What's in a Word?

For the week ending 1 June 2019 / 27 Iyyar 5779

Karet and Ariri

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Mishna (Keritot 1:1) lists thirty-six prohibitions for which the Bible prescribes a punishment known as karet to the wanton sinner. In this essay we will examine the meaning of the word karet,both as a Divine punishment and as a regular verb. We will also compare the punishment of karet with a seemingly synonymous punishment — ariri. In doing so we will seek to determine whether karet and ariri are truly the same thing or not.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) in his work Yeriot Shlomo discusses more than fifteen different words in Hebrew that refer to “cutting” in some form or another. One of those is the word karet. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that karet is a general word for “cutting,” whether or not that cutting results in some form of severance. The Torah designates a bill of divorce as a sefer kritot, literally “Book of Cutting” (Deut. 24:1). This is because marriage joins two people into one, so terminating a marriage is like “tearing” a single body and rendering it into two parts.

The word karet is also used to denote the ratification of a covenant/treaty. In ancient times, such ratification was symbolized by cutting animals in half and having the people relevant to the agreement walk in between them. Because ratifying agreements involved this rite that necessitates “cutting,” the very verb for agreeing to a covenant in the Bible is karet. Interestingly, some linguists link this phenomenon to the English idiom to “cut a deal.” In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root of karet is KAF-REISH, which refers to a type of “digging.” Just as digging serves to break up the different parts of the dirt and separate them from each other, so does “cutting” serve to separate different pieces from each other.

Rabbi Pappenheim notes that karet can also refer to a form of destruction, especially when used to refer to the Divine punishment of karet — spiritual excision, or spiritual extirpation.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that karet entails being “cut off” from the rest of the World-to-Come, in which all souls enjoy their eternal reunion with G-d. One punished with karet is isolated from that eternal rapture and does not join everyone else.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) asserts (Nefesh HaChaim 1:18) that karet entails the soul being “cut off” from its Upper Source. He understands that a soul’s lifeline is like a sort of Divine umbilical cord that connects the created to the Creator. When one commits a sin which incurs a punishment of karet, then nine-tenths of that cord is “cut,” but the cord itself is never completely severed.

What exactly does the punishment of karet entail?

Nachmanides and Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Lev. 18:29) explain that there are three types of karet: A bodily karet, a soul karet, and a karet which affects both the body and the soul. Bodily karet applies to somebody who otherwise has more merits than sins, but still violated a karet- level prohibition. This sort of karet causes the sinner to die early, but his soul will nonetheless enter the World of the Souls and will return during the Resurrection of the Dead.

Soul karet applies to somebody who violates a karet- level prohibition and has accrued more sins than merits on his record. This type of karet affects a sinner after he has already died, and bars his soul from entering the World of the Souls. A person who suffers soul karet might otherwise live a long and happy life before dying. All of his suffering starts with the Afterlife.

The third type of karet is reserved for somebody who violates the Torah’s ban on avoda zara (loosely translated as “idolatry”). Because the Torah uses a double expression to express the karet given to the idol worshipper (Num. 15:31), this means that the idolater gets two types of karet: he meets an early demise, and then his soul is punished posthumously.

What does it mean that those punished with karet die young? The Talmud Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 2:1) explains that karet causes a sinner to die younger than the age of fifty. The Talmud arrives at that number by citing the verse, “Do not cut off the tribe of the families of the Kohatites from amongst the Levites” (Num. 4:18), in which G-d warned Moses and Aharon that they ought to make sure that the vessels of the Tabernacle were properly covered while travelling, lest the Kohatites who carried them illicitly gaze upon them and die young. The Talmud notes that elsewhere we are informed that the Levites served only until the age of fifty (Num. 8:25). Putting two and two together, the Talmud derives that the age of being “cut off” cannot be greater than fifty.

Elsewhere, the Babylonian Talmud (Moed Katan 28a) disagrees with this and explains that karet can even be when somebody dies between the ages of fifty and sixty. The Talmud relates that when Rav Yosef turned sixty he made a party to celebrate the fact that he was no longer liable for karet. However, the Talmud concludes that even when somebody is above the age of sixty, karet can come in the form of sudden death.

Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 17:14) explains that karet refers to somebody who dies before the age of 52, or refers to the death of one’s descendants such that his own memory will be completely erased. In the latter case the sinner’s legacy is “cut off” from continuing.

The term ariri appears only four times in the Bible: First, when Avraham questioned G-d’s promise that he will inherit the Holy Land, he asked, “But I am going childless (ariri)…” (Gen. 15:2). Second, when G-d cursed Jeconiah — the penultimate King of Judah — that he remain childless, his fate was said to be ariri (Jer. 22:30). (According to rabbinic tradition Jeconiah later repented his sins and his punishment was overturned. In fact, some sources say that the Messiah is destined to be his descendant.) Finally, the term aririm appears twice as a punishment for those violating the Torah’s bans on forbidden marriages (Lev. 20:20-21).

Rashi (to Shabbat 25b), like Ibn Era, maintains that just as karet can bring about one’s own early demise, it can also affects the sinner’s children. However, this position is disputed by a Tosafist known as Riva (probably a reference to Rabbi Yitzchak ben Asher HaLevi, a student of Rashi) who argues that karet does not affect a sinner’s children. Instead, he argues that ariri is a punishment separate from karet, which applies only to somebody who violates the Torah’s bans on forbidden marriages (see Tosafot to Yevamot 2a). In short, while Rashi argues that every karet can also potentially include ariri, Riva maintains that karet and ariri are separate punishments. Nonetheless, we should note that even Rashi agrees that if one’s children are adults, and do not follow in their father’s sinful path, then their father’s karet cannot affect them (see Tosafot Yeshanim to Yevamot 2a).

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