Vilna Gaon – his lottery

From birth to the grave, decisions are our destiny. That is why they are so terrifying. Since time immemorial, man has searched so avidly for ways to avoid the terror of decision- making that the Torah devotes a special parsha warning us against divining the future. You shall be innocent with Hashem your G-d (Devorim 18:13), the Torah commands, and Rashi explains, Go with Him in innocence and wait for Him, and do not investigate the future. The Shulchan Aruch (179:1) rules that this prohibition includes goralos, casting lots to determine one.s course of action. But this rule has its exceptions.

The poseik and mekubal Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rosh Yeshiva of Yerushalayim’s Ahavas Shalom, was asked about using the services of people who predict the future through various methods including the casting of goralos (Shu”t Vayoshov Hayam vol. 1:13).

He begins his reply by discussing various goralos found in the Tanach. For example, after Klal Yisroel were defeated in the battle of the city of Ai, Yehoshua made a goral to discover who was responsible for the defeat and discovered that Achan had pillaged valuables from the spoil of Yericho instead of dedicating them to Hashem (Yehoshua 7).

In another incident, Shaul conducted a goral to find who had broken his oath against eating or drinking during a battle against the Plishtim. Shaul discovered that his own son, Yonosan, had eaten a fragment of honeycomb to refresh himself while pursuing the Plishtim and would have executed him had the people not pleaded, Shall Yonosan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Heaven forefend: as Hashem lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground for he has worked with Hashem this day (I Shmuel 14).

Another well-known goral was the one conducted by the sailors of Yonah’s ship to discover who was to blame for the storm that threatened to sink their ship.

Rav Hillel points out that the first two of these cases have nothing in common with the goral that the Torah forbids since they were conducted with ru’ach hakodesh and Urim veTumim. As for Yonah’s goral, it was cast by non-Jews.

But what about the goralos performed by Tannaim and Amoraim? Faced with difficult or puzzling situations, they would often ask small children, Pesok li pesukayich, recite me the verses you have learnt, and then act upon what the children told them.

For example, the Gemara (Gittin 68a) tells us how the blind Rav Sheshes escaped falling into a pit that wicked people had prepared for him by asking a child to recite a verse and acting in accordance to their answer: Turn aside to your left or to your right (II Shmuel 2:21). The Gemara also tells us how Shmuel made decisions by opening a sefer and seeing whether the verse he came across was good or bad, while Rabi Yochanan made decisions by asking a child to recite the verses he had learnt (Chullin 95b).

Based on these and other sources, the Remo (Yoreh De’ah 179:4) rules that it is permitted to make decisions based on asking a child to recite verses he learnt. Of course, you might well ask, why is this different than the goralos that the Torah forbids? Regarding this the Shach explains:

“It seems that according to the Rav [Rama] and the poskim, it is permissible to even act upon the result of a verse and rely upon it for the future, for it is considered a minor prophecy.” In other words, utilizing verses of the Torah is regarded as heavenly directed and similar to prophecy.

Earlier, we saw that Shmuel made decisions by opening a sefer to see what the posuk he came upon indicated. This may be the basis for the practice of conducting goralos based on paging through a Chumash or Tanach.

One of the earliest poskim to discuss the practice of performing goralos with seforim is the Maharikash (Rav Yaakov Kastro of Egypt, died about 1610, cited by the Chida’s Shiyurei Berocha) who writes: “It seems to me that all agree one may open a Sefer Torah to see which verse comes up, for it [the Torah] is our life. So we find with Yeshayahu who took action after finding a Sefer Torah rolled to a certain verse, and such is the general custom.” “The Chida finds support for this practice from the following Yalkut (Mishlei 219): “Have not I written for you excellent things in counsels and knowledge (Mishlei 22:20). If you want to take counsel from the Torah, you may do so. Dovid said: When I wanted to take counsel from the Torah, I looked and took counsel as it says, I will speak of your precepts, and perceive your ways (Tehillim 119:15), and it says, Through Your precepts I will gain understanding (ibid 119:104).” In addition, the Chida cites a manuscript of Rav Eliyahu Hakohen (author of Shevet Mussar) that states: “I have a tradition from my rabbis. When they wanted to know of some matter and were doubtful whether to do it or not, they would take a Chumash or a Tanach, open it, see what verse they found at the top of the page, and act according to what it indicated. In this way, they took counsel with the Torah concerning how to take action in all their concerns.”

