It is an unfortunate reality that there are many nice people out there who may have something rather serious hanging over them. That something is the Divine punishment known as kareis—being cut off. This penalty is associated with a number of violations: desecrating Shabbos, eating blood, breaching the prohibition of niddah, eating on Yom Kippur, eating cheilev…the list goes on.
The question is, can anything be done? Is there a means by which kareis can be rectified? If so, how? And why haven’t we heard about it before? Is there a particularly propitious time for it?
The great AriZal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria describes a ritual known as “tikkun kareis” (see Shaar Ruach HaKodesh, p. 11b).
He writes as follows: “One who is awake all night and does not sleep at all, and immerses himself in the study of Torah that entire night will exempt himself from one punishment of kareis if, Heaven forbid, he has incurred it. Each night exempts one kareis.”
Rav Chaim Vital adds more information about the exact kavanos – intentions that one must have while learning Torah for the tikkun: One must connect his neshamah to the root above, thus rectifying Adam Elyon. One other caveat he adds is to refrain from haughtiness, anger, being makpid – particular with others, and lashon ha’ra.
The Sefer Yesod VeShoresh HaAvodah (Shaar HaKollel) adds more to this list. The author writes that it is proper to study a subject that is related to the sin that one has committed, and that there are some propitious times for this ritual. The two most propitious times are during Yamim Nora’im and during the weeks of Shovevim Tat.
What is “Shovevim Tat”? It is a special time when teshuvah is more effective: the weeks that we read Sh’mos, Va’eira, Bo, BeShallach, Yisro, Mishpatim, Terumah, and Tetzaveh. The names of these parashios form the acronym “Shovevim Tat,” which means “those who return.” He also adds that ideally one should perform this tikkun while standing.
Does anyone else discuss this tikkun? Do any of the standard rabbinical texts and sources reference it? Are there any any Litvishe—non-Chassidish and non-Sephardic gedolim—who discuss it?
The answer is yes. The Rif (Rabbi Yitzchok Alfasi) is known for his commentary summarizing the more pertinent aspects of the Talmud for us. The problem is that he did not write such a work on the order of the Talmud known as Kodshim.
To help fill this lacuna, the Chofetz Chaim himself wrote such a work, called Likutei Halachos. In the beginning of Maseches Kerisus the Chofetz Chaim references this custom cited in the Kabbalistic texts and adds the following words: “It is certain that if a person learns the entire maseches that deals with the punishment of kareis and the ways to avoid it, it will be enormously effective in cleansing his neshamah.” He further adds that it is especially true if he knows it well.
There are 28 pages in Kerisus (and it is only one volume in the ArtScroll), so it should not be stupendously difficult to master.
The AriZal also provides a list of sins with a corresponding number of fasts that (given the proper intentions; see p. 24) will atone for those sins (also in Shaar Ruach HaKodesh). The commentators ask (see Ohr LeTzion Vol. III, Ch. 30) an interesting question: Do these fasts atone for every instance of that particular sin, or is the entire cadre of fasts listed necessary for each and every instance of violation of each sin? Or perhaps is there a sort of “all-day pass” that requires more fasts, but not the entire list for each violation?
It seems that the answer to this question is cause for debate among halachic (or kabbalistic-halachic) authorities.
The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Liady, writes in chapter three of his Iggeres HaTeshuvah (found in the Tanya) that it is necessary to fast three times the amount listed in the AriZal’s list, and the entire aveirah is thus fully atoned for. Rav Yoseph Chaim in response Rav Pealim (Vol. III, No. 35) writes that one only need follow the AriZal’s formula once, and each violation of that sin in the past is atoned for (it pays to be a Sephardi). There is also an accepted practice to redeem the fasts with tzedakah. This practice is cited by the Mishnah Berurah, the GraZ, and the Kaf HaChaim (O.C. 119:15). To calculate the proper amount, one must figure out the portion cost per meal (actually probably total meals for that day) and multiply it by the numbers listed by the AriZal. He also points out that one cannot mix tikkunim; each fasting for a particular sin must be kept separate (p. 25).
The punishment of kareis is only for prohibitions one committed after the age of 20. So even though one is certainly liable for sins committed at age 13–20 (12–20 for girls), the punishment of kareis does not begin until one’s 20th birthday.
Some authorities read the Rambam as being of the opinion that liability for kareis begins at 13; they infer this from what he writes in the laws of milah, that from age 13 if one did not yet have a b’ris milah he must do so, and if he does not, he is chayav kareis. However, the Rambam clearly writes in his commentary to the seventh chapter of Sanhedrin that the period for kareis begins at age 20.
To be liable for kareis, there is no prerequisite of hasra’ah (warning). The reason is that since the punishment is meted out by Heaven, it is clearly known in the heavenly courts what the perpetrators intentions were.
In conclusion, we see that there are steps by which one can recover from a kareis-inducing violation. They involve sincere repentance, special kavanos, and all-night Torah study. Ultimately, it is worthwhile to pursue, since Hashem does not want the death or destruction of those who sin. Rather, He desires our penance and return to Torah and His ways.