Bemidbar 15:22-31 analyses the difference between intentional and accidental sin. Verses 22-29 describe the consequences of sinning in error. Either the community or the individual must bring a sin offering, a shegagah, to atone for unintentional transgression: “If you unwittingly fail to observe any one of the commandments that the LORD has declared to Moses…he shall offer a she-goat in its first year as a sin offering…making such expiation for him that he may be forgiven… you shall have one ritual for anyone who acts in error”
The more drastic consequences of intentional transgression are described in verses 30 and 31: “But the person, be he citizen or stranger, who acts defiantly (lit. ‘with a high hand’) reviles (lit. ‘blasphemes’) the LORD; that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has spurned the word of the LORD and violated His commandment, that person shall be cut off—he bears his guilt.”
The Tanach never makes it entirely clear what being ‘cut off’ (karet) from your people involves, but it is presented as terrible and total. The narrative is explicitly inclusive, referring to any form of transgression. Any unwitting error requires ritual expiation and any intentional error results in being ‘cut-off’. A person who defiantly and decidedly breaks the law, is choosing to rebel in an act equated with ‘blasphemy’. Since he ‘spurned the word of the LORD’, he is given the ultimate punishment. In consciously asserting his rejection of the law he has thereby chosen to cut himself off from the people.
On the other hand, the Mishnah (Keritot 1:1) includes an exhaustive list of 36 sins which the Torah specifies as being punished by karet. Thirty four of these are prohibitions; broadly speaking lots of relatives not to sleep with, avoiding various permutations of idolatry, and some key ritual prohibitions, such as not breaking Shabbat, eating chametz on Pesach or eating anything on Yom Kippur. The failure to keep only two positive obligations results in karet: failing to eat the paschal offering and failing to undergo circumcision.
How can the Torah in Bemidbar say any intentional transgression results in karet while the Mishnah limits the list to 36 quite specific acts? The majority voice in the Talmud (Shabbat 68b-69a) interprets the Torah in light of the Mishnah, against the simple meaning of the Torah. It is only that list of 36 major prohibitions that result in karet when done on purpose. This re-reading pivots around the word ‘blasphemy’ that appears in verse 30. It is not any act of rebellion that constitutes blasphemy. Instead, it is only an act as serious as blasphemy that constitutes a real rebellion!
In addition, the Talmud asserts that it is only the same list of 36 sins that each ends up requiring a sin offering or shegagah when performed by mistake. Karet and shegagah become two sides of the same coin, and both relate only to those major transgressions which come to symbolize a person’s inclusion and exclusion from the People of Israel. To bring a shegagah is not just to atone. It is to say, ‘I performed an act, albeit unwittingly, that has the potential to cut me off from my people. I do not want that to happen. I want to remain part of the collective of Israel.’
Rabbi Joel Levy is rabbi of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue, and Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva, Jerusalem