Daf Yomi: On Crime and Not Knowing the Punishment

“And that soul shall be cut off.”

Today’s Daf Yomi deals with the topic of transgression from Jewish law and punishment. The punishment discussed for intentional and unwitting offenses, is “karet” or a spiritual “cutting off” that is cast down from above, rather than from a human court. The punishment can lead to an early death before sixty and being “cut off” from the world and the world-to-come. I read that Rabbis would hold large parties when they turned sixty, which must have been a celebration for living to an age that was no longer young as a reward for an observant life. Cutting off or a “karet’ punishment could also result in the failure to have children who would honor one’s soul after death. 

The reading continues the previous day’s debate on intentionality. Is one guilty of a violation of Jewish law if he does not know that he transgressed? The debate is extended to punishment. How guilty is someone of a transgression if he is unaware of the punishment? In this case the punishment is karet, which if the afterlife is considered, could be a sentence for all eternity. Munbaz, a ruler from a small kingdom in Syria who was a convert to Judaism, appears for the second day in a row. He argues that a person who is unaware of a karet punishment, is an unwitting transgressor and should be handed down a lesser punishment of a sin-offering. A group of Rabbis correct Munbaz and declare “unwitting with regard to a sacrifice is not considered unwitting.”

As always, there is a difference of opinion. Rabbi Yohanan says if one does not know about the karet punishment, his transgression is unwitting even though “his action was in violation of a Torah prohibition, and he performed the transgression intentionally.”  Reish Lakish further refines the argument by stating that an act is considered unwitting if the transgressor is unaware of both the prohibition and the karet punishment.

The discussion of intentionality takes us on the journey through the desert at a time when there were no clocks or automatic method of time-keeping. If one starts on a journey through the desert without modern conveniences, how does he keep track of the time and the days of the week? If he is observant and loses track of the days as he trudges through the hot sand, is he liable for not observing Shabbat on the correct day? We are told that he has two options: he can count six days from the day he became lost and observe one day as Shabbat. Alternatively, he can observe one day as Shabbat and count down the next six days. Either way, it’s hit or miss if he is observing Shabbat on the correct day.  Is he guilty of a transgression if he is parched from the hot sun and has lost his way and does not observe Shabbat on the correct day “And that soul shall be cut off.”

I have always been fascinated by the concept of what motivates people to follow rules, especially when there may be no consequences for not following them. Does the fear of punishment keep people from transgressing and for instance, abiding by jay-walking laws even when the streets are quiet and clear of cars and waiting at a stop light can seem forever?  Or do they follow the law because they know it is the right thing to do and a speeding car can appear from around the corner before one can safely cross the street? If there was no fear of punishment, if we knew we would never get caught, would we feel freer to sometimes act outside the codes established by our communities? And why are some of us rule-followers who wait patiently for the light to turn green, while others do not think twice about stepping off the curb and racing across the street ahead of incoming traffic?

A good friend of mine followed the rules. She has been sheltering in place since the middle of March when the city of New York shut down. She wore a mask in public and only went out to the grocery and pharmacy. She has just been diagnosed with COVID-19. She was not one of those people strolling through the city as if the world has not changed. It is frightening to consider that one can get sick just by living in a high-rise building, touching elevator buttons and getting one’s mail. There are people in the city who still are not wearing masks or sheltering in place, who expose all of us who are trying to do the right thing.


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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