In addition to karet, there is another type of premature death at the hand of God known as “mita bedei shamayim.”
If both karet and mita bedei shamayim are a form of premature death at the hand of God, what is the difference between them?
According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the difference is that whereas karet occurs between the ages of 40 and 50, mita bedei shamayim occurs between the ages of 50 and 60. The Yershalmi derives this from the story of the spies. The punishment God inflicted upon the generation of the spies who slandered the Land of Israel was that all males of the age of 20 years or older at the time of the Exodus would die in the wilderness and not merit entering the land of Israel. Their punishment then, was death in the wilderness not premature death at the hand of God.
Accordingly, in order it should be clear that these people were not punished with mita bedei shamayim, God had to make sure they would live until the age of 60. Thus God detained them in the wilderness for 40 years, so that even the youngest of them, who were only 20 at the time of the Exodus, would reach the age of 60.
According to the Talmud Bavli, the difference between karet and mita bedei shamayim is as follows: Whereas karet occurs between the ages of 50 and 60, mita bedei shamayim takes place after the age of 60.
According to Rashi the difference between karet and mita bedei shamayim is that whereas karet mita bedei shamayim cuts short the life of the offender alone, karet cuts short the life of the offender and his or her children so that the offender dies childless –“ariri.” The Riva disagrees with Rashi and maintains that unless the Torah explicitly provides to the contrary (as it does in the case of certain incestuous relations) – karet does not cut short the lives of the children of the offender but only that of the offender himself.
According to Rav Bartenurah, the difference between karet and mita bedei shamayim is that karet not only cuts short life prematurely but it also punishes the soul posthumously in the event the offender did not repent before his or her death. But mita bedei shamayim inflicts no punishment on the soul of the offender.
The Ramban takes up the effect of karet on the soul in greater detail. He points out that the language the Torah uses in connection with the punishment of karet is not uniform but varies with the violation concerned. According to the Ramban, there are three degrees of karet. Third-degree karet, which is the least severe form, is the punishment for a person who is generally law abiding but who, in a moment of weakness, succumbed to the temptation of a karet-bearing sin such as eating forbidden fat. Third-degree karet impacts on one’s physical life only and has no impact on one’s afterlife.
In referring to third-degree karet the Torah states, “venichretah ha’ish” – “the person shall be cut off” – thereby signaling the punishment is exclusively physical. Second-degree karet is the punishment for a person whose transgressions exceed his or her good deeds. The test to determine whether a person’s transgressions exceed his or her good deeds is not merely quantitative but also qualitative. That means certain transgressions, such as eating or working on Yom Kippur, particularly if done in a spirit of rebellion rather than succumbing to temptation, might tip the scales more heavily in the negative direction.
Second-degree karet, as opposed to third-degree karet, has no effect on one’s physical life but impacts exclusively on one’s after life in that such a person, unless he or she repented before death, will have a limited share in the world to come. In referring to second-degree karet the Torah states “venichretah hanefesh” – “the soul shall be cut off” – thereby signaling that the punishment exclusively pertains to the world to come.
Accordingly, a person guilty of second-degree karet can reach a ripe old age, even as his or her life in the world to come will be restricted. First-degree karet, which is the most severe form, is the punishment reserved for someone whose transgressions exceed his or her good deeds and who has participated in idol worship and blasphemy. First-degree karet cuts short a person’s life both on earth and in the world to come. Hence, in referring to first-degree karet, the Torah states “hikaret, tikaret hanefesh” – “the soul shall surely be cut off” – thereby signaling the dual nature of the punishment.
Raphael Grunfeld’s book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah), is available at OU.org and your local Jewish bookstore. Comments to the writer are welcome at Rafegrun@aol.com.