over its exact nature: (Milgrom 1991, p. 457)
- Death (Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6; Mishnah Keritot 1:2)
- Childlessness and premature death (Rashi on b. Sabb. 25a)
- Death before the age of sixty (Mo`ed Qat. 28a)
- Death before the age of fifty-two (Rabad)
- Being “cut off” through the extirpation of descendants (Ibn Ezra on Gen 17:14; Tosafot on b. Sabb. 25a)
- The death of soul at physical death (Maim., Teshuva 8:1; cf. Sipre Num 112; Ramban on Lev 20:2)
Most modern exegetes think karet refers to excommunication from Israel or execution at the hands of man.
J. Milgrom believes that since all of the offenses that call for karet are against God, not man, and because sins against God are punishable by God, that karet is a divine punishment. Unfortunately, he does not explain how illicit sexual acts are sins against God instead of man.
In Ex. 31:14 the man who violates the Sabbath is to be put to death by human agency (cf. Num. 15:32-33). But it also says such a man will be cut off from his people. An explanation of this is that “if the community failed to punish the offender or failed to uncover the offense, God would mete out punishment in His own way and in His own good time” (Levine 1989, p. 242).
In Lev. 20:2 the Israelites are instructed to execute anyone who worships Molech. Lev. 20:3 adds an additional, not alternative, punishment: “I myself will set my face against that man and cut him off from the midst of his people”. Karet is not synonymous with death but is another form of punishment executed by God (Milgrom 1991, p. 460).
Num. 19:13 says the one cut off becomes unclean. If the punishment was execution then this statement was unnecessary since all corpses were unclean. If the punishment was banishment then it is not clear why the uncleanness of the offender was important enough to mention. This passage also points to a form of divine punishment.
Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992: 100.
Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989: 241-242.
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991: 457-460.