The Power Of The Mazal – What Is The Torah’s Position On Lotteries?

The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 179:1) forbids lotteries by conclusively stating: “One should not inquire from stargazers and not through lotteries.”

This ruling is based on Tosafot (Shabbat 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.’” This injunction also seems to exhort us to not rely on the Mazal, but rather trust Hashem wholeheartedly.

Yet, we find in many Kabbalistic sources the permission to make use of Goralot, which is pretty much the same except that it’s done in a “Kosher way”. Generally one takes a holy book, like the Chumash or the Zohar, and prays to Hashem that He should send the message in the page that he opens.

The GRA gives a more detailed process which was used by R’ Aryeh Levin to discover the names of Jewish dead soldiers and given them a proper burial. R’ Aryeh opened the Chumash and then proceeded to flip through pages in a seemingly random manner, doing so seven times. Following this, he methodically turned exactly seven individual pages, moved on to advance through seven single pages, navigated across seven columns, sifted through seven verses, selected seven words, and finally pinpointed seven specific letters.

This sequence formed a pattern of sevenfold iterations: batches, leaves, pages, columns, verses, words, and letters. Upon identifying the seventh letter, R’ Aryeh sought out the subsequent verse that commenced with this letter. Utilizing the verses discovered through this unique method, he dedicated names to each of the twelve unidentified soldiers, now reinterred in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.

Clearly, there are some “lotteries” which are perfectly fine. So what is the difference and how do we understand the negative Mitzvah against lotteries?

lotteries in Jewish practice

A Distinguished Record in lotteries

The Shulchan Aruch’s ruling on the matter of lotteries appears at first glance to be quite unexpected, especially when we consider the prevalent use of lotteries among Jews both in the past and in contemporary times.

From ancient practices, such as the Yom Kippur ritual where the Kohein Gadol employed a lottery to decide the fate of two goats, to the Mitzvah to allocate the land of Israel through lots as described in Bamidbar, the use of lots is very much present in Jewish tradition. We find other notable instances in the identification of Achan by Joshua through lotteries, and King Saul’s use of lots to discover Yonathan’s breach of the king’s command, reflecting its utility for decision-making and revelation of truths.

The selection of Shaul as king himself through a lottery, as recounted in Sefer Shmuel, underscores its significance in leadership and governance. Similarly, the story of the prophet Yonah, who was identified by sailors through lotteries as the cause of a tempest, illustrates its role in divine justice. The casting of lots for responsibilities like the offering of wood for the altar in Nechemiah, and the decision for one in ten Jews to dwell in Jerusalem, further highlights its important.

The Gemara discusses the application of lots in various contexts, including the allocation of duties of Kohanim and the division of inheritance, showcasing its widespread acceptability and Kedusha (holiness). Yet, the use of lots is not limited to Tzaddikim; wicked people like Haman and Nebuchadnezzar also resorted to lots for their nefarious schemes.

So, it’s reasonable to say that the Shulchan Aruch’s cautions against using lotteries for divinatory purposes seem to contrast sharply with the tradition’s norms. This contradiction draws the attention of several authorities, including Rav Shlomo Kluger, who questions how contemporary practices, such as determining who recites Kaddish, align with these guidelines.

Rav Kluger clarifies that the prohibition addressed by Tosafot concerns using lots to predict future events, which deviates from the principle of complete faith in Hashem. However, he distinguishes this from using lots to make choices between current options, a practice deemed permissible and akin to those used in the Temple for allocating duties among Kohanim.

The Goral HaGra

Rav Kluger’s explanation, while shedding light on the permissible use of lots for decision-making among present options, leaves certain historical instances unaddressed, particularly those where lotteries were used for uncovering transgressions or guiding significant life decisions (meaning: predicting the future).

The Goral HaGra (Gra’s Lottery) offers an interesting insight into the use of lots, or more accurately, divine signs, for personal guidance as we saw in earlier. Rav Aharon Kotler’s experience, where a verse from the Chumash guided his monumental decision to move to the United States suggests that even predicting the future is permitted.

The story of the Chasam Sofer, finding guidance in the weekly parsha, and the naming of the Chavos Yair, further illustrate how Jewish tradition encompasses the belief that Hashgacha (divine providence) can manifest through what appears to be chance. Meaning, Hashem makes Himself known through lotteries.

If someone would ask me what are the parameters that define whether lotteries are permitted or not, I’d suggest:

  1. Whether it’s done through Kosher methods (like the Chumash or Zohar)
  2. Whether the purpose is a holy one, guided by the desire to come closer to Hashem

The key distinction lies in the intention and context: seeking Hashem’s guidance in a spirit of humility and Emunah, as opposed to attempting to control or predict future events.

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The Birkei Yosef’s reference to a simpler form of the Goral HaGra, as described through the practice mentioned by the Shevet Mussar, adds an intriguing layer to the discussion on the use of lots and the seeking of divine guidance through sacred texts.

