Karet: Whose choice, and on whose judgment?


Whenever I come across the word “v’nikhrita” (and he/she/they will be cut off from the Jewish people) in the Torah, I marvel over where such a notion stands in the 21st century world. While once upon a time people really cared about what the Torah says, I find more and more that people care about what others think of what they do.

The concept of karet can be simply summarized in this manner: there are two positive commandments in the Torah that are so important that people who opt out of them are considered to have opted out of the entire religion. They are bris milah and the korban pesach.

Along similar lines, there are negative commandments so important that should one violate them, one is also “opting out of Judaism.” [I recognize that “opting out” is not the same as “being cut off spiritually from one’s people” (the literal meaning of the term). But I think the “opt out” is a little more appealing than the excision.] 

Karet is a punishment placed like a price on one’s head, in theory. G-d tries you and convicts you, and He’ll get you in the way He feels is right, in the proper way and in the right time.

In Vayikra 7:20-21, the Torah presents some of the rules related to how individuals would go about eating the peace offerings they had brought: “But if any person eats the flesh of a peace sacrifice to G-d while still in a state of spiritual impurity, his soul will be cut off from his people. Any person who comes in contact with human (spiritual) impurity, or with an impure mammal or other impure creature, and then eats the flesh of a peace offering to G-d, shall have his soul cut off from his people.” 

The concepts of spiritual impurity and purity (tumah and taharah) are largely monitored by each individual. I know when I am tameh because I know where I have been and what I have done. You know when you are tameh for your own reasons. This status is something others “might” be aware of, but it does not have to be something that becomes public knowledge. Obviously nothing is beyond G-d, so as He is the one who imposes the karet, He is the one keeping tabs on our personal status.

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I wonder if a person would really push the envelope. Knowing of one’s own “tumah status,” was there a person who said, “I don’t care about karet. I want to partake of the meat of the peace offering?”  Could such a decision transpire and be acted upon?

In these days when people are preparing for the holiday of Pesach (Passover), I marvel over how many people pay so much attention to the karet concerns of this holiday. Shmot 12:15,19 speaks of how those who eat chametz during the holiday will get karet — they are opting out of being a part of this People. People who ignore the karet warning about Shabbos (Shmot 31:14) sometimes are more strict about “doing Passover right” than those who observe the Shabbos on a weekly basis.

In the final analysis, each person will decide what he or she wants to focus on, and what he or she wants to ignore — this is, after all, America Land of the Free. I imagine that the full-scale commitment people have to Passover is more closely related to the family-oriented nature of the Seder and the meal, and the “keeping of tradition” that creeps its way into the conscience a few times a year.

Maybe there is something to the karet warning. Maybe there is not. The idealist in me says people on the fringes are concerned about it, but the realist in me is a little more skeptical because I honestly don’t think people who are less observant scrutinize the Torah all that much, or at least not to the finest details.

At the same time, I wonder even about the more observant. For example, people take a lot more stringencies on themselves than necessary during this holiday (particularly with regard to what is permitted and forbidden to be eaten), more as a result of blindly following instructions that are meant to “avoid problems” than they are meant to educate.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein clearly states in Orach Chaim III:63 that peanuts should not be prohibited on Pesach, but if people have accepted not to eat them, then that should be followed. Rabbi Feinstein’s analysis is fascinating and a real education.

Like those who may or may not have eaten the peace offering in a state of spiritual impurity (though in that case at the risk of karet), I wonder how many people will consider Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling and enjoy the PB&J matzah sandwich — where a guilty conscience (at most), and certainly not karet, is all that’s at stake.

Originally published in 2012.