Astonishingly, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 179:1) seems to forbid lotteries by conclusively stating: “One should not inquire from stargazers and not through lotteries.”
This ruling is based on Tosfos (Shab- bos 156a) who writes, “Lots and stargazing are one thing.” The source of this seems to be the Sifri (Devorim), which says, “From where do we know that one does not make inquiries through lots? Because it says, ‘You shall be tamim with Hashem your G-d.’”
A Distinguished Record
The Shulchan Aruch’s p’sak seems surprising since what is more common than Jewish lotteries nowadays and throughout history?
Every Yom Kippur the Kohein Gadol used a lottery to choose between the goat he sacrificed to Hashem and the goat sent to Azazel; Hashem commanded that Eretz Yisroel be divided through lottery (Bamidbar 26), and Yehoshua made a lottery to identify who had taken spoil from conquered Canaanite towns and discovered that it was Achan (Ye- hoshua 7:14-18). Other cases include Shaul who was chosen as king through lottery (Shmuel I 10:20) and later made a lottery himself to identify who was guilty of eating before the completion of the war against the Plishtim, only to discover that the culprit was none other than his own son, Yonasan (Shmuel I 14:41, 42).
In sefer Yonah we read how sailors used lots to identify Yonah as the one responsible for the storm and threw him into the sea. Sefer Nechemiah (10:35) tells us how lots were cast to determine who would bring wood for the altar, and other lots were cast to determine which one out of every ten Jews would settle in Yerushalayim while the other nine settled in other towns (1:1). The Gemara discusses the use of lottery a number of times, discussing how the people used them for such things as allocating sacrificial duties to kohanim (Yuma) and the division of inheritances (Bava Basra).
Lehavdil, we also find cases of wicked people using lotteries to further their evil plans. Haman used a goral to determine the best day to exterminate the Jews, and Nevuchadnezer “shot arrows” when he came to a crossroads to see whether they would fall in the direction of Yerushalayim (Yechezkel 21:26 according to Medrash Eicha).
How do we reconcile these Torah sanctioned lotteries with the Shulchan Aruch’s restriction against making inquiries through lottery?
This question is addressed by a number of poskim including Rav Shlomo Kluger (Ha’Eleph Lecha Shlomo O.C. 62) who cites the Shulchan Aruch s ruling and points out that it seems to contradict normative custom.
“How can we have a custom of casting lots in [determining who should recite] Kaddish and suchlike,” he asks. “Doesn’t the Shach write in the name of Tosfos that it is forbidden to make inquiries through lotteries?”
To this, Rav Kluger answers:
“You should know that when Tosfos talks about inquiring through lottery, he is speaking of someone who wants to know what will happen in the future, for example, whether a sick person will recover… Regarding this, he says that one should not inquire through lottery because it says, ‘You shall be tamim with Hashem your L-rd.’
“However, to cast a lottery between two matters [or] to know whether something should be for this person or that person is certainly permitted. Because in the Bais Hamikdash, they used to cast lotteries to determine who would slaughter and who would cast [the blood].”
This answer explains why institutions can organize lotteries in which one winner walks off with $100,000. Such lotteries are not providing any information about the future, but merely choosing a recipient for the winning prize. This is in no way different from the lots in
the Bens Haimkdash that determined which kohanim would slaughter and who would cast the animal’s blood on the altar.
The Goral HaGra
However, Rav Kluger’s explanation only answers some of the questions we raised. It does not explain how Yehosh- ua and Shaul utilized lotteries to expose the perpetrators of wrongdoings, nor does it clarify how the sailors decided that Yonah was the cause of their storm by conducting a lottery.
Another issue that requires clarification is the Goral HaGra. It is well known that when Rav Aharon Kotler was considering moving to the US, he randomly opened a Chumash according to the method specified by the Gra and his talmidim, and came across the verse, “Go and meet Moshe in the wilderness” (Shemos 4:27), which hinted that he should travel to the wilderness of America and join forces with Rav Moshe Feinstein.
Rav Dov Eliach writes in his sefer HaGaon, that this goral was known to earlier generations. The sefer Droshos Maharash Sirero, written 200 years before the Gra by a contemporary of the Beis Yosef, describes how Rav Sirero used this exact sort of goral to determine whether he had been justified in harshly rebuking his community during a drought.
Indeed, the basic concept of such a goral is even mentioned in the Ge- mara (Chulin 95b) that says, “Shmuel checked with a sefer;” Rabeinu Ger- shom explains, “Whether he would come across a good verse or not.”
