KARET (Heb. כָּרֵת; "Extirpation"), a punishment at the hands of heaven mentioned in the Bible as the penalty for a considerable number of sins committed deliberately such as: idolatry, desecration of the Sabbath, the eating of leaven on Passover, incest and adultery; and for some forbidden foods. No previous warning need be given in these cases. The halakhah explains karet as premature death (Sifra, Emor, 14:4), and a baraita (mk 28a; tj, Bik. 2:1, 64b) more explicitly as: "death at the age of 50," but some amoraim hold that it refers to "death between the ages of 50 and 60." The word karet is also used to indicate the degree of severity of a transgression, and serves as a "standard" for many other halakhot. The Mishnah (Ker. 1:1) enumerates the 36 transgressions mentioned in the Torah for which the penalty is karet, and lays down (ibid., 1:2) that only where there is karet for the deliberate act is there a sin-offering for the act committed inadvertently. Since the punishment is divine, and the fact that it is deliberate is known only to God, it does not require witnesses or previous warning. The halakhah also lays it down that only the offspring of a union for which the penalty is karet have the status of *mamzerim (Yev. 4:13).
There is a dispute between tannaim whether or not the penalty of karet exempts the transgressor from *flogging, which is the automatic punishment for most prohibitions of the Torah of which one is guilty after having been duly warned (Mak. 13a–b); according to the view that it does not exempt from flagellation, the flagellation itself exempts from karet (Mak. 23a–b). Repentance however has the effect of annulling karet (ibid.), and, with the exception of Neḥunya b. Ha-Kanah, all agree that karet does not absolve the guilty person from civil claims arising out of his action (Ket. 30a).
Every attempt toward a general rationale of this punishment involves serious halakhic and philosophical difficulties, and the problem greatly exercised the early authorities; although the halakhah itself makes a distinction between karet and "death by the hand of heaven" (mk 28a), the difference between them is not clear. Some rishonim hold that "natural" death takes place at the age of 60 (or later), when the karet period has ended, and that "death by the hand of heaven" has no fixed time, save that one's span of life is curtailed. Others hold, in accordance with the Jerusalem Talmud (Bik. 2:1), that karet comes at the age of 50, "death by the hand of heaven" at 60, and natural death between 60 and 70. The connection between the punishment of "ariri" and karet and the real nature of the former is also not clear. In the Bible the punishments of karet and ariri are frequently found together. Some rishonim hold that the minor children of a sinner are also punished through the father's karet, and in their view this also constitutes the difference between karet and "death by the hand of heaven" (Rashi, Ket. 30b, et al.). Others, however, differ (Tos. to Shab. 25a). With regard to karet in the case of the old, it is laid down that the punishment lies in the manner of death, since "one dying in either one, two, or three days has suffered karet."
The punishment of karet raised difficulties in the theory of reward and punishment current among medieval scholars, and constituted part of the polemic around Maimonides and his views on this subject. Basing himself upon the statement (Sanh. 90b): "Hikkaret tikkaret: 'hikkaret' in this world, 'tikkaret' in the world to come," Maimonides (Yad, Teshuvah 8:1) lays down that: "The punishment of the wicked is that they are not vouchsafed this life [of the world to come], but they suffer karet and die… and this is the karet written in the Torah…" This constitutes a maximal punishment, since ordinary sinners, after being punished in *Gehinnom according to their sin, live again in the world to come (ibid. 8:3, 5). In the opinion of *Naḥmanides (in the Sha'ar ha-Gemul), the soul can never perish and be annihilated and he therefore holds that those liable to karet are also punished in the world to come according to their sin, and he divides sinners into three categories: those who have been guilty only once of a transgression involving the penalty of karet; those whose wicked deeds exceed their good in addition to this transgression; and lastly the blasphemers and idolaters. Only the last are punished both by karet of the body and of the soul in this world and in the next (Comm. to Lev. 18:29 and in Sha'ar ha-Gemul). Karet of the soul, according to Naḥmanides, does not mean absolute perishing; it means only a degradation, in a way of metamorphosis, and absolute negation of spiritual pleasures awaiting the souls of the righteous.
In the opinion of some *Karaiteskaret was death at the hand of man (Eshkol ha-Kofer, no. 267), and this too seems to have been the view of Philo and of Josephus (Ant. 3:12, 1).
G.F. Moore, Judaism, 3 vols. (1927–30), index, s.v.Extirpation; Ḥ. Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, 5 (1959), 243ff.; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal (1969), index.
[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]