It’s impossible to study the Talmud for long without learning that the ultimate punishment in Jewish law is karet—literally, being “cut off.” Ordinary sins are punished by lashes, and certain serious crimes such as murder call for the death penalty; but karet is a more fearful penalty than even death, reserved for major transgressions against God and Torah. Last week, Daf Yomi readers began Tractate Karetot, the section of the Talmud dealing with the laws of karet, and it opens with a catalogue of 36 sins that are punished by karet, including Shabbat violation, various types of incest, breaking the Yom Kippur fast, eating bread on Passover, and profanation of the Temple sacrifices.
In characteristic fashion, however, the rabbis don’t begin at what might seem like the logical beginning, by defining exactly what karet consists of. If you receive a punishment of karet, what actually happens to you? In the Torah itself, the word is found in the formula “their souls shall be cut off from among their people,” which sounds like a kind of excommunication. In Jewish law, however, it is interpreted as a punishment inflicted by God rather than a human court, and depending on which authority you are listening to, it can mean either premature death (conventionally defined as before the age of 60), childlessness, or punishment in the afterlife by being “cut off” from God.
The sins that earn karet have in common that they are committed against God rather than human beings, so it makes a kind of sense that they would be left up to God to punish. Yet this also involves a paradox, which is that people who are liable to break God’s laws are precisely those who don’t care about them, and so presumably won’t fear receiving karet. In this sense, karet epitomizes the theory of punishment found throughout the Talmud. As we saw in Tractate Sanhedrin, even capital crimes like murder were almost never punished with death by Jewish courts. Jews are meant to obey the law not out of fear of physical punishment, but out of fear of God; in other words, they are supposed to follow their consciences. This was the theory of Jewish law propounded by the 18th-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in his famous book Jerusalem: Jewish law is an individual commitment rather than a political system.
The rabbis in Karetot don’t address this issue in such abstract philosophical terms, of course. But as often happens in the Talmud, they approach big questions by means of concrete legal inquiries. In Karetot 7a, the Gemara asks about the limits of atonement. The reason why Karetot belongs in Seder Kodashim, the division of the Talmud concerned with sacrifices, is that when a person unwittingly commits a sin for which the punishment is karet, he can atone by bringing a certain kind of offering.
But the most effective atonement for sins is Yom Kippur. After the day of atonement, one who has unintentionally earned karet is no longer required to bring a sin offering: “Once Yom Kippur passed, there is no remaining sin, as Yom Kippur atoned for him,” Reish Lakish says. As the Gemara immediately notes, however, atonement is supposed to be dependent on repentance: God will only forgive a sin if the sinner repents for it. But what about a person “who says: Yom Kippur does not atone for one’s sins?” Does the day itself wipe out a person’s sin even if he doesn’t want it to?
This turns out to be a subject of dispute among the rabbis. Reish Lakish believes that the power of Yom Kippur is so great that it atones even for one who rejects atonement, while Rabbi Yochanan disagrees, requiring the individual to accept atonement. In the end, Yochanan’s opinion prevails: “Yom Kippur only atones for those who repent,” the Gemara concludes. This is an important point, because it removes sin from the realm of ritual and magic—something that can be erased simply by performing the right actions or the passage of time—and makes it a matter of personal intention and accountability.
The idea that one can atone for unwitting sin by bringing an offering raises the question of what it means to sin unintentionally. If you violate Shabbat by performing several of the 39 forbidden categories of labor, how many sacrifices do you need to bring in atonement—just one for violating Shabbat, or a separate one for each kind of labor? The answer depends on where the “unwittingness” of the sin lies. If you knew it was Shabbat but carried an item unintentionally—maybe it was in your pocket and you forgot about it—then the sin lies in the carrying. In such cases, you need to bring a sacrifice for each category of labor you unintentionally committed. But if you didn’t know it was Shabbat in the first place, the sin lies in your forgetfulness of the day, and so you only need to bring one sacrifice for all the categories of labor you committed.
Things get more complicated when it comes to another type of serious sin, idol worship. Here, too, there are several forbidden actions that fall under the general category of idol worship: slaughtering an animal, burning incense, pouring a libation, and bowing down to an idol are each forbidden. So it would seem the same logic would apply as with Shabbat violation: If you didn’t realize you were serving an idol, then you would only have to bring one sacrifice for all four types of worship, whereas if you did the actions themselves accidentally but knew you were in front of an idol, you would have to bring one sacrifice for each action.
This raises the question, however, of what it might mean to worship an idol unwittingly. If, for instance, you were in a temple of Venus or Baal but thought you were in a synagogue and so you bowed down, the Gemara says in Karetot 3a that you didn’t commit any kind of transgression at all. If your “heart is directed toward Heaven,” the outward actions of idol worship are meaningless: Again, sin has to do with intention rather than mere action.
However, there is a limit to this principle. If you bow down to an idol “out of love or out of fear”—that is, to curry favor with a gentile, or out of fear of persecution—you are not guilty of deliberate idol worship, which is punishable by stoning. But you are guilty of unintentional idol worship, and you have to bring a guilt offering to atone for it.
Finally, there is the possibility that a Jew actually doesn’t know that idol worship is forbidden, so he worships an idol in good conscience. But how, Rav Pappa wonders, could you ever find such a Jew? Doesn’t anyone who knows the first thing about Judaism know that it is defined by opposition to idol worship? This could only come about, he concludes, with “a child who was taken captive among the gentiles” and raised in ignorance of Judaism. By that standard, however, many American Jews could be considered “captive among the gentiles,” and I wonder if this category is ever applied to secular Jews in contemporary halacha.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.