In a similar vein, the Chasam Sofer (Derashos LeSukkos page 52) writes, “We find something amazing, that when a person is in doubt, he can find the solution in the weekly parsha. For example, the name of the author of Chavos Yair was Yair and his grandmother’s name was Chava. When he was uncertain what to name his sefer, he was called up to the Torah and his portion included the verse, ‘And he called them Chovas Yair [which included both names].
The Birkei Yosef (Shulchan Aruch 179) also mentions a simpler form of the Goral HaGro, citing the Shevet Mussar who writes: “I have a tradition from my rabbis that when they wanted to do something and were in doubt whether to do it or not, they would take a Chu- mash or Tanach, open it, see what verse appeared at the top of the page, and act according to what the verse indicated. Thus, they took counsel with the Torah regarding what to do in all their concerns. This is hinted in Chazal’s statement, ‘To take counsel from the Torah,’ [YalkutMishlei 219: ‘If you want to take advice, take it from the Torah], which indicates that it is permitted to do so.”
All these gorals seem problematic since unlike the lotteries discussed by Rav Shlomo Kluger, which merely allocated items to certain people, the Goral HaGro type of lotteries often indicate what one should do in the future. How does this reconcile with the Shulchan Aruch S prohibition against such things?
Life and Death
To sharpen the question, it is worth noting that the Sefer Chassidim (679) allows one to follow the example of the sailors of Yonah’s boat: “If people are traveling at sea and a storm threatens to smash their boat or sink it into the sea, and other boats are passing peacefully, this indicates that someone on the boat is culpable and one is allowed to cast lots. Whomever the lot falls upon three times, one may cast into the sea.”
The Tiferes LeMoshe (cited in Pis- chei Teshuvah 157:13) gives a similar ruling in a case where non-Jews ordered a Graup of Jews, “Give us one of you to kill, or we will kill you all.” According to normative halachah, none of the Graup may be handed over unless the non-Jews specified exactly which Jew they wanted. The Tiferes LeMoshe adds the caveat that the Jews may hand over one of their party if they determine the victim through lottery, citing among his proofs the incident of Yonah.
Chazon Ish (Yoreh Dei’ah 69:1) disagrees with all this, pointing out that the purpose of Yonah’s lottery was not to kill him but merely to identify who was causing the storm. Yonah himself suggests they throw him into the sea to calm the waters.
The Knesses Hagedolah (C.M. 173) notes that the Sefer Chassidim himself contradicts his lenient ruling, citing the following passage from Sefer Chassidim (601):
“If people were on a boat and a storm arose, they may not cast lots, because if it fell on one of them they would have to cast him into the sea and one may not do as they did to Yonah ben Amitai. Consider! If we say regarding monetary matters that
asmachta lo kanya [if people take a bet on the outcome of something, the agreement is not binding], how much more so should we not rely on a lottery when it comes to matters of life and death.”
The Sefer Chassidim then goes on to explain why only the lotteries of earlier times were permitted even in cases of life and death:
“When the verse says (Shmuel I 14:42), ‘Shaul ordered to cast it [the lottery] between himself and his son Yonasan, and Yonasan was caught,’ in that case the Ark was present, his whole judgment came from Hashem, and they knew in what manner to cast [the lots]. Nowadays, however, we should not rely on lotteries because it says [regarding the identification of Achan through lots], ‘I will cast a lottery for you
here, before Hashem our L-rd’ (Yehoshua 18:7), [intimating that a lottery can only be conducted before Hashem],
“Even in monetary concerns, one should not cast lots unless one is dividing into equal portions [and the lottery is merely to ascribe each person his portion]… Because the two goats of Yom Kippur required a lottery, they were identical in appearance and size.”
All this intimates that casting lots in conjunction with the Urim VeTumim not only enables lotteries to decide life and death questions, but also conforms to the demand of tamim tiheyeh.
To answer our question concerning the Goral HaGra, we simply need to go a step further and say that utilizing the pages of the Chumash according to these traditions
is comparable to conducting a lottery in tandem with the Urim and Tumim and does not transgress the requirement of tamim ti- heyeh. With this, we have explained how none of our contemporary lotteries conflict with the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.
It is worth concluding with the observation of the Ralbag (Mishlei 16:33) that lotteries are not dependent on chance but result according to a person’s mazal [directed by Hashem]. As the verse says, “The lot is placed in the bosom, but all its disposing is from Hashem.” “You can tangibly observe,” he adds, “that while wealthy people generally end up with better results in a lottery, the opposite happens to the poor.”
(Many sources are from Otzar Hayedi’os of Rav Yechiel Michel Stern.)