The Jerusalem Post

Part 1- The punishment of 'Karet' - A punishment from Heaven

What is Karet (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)
What is Karet
(photo credit: JERUSALEM POST)

What is karet? a detailed analysis.

Varying opinions exist on the matter of karet, its mechanisms and consequences. Let us consider this in more detail.

The most substantial analysis of opinions on the essence of karet (unrelated to the Kabbalah) can be found in Don Isaac Abarbanel’s commentary on the Torah.

As stated by Abarbanel, opinions on the essence of karet can be split into the following groups:

1. The first group includes opinions of Saadia Gaon, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rashi and the ideas expressed in the Tosafot. These viewpoints can be thus summarized as follows: karet erodes the sinner’s body, resulting in their premature death (before 50 years of age).


2. The second group is the Maimonides’ opinion – karet severs the sinner’s soul from the body and destroys it forever. Thereupon, the sinner has no place in the World to Come.

3. The third group includes Nachmanides’ opinion – the essence of karet can be divided into three categories:

    1. The first category: included people who are more righteous than wicked, karet affects the body and causes premature death.
    2. The second category: included people who are more wicked than righteous, the effect of the karet is spiritual, meaning the sinner’s soul becomes bereft of its chance to enter Gan Eden and be part of the World to Come.
    3. The third category: people who are guilty of idolatry or blasphemy experience both of karet’s aforementioned effects (categories 1 and 2).

Having analyzed the existing ideas, Abarbanel came up with his own interpretation:

  1. Karet affects both the body and soul, leading to premature death and severing the soul from Shekhinah (divine presence on Earth). Abarbanel compares karet to cutting a branch off a tree.
  2. He also vehemently denies Maimonides’ idea of a soul being able to disappear. Inversely, its punishment is suffering.

It is worth noting that none of the above explains the mechanisms of karet.

2.2.1.  Kabbalistic explanations of karet

The Gate of Reincarnation – a collection of Arizal’s (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) ideas – contains a gradation of sin and repentance (teshuvah).


As stated in the Kabbalah, each world corresponds to the letter of the Tetragrammon:

The Atzilut world – yodh;The Beri’ah world – the first hey;The Yetzirah world – vav;The Assiyah world – the second hey

Arizal connects each Sin to each world, thus saying that Sins corrode the four-letter Name of G-d. Hence, the concept of repentance (teshuvah) is defined as restoring the Name of G-d.

Below is the gradation of sin and repentance:

  1. Should a Sin violate a positive commandment, it belongs to the Assiyah world (the second hey, which correspond to the Sefira Malchut). In this case, the sinner is granted remission of his sins if they repent (teshuvah). Inside the Assiyah world, there exists various levels of sin and repentance that can also affect the first hey in the Name of G-d, which corresponds to the Sefirah Bina.
  2. Should a Sin violate a prohibiting commandment, it belongs to the Yetzirah world (vav) and, in case of repentance, can be redeemed on Yom Kippur.
  3. If the committed Sin is punishable by karet, it belongs to the Beri’ah world (the first hey). In this case, a person cannot atone on Yom Kippur and receives suffering.
  4. Defiling the Name of G-d belongs to the Atzilut world (yod), and atonement is only possible through death.

Arizal’s ideas were further developed and supplemented by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the ‘Alter Rebbe’). In his treatise Iggeret HaTeshuvah, the Alter Rebbe poses the following question. According to the sages, a person subject to karet dies before reaching 50 years of age. However, each generation had a great many people who underwent the karet punishment and still lived to be more than 50. Why would that be?

Referencing the Bereishit (‘and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life...’) Alter Rebbe stated that the human soul was born from the inner essence of Ein-Sof. It then descended and afterwards into this world placed in a body, dressed in the letters of the Divine sayings ‘Let us make man...’, and is part of the Tetragrammon.

Later on, Alter Rebbe cited a verse from the Torah (‘Because G‑d’s portion is His people; Jacob is the rope of His inheritance’ –  (Deuteronomy 32:9) and presented an analogy with a rope, one end of which is tied above and the other below, meaning that every soul has two levels: an internal one (soul as a part of G-d) and an external one (‘the rope of His inheritance’). Herewith, Alter Rebbe concluded that karet severs the ‘rope’ that is tied to the Tetragrammon's second hey. He noted that even in the case of severing (karet), a person still retains an ‘impression’ of his Divine soul. 

The aforementioned explanation relates only to the period when the Temple still existed, when the Jewish people obtaining vital powers only through the Tetragrammon. The situation changed with the destruction of the Temple when sinners gained an opportunity to obtain vital powers from animal souls and the ‘Other Side’ (Sitra Ahra), the side of the Evil, and to live longer than 50 years.

The next chapter contains an explanation of karet based on the 'Kabbalah of Information'>>


To purchase Eduard Shyfrin’s book ‘From Infinity to Man: The Fundamental Ideas of Kabbalah Within the Framework of Information Theory and Quantum Physics’ please click here.

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