Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Parshat Tzav

Understanding Karet

This week's parsha brings to our attention an interesting punishment:

"A person who eats the flesh of a peace offering of the Lord, while his uncleanness is upon him, that soul shall be cut off from its people" (VaYikra 7:20).

This punishment of one's "soul being cut off from its people" (וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ), called "Karet", also applies to males who are not circumcised (Bereshit 17:14), someone who eats chametz on Pesach (Shemot 12:15, 19), someone who breaks Shabbat (ibid 31:14), someone who does any of the actions described in VaYikra Chapter 18 (see passuk 29) and for a host of other sins.

The commentaries have trouble understanding what "Karet" actually entails. Most commentators understand it as a form of heavenly punishment despite the fact that Bamidbar 15:31 implies that it is to be applied by humans. Some say that Karet is childlessness. This would fit in with the concept of "being cut off from the people", if the sinner is young and has no children. Others understand it as death before the age of 50 or between the ages of 50 and 60. In these cases it is difficult to understand what makes this death: "cut off from the people".

We can perhaps suggest two alternatives by looking at the antonym of this expression. It appears at the deaths of Avraham, Yitschak, Yishmael, Aharon and Moshe. We will examine the expression with Avraham:

"Avraham expired and died in a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the Cave of Machpelah" (Bereshit 25:8-9).

Now, we must understand what "gathered to his people" (וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל עַמָּיו) means.

Note how the "gathering to his people" occurred after death but before burial. There are two ways to understand this.

Firstly, in ancient Israel, there were two stages in burying a person. First the body was buried. A year later, the grave was re-opened and the bones were then gathered and buried in a family tomb. Therefore, if the "gathering to his people" means the gathering of the bones and the re-internment in a family tomb, then we can understand "Karet" as a procedure that would mean that the sinner's bones were not re-interred in the family tomb - effectively he is cut off from his people.

However, it is difficult to apply this explanation to the deaths of Aharon and Moshe as their bones were not re-interred in the family tomb.

Other commentators suggest that this expression is a reference to the world to come. The Tenach does not talk about life after death, but it is possible that this expression hints at it. Therefore, if "being gathered unto one's people" implies being granted a place in the world to come, then "being cut off from one's people" means being denied a place in the world to come.


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