Each morning at about 7:10 a.m. my mother, still in her housecoat and slippers, would wake me for school. One wintry Monday morning I opened my eyes to see her leaning over my bed. She was in hat and coat and her hands were cold from the weather outside.
“Where did you go, Mum?” I asked.
“I have just come back from the hospital,” she replied. “Dad was rushed to the emergency room early this morning.”
Thus started a six-month period in which Dad fought for his life, Mum stayed at his side and I was shunted from relative to friend. After six months, grayer and slower, Dad came home. Two years later he invited relatives and friends to celebrate his 60th birthday and recounted that while asleep in his hospital bed he received a visit from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in a dream. He told Dad told that he would recover but that he must pledge to spend the rest of his life disseminating Rav Hirsch’s works in English.
Dad made that pledge at that party.
Such celebrations are not new. The Talmud relates that when Rav Yosef reached the age of 60, he threw a party for his students. “I have made it through the danger zone of karet,” he said.
Karet is premature death inflicted at the hand of God rather than by a human court of law. There are 36 Torah commandments which, if intentionally violated, incur the punishment of karet. For some of these violations, such as not performing circumcision, working or eating on Yom Kippur, or eating chametz on Pesach, karet is the prescribed punishment.
For other intentional violations that carry the punishment of death at the hand of a human court, karet is the punishment, by default, when certain conditions for the application of the death penalty (the evidence of two witnesses and a warning to the violator immediately before perpetrating the act that the act carries the death penalty) are not met.
If karet is premature death at the hand of God, until what age can it strike and at what age can one celebrate emerging from the danger zone?
Since by definition karet is left in the hands of God, there is no definitive halachic answer to this question.
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the definition of karet is premature death at the hand of God between the ages of 40 and 50. The Yerushalmi derives this from the chapter in Leviticus that assigns to the Levi’im the task of carrying the Holy Ark and other contents of the Sanctuary during the Israelites’ travels in the desert. The Levi’im were eligible for this task until the age of 50, at which point they were retired from this assignment.
The Sanctuary utensils they carried were so holy that the Levi’im would incur karet if they carried them or even looked at them before the kohanim had covered them in wraps. From the fact that the Torah warns Moshe and Aharon to supervise the Levi’im so that their careers as bearers of the Sanctuary utensils should not be cut short, the Yerushalmi derives that karet occurs before the age of fifty.
According to the Talmud Bavli, however, the definition of karet is premature death at the hand of God between the ages of 50 and 60. This is derived from the words God speaks to Job, “Tavo bekelach eilei kever” – “you will go to the grave at a mature age.” The word “bekelach” has a numerical value of 60.
Even after a person reaches 60, and until he or she reaches 79, such a person may still be subject to karet in the form of sudden death or as result of an illness that kills within five days. Karet before the age of 60 is called “karet of years” and karet due to sudden death after the age of 60 is called “karet of days.” A person who dies between the ages of 60 and 79 from an illness that lasts longer than five days has not been struck by karet. So too a person who dies at or after the age of 80 has not been struck by karet.
Even though reaching the age of 60 only gets one through the danger zone of karet of years and not karet of days, for those whom the cup is half full rather than half empty it is an achievement worth celebrating.
“Granted that you have made it through the karet of years, but have you made it through the karet of days?” asked one of Rav Yosef’s students. “I’ll take half,” replied Rav Yosef. “Avoiding karet of years is worth celebrating.”
Although life between 50 and 60 is in the karet danger zone, this does not by any means warrant the conclusion that death before sixty is inevitably due to karet. The Talmud is so concerned that people do not arrive at this superficial, pejorative conclusion that it states that karet occurs at the age of 60 when, in fact, it means between the ages of 50 and 60. This is out of deference to Shmuel the prophet, who died at the age of 52. He did not die as a result of karet but rather because God did not want to cause him the pain of witnessing the death of his disciple Shaul in his own lifetime.