This practice, where individuals would open a Chumash or Tanach to a random page to seek guidance from the first verse they see, embodies a tangible and personal form of seeking counsel from the Torah. This method, rooted in a tradition from the Shevet Mussar’s rabbis, is seen as a way to take advice directly from the Torah in times of uncertainty. After all, the Mitzvot are called “E’tin” (counsels) in the Zohar.

This practice acknowledges the Torah as a living source of wisdom, capable of speaking into our lives in moments of uncertainty. It could be said to be a form of engaging with Hashem’s will, seeking not to predict the future but to find a path that resonates with the teachings and principles of the Torah. If you think about it, this would be similar to R’ Chaim M’Volozhin’s advice that, when studying Torah the solution or decision to a problem “drops” inside your mind.

I believe this approach also reflects a deep display of Emunah in the relevance of the Torah to every aspect of life and an understanding that Hashem’s guidance can manifest through the sacred texts in a way that is both meaningful and applicable to the individual’s circumstances.

Mazal of Life and Death

The sharpened question brings to light the nuanced perspectives within Jewish thought on the use of lotteries for determining culpability or making life-and-death decisions under dire circumstances. The contrasting viewpoints from many rabbinic sources, including the Sefer Chassidim, the Tiferet LeMoshe, and the Chazon Ish, highlight a complex ethical and halachic debate.

The Sefer Chassidim’s allowance for casting lots in situations where the collective faces imminent danger, as illustrated by the sailors with Yonah, suggests a recourse to lotteries in extreme situations, under specific conditions where natural indicators (like the singular storm around Yonah’s ship) suggest Hashem’s displeasure directed at an individual. This approach seemingly endorses the use of lots to identify the source of His anger.

The Tiferet LeMoshe extends this logic to a dire ethical dilemma faced by a group of Jews under threat, suggesting that a lottery could be used to select an individual to be handed over to the enemy, if demanded under threat of collective execution. This stance, (which is not normative Halacha), while grounded in the desperate pragmatism of life-threatening situations, brings up many ethical questions about the value of individual versus collective life and the mechanisms for making such grave decisions.

However, the Chazon Ish challenges the use of lots for such purposes, emphasizing that the purpose of the lottery in Jonah’s case was not to condemn Yonah to death but to identify the cause of the storm. Yonah’s subsequent suggestion to throw him overboard was his own, not a direct outcome of the lottery itself. This interpretation highlights a critical distinction between using lots to identify a problem and deciding on a course of action that could lead to harm or death.

Further complicating the discussion is the Sefer Chassidim’s own apparent contradiction, as he cautions against relying on lotteries in life-and-death situations, invoking the principle of asmachta lo kanya, i.e. to argue against the binding nature of bets or lots in such serious matters. This reflects a broader ethical and halachic caution against using uncertain or arbitrary methods to make decisions that could result in serious harm.

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The Sefer Chassidim’s elaboration provides a crucial distinction in the use of lots within Mesorah, particularly in decisions involving life and death. By drawing a parallel between the lotteries of ancient times, which were conducted under the direct influence of Hashem, such as through the Urim VeTumim or in the presence of the Ark, and those conducted without such sanctity, it outlines a framework for understanding the permissibility and sanctity of lotteries in different eras.

The key to this differentiation lies in the direct involvement of Hashem’s Will through holy mechanisms like the Urim VeTumim, which were used in conjunction with the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate for divination and to ascertain God’s will. These practices, deeply rooted in the direct guidance from Hashem, are contrasted with later attempts to employ lotteries without such explicit connection.

The Sefer Chassidim suggests that only when a lottery is cast “before Hashem,” in a context that assures the participants of Hashem’s direct oversight, can its outcomes be considered divinely guided and thus permissible, even in matters as grave as life and death.

This perspective shows a nuanced understanding of the prohibition against using lotteries to predict the future or make significant decisions, as outlined in the Shulchan Aruch. The exception for lotteries akin to the Urim VeTumim indicates a broader principle of seeking Hashem’s guidance with humility and sincerity.

Applying this understanding to the Goral HaGra and similar practices, it can be argued that such methods, when conducted with the intention of seeking guidance from the Torah, echo the Kedusha and direct seeking of God’s will akin to the ancient lotteries. It follows that the use of holy texts as a medium for Hashem’s guidance does not transgress the principle of tamim tiheyeh—walking wholeheartedly with God—since it is not an attempt to predict the future through arbitrary means but a sincere seeking of direction from Hashem.

The observation by the Ralbag that lotteries are governed not by mere chance but by divine will or mazal, further supports the view that when conducted in a context that acknowledges and seeks Hashem’s guidance, lotteries can be an expression of Emunah in divine providence.

We see then that this reinforces the idea that the outcomes of such lotteries are manifestations of Hashem’s will. May we merit all those levels.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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