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What does the Old Testament phrase 'cut off from their people' mean?

I have often read it, but am having difficulty imaganing how it may have actually been practiced? If it was determined that so and so "must be cut off from their people. " (Leviticus 7:27) would this simply mean they were cast out fo the camp and never welcomed back? How would the rest of his immediete family be treated and would the person have 'moving notice', or would it be suddenly applied without food provisions etc.

I am hoping somebody can identify real Jewish history or Rabbinic examples that describe an instance of this penalty actually being applied.

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5 Answers 5

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The Hebrew word here is כרת‎ (karet). The precise meaning is uncertain, but it seems to be a punishment at the hands of heaven, not one that a human court hands down. Depending on whom you ask, this might be an early death (at the age of 50, according to one talmudic opinion), extinction of the soul (spiritual, not physical, punishment), or a punishment in the world to come (after death). The first mishna in tractate Keritot enumerates 36 transgressions for which this is the punishment, drawn from various places in torah; Wikipedia lists some of them.

Jewish Virtual Library (first link above) notes some of the difficulties in understanding this:

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."

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Here are some examples I found:

Exd 31:14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

Exd 31:15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

Lev 23:29 For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people.

Lev 23:30 And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people.

Jdg 21:6 And the children of Israel repented them for Benjamin their brother, and said, There is one tribe cut off from Israel this day.

In context, "cut off from Israel" means the complete extinction of the tribe.

1Ki 14:10 Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.

1Ki 15:29 And it came to pass, when he reigned, that he smote all the house of Jeroboam; he left not to Jeroboam any that breathed, until he had destroyed him, according unto the saying of the LORD, which he spake by his servant Ahijah the Shilonite.

1Ki 21:21 Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel,

2Ki 9:8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel:

2Ki 9:9 And I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah

2Ki 10:17 And when he came to Samaria, he slew all that remained unto Ahab in Samaria, till he had destroyed him, according to the saying of the LORD, which he spake to Elijah.

2Ki 10:30 And the LORD said unto Jehu, Because thou hast done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in mine heart, thy children of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel.

Thus the general trend is that "cut off from Israel" and "cut off from the earth" mean physical death. However, when "cut off from [other places in specific contexts]" occurs, it may mean other things:

2Ch 26:21 And Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the LORD: and Jotham his son was over the king's house, judging the people of the land.

Uzziah was not killed at that time, but became a leper and was no longer allowed to the temple, or even within Jerusalem.

Summa summarum: Generally, "cut off", when it is a generic punishment or statement, means death/extinction. However, in certain specific circumstances the phrase refers to separation from a particular location or institution.

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Interesting, but I wonder if the phrase ". . . be cut off from his people", means that:

(1) one dies a physical death and he/she is simply deterred from enjoying the physical blessings from God in the land.

(2) a spiritual death and judgement for any covenant breaker among the Hebrews.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. We need to answer the question by "connecting the dots" starting from the text, a requirement on this site. Tell us not just what you know, but tell us how you know it. Thanks. –  John Martin Jan 29 at 14:33

I always thought the jewish view of cut off from the people meant to die before age 50 and leave no family descendents, but not necessarily as a punishment. My brother died at 48 years of age due to physical diseases, leaving a widow and 3 orphaned children. He was not cut off, though he died young, because he left children.

Just a couple of thoughts. Yeshua died at 33 and thus was cut off from his people, unless we are His family and God the Father is His Father, as He has said.

Many jewish martyrs, i.e. the mother and her seven sons tortured to death for not converting to pagan religion from judism, were cut off from their people as they, or at least some of them, died before age 50 and the family line was cut off because they were all killed. They did not commit evil and it was not a punishment from heaven. (2 Maccabees, Chapter 7) I do not think it was considered as a punishment by the jews, simply that they died too young if they died before age 50 and left no family line. Also this chapter in this intertestamentary book speaks of the common jewish belief in the resurrection. ( * [7:9] The King of the universe will raise us up: here, and in vv. 11, 14, 23, 29, 36, belief in the future resurrection of the body, at least for the just, is clearly stated; cf. also 12:44; 14:46; Dn 12:2.) To be cut off fom the people actually means to have your family line end so your genes are cut off from the people. To die early (before age 50) and leave no descendents. Here is a good site on this subject and it gives biblical citations for it. I do not have a keyboard and it would take to long for me to input it all...sorry


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I'm very grateful for your participation here. This site is a little different from other sites. Be sure to visit the tour to learn more about this site. Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! –  Paul Vargas Feb 15 at 21:47

we need to see this in the light of Jesus's other sayings. He told many times to his disciples, that he has to find the lost sheep of Israel. than it tells us in Torah that he will "cut off from the people"when we try to understand both things together we see that, The Prophet who will come, has to leave the land in any case whether its people refuse to believe him or even if they believe he would have gone to find the lost sheep of Israel. which he did after Jews refused him and try to kill him on cross,God saved him from the death on cross and then he left the land and had gone to India where ten Israeli tribes lived who migrated in 7th century after Prophet Moses from their own land. he lived their for along time in them. who believed in him and honored him and then he died

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. This doesn't connect the dots starting from the text, which is a requirement on this site. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. –  Dan Jun 7 '14 at 14:33
Can you help us with verse references? Can you drill down in any aspects of grammar or syntax within the text? We do not doubt your convictions; in order to share them with you, we need your help to see how you came to your conclusions through an in-depth analysis of the texts. Thanks! –  Joseph Jun 7 '14 at 16:59

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