Rav Chaim Vital wrote an entire sefer about goralos appropriately named, Goral Kodesh. He writes that he authored this sefer due to the tendency of certain Jews to seek solutions to their problems through forbidden divinations and sorceries. “Therefore,” he writes, “I wrote this sefer. and reveal in it a secret, even though it would be appropriate not to reveal it as is known, so that people should know that there are a G-d and prophets in Yisroel and not go after sorcery.”

The Goral Kodesh and a couple of other, kabala-based works are based not on paging through seforim but on mystical concepts. Why these types of goralos are permissible is beyond the scope of this article.

The Goral Hagra
Most famous of all goralos is the goral Hagra, used extensively by a number of gedolim during the past hundred years. So well known are the stories involved with Goral Hagra, such as how Rav Aryeh Levin used it to identify twelve people who died in defense of Gush Etzion, that this article will only touch upon some of them.

The Chofetz Chaim is known to have used the Goral Hagra a number of times. On one occasion he was unsure whether to set out on a fund-raising trip deep into Russia, when he performed the goral and came up with the answer, I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again (Bereishis 46:4). The Chofetz Chaim reportedly said the tradition came to him through Rav Chaim of Volozhi,. He taught it to a number of people including Rav Eliyahu Lopian. Intriguingly, when Rav Lopian was considering whether to leave Kelm for London and cast a goral to help him reach a decision, he came across the exact same verse the Chofetz Chaim found decades earlier . I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again.

The oldest written version of Goral Hagra is in an old manuscript in the British Museum titled, “The Goral of the Gaon of our Strength, Rabeinu Eliyahu.” The first printed sefer to mention the Goral Hagra, Nifla’os Hashem (printed in 1912), relates how a pious merchant of Aishishok, near Vilna, fell into a financial crisis after his liquor business was robbed. He was forced to sell his business. Even that was insufficient to cover his losses and he remained deep in debt. Local Jews were bothered by his misfortune for does the verse not state, No evil shall happen to the righteous person. Mishlei 12:21); was the liquor store owner less pious than he appeared?

To investigate the matter they used the Goral Hagra, which this sefer describes as follows: “There is a goral which people say the Gra invented. One opens a sefer. and from the next verse one sees from its meaning to understand the matter one wanted to ask.” Flipping from page to page, the good people of Aishishok became convinced that the liquor store owner’.s piety was not faked when they came across the verse, Why did you not fear to speak of My servant, of Moshe (Bamidbar 12:8).

Not all gedolim were happy with the idea of using the Goral Hagra. Orchos Rabeinu Hakehilos Yaakov reports that the Steipler Gaon never used the Goral Hagra. His son, Rav Chaim Kanievski, gave two reasons for his father’s reluctance. First, people nowadays do not know exactly how to do the goral, and secondly, one should not rely on goralos because of the Torah’s injunction, You shall be innocent with Hashem your G-d.

It is reported that Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach also never used the Goral Hagra. In reply to people’s question that the Gra himself used it, he explained that besides great people having special hanhaga, guidance from above, also, we do not know clearly how to do the goral as there are different reports of how to do it. Even if one does know how to do it, he added, one needs special understanding to know what the goral is hinting at.

Reportedly, Rav Aharon Kotler never advised people to use the Goral Hagra, even though he used it himself when Rav Moshe Feinstein arranged an American visa for him and he was unsure whether to go to the U, or to Eretz Yisroel. His goral resulted with the verse, Hashem said to Aharon: Go to meet Moshe in the desert (Shemos 4:27).

We have seen that the Goral Hagra is not something to be used lightly and that it is reserved for gedolei Torah. As for people who set up shop and conduct goralos for all potential customers, Rav Yaakov Hillel writes: “From all this we see that those who set themselves up to make goralos for the public are doing a prohibition even in this case of taking counsel according to which verse comes up in the Torah. People are only permitted to take counsel from the Torah privately and for a purpose, in a situation where one cannot decide the issue with one’s intellect or through the advice of a wise person.”

And as for solving one’s problems, Rav Hillel concludes that nothing is better than one’s own teffillos and the teffillos and blessings of the true tzaddikim of our generation who are great in Torah and famed for their piety and good deeds, in addition to gaining Hashem’s favor by studying the Torah and fulfilling its mitzvos.

(Sources: Rabbi Dov Eliach, Hagaon, Yerushalayim, 5762. A shiur from Olamos, tochnis limud be’iyun, founded by Rav Tzvi Reizman.)

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