(A note to the reader: In the spirit of Purim, which is celebrated this week, this essay touches upon other occasions in our history when decisions were made by a “lottery system”.)
A Passage for a Passage
Rabbi Yochanan said, “Tell me which verse you are studying.”
Rabbi Yochanan, the great Sage in Eretz Yisrael, was pondering whether to make the trip down to Bavel to see the great Sage Shmuel. As part of his deliberations he requested that a child tell him what verse in Tanach he was currently studying.
“Now Shmuel is dead," the child quoted (from Sefer Shmuel I 28:3), which refers to the passing of the Prophet Shmuel. Rabbi Yochanan took this reply as a sign from Above that the Sage Shmuel was no longer in This World and decided not to make the trip.The gemara relates that the Sage Shmuel was in fact still alive, but that Rabbi Yochanan was given a sign from Heaven to discourage him from making a very difficult trek.
However, making a decision based on a “random” event would appear problematic. The Torah states in Vayikra 19:26: “Do not take part in the sorcery of nichush.” This means not to take action or refrain from action based on an omen.
This is a Torah prohibition against basing decisions on superstitions or omens as idolaters would do. Examples found in the gemara are making a decision not to go someplace because “bread fell from my mouth” or because “my cane fell from my hand”. Nowadays we might better relate to not going a certain way because of a black cat’s crossing one’s path. Not only accepted superstitions are included in this prohibition, writes the Rambam, but also any “omen” or “sign” that a person might select upon. (Laws of Idolatry 11:4)
So, how was the manner in which the Sage Shmuel decided not to go, based on a passage that the child told him, permitted, and not a form of nichush? The commentaries explain that the child’s reading his passage was considered a minor prophetic event. It therefore derived from a pure and kosher source and could be seen as a sign or omen. (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 179:4, Rema, Taz, Shach)
This type of decision-making might sound similar to the “Goral HaGra” lottery, in which a certain procedure is followed in choosing a verse to help with a choice in difficult situations. Perhaps the most well-known was the one performed by the Chafetz Chaim in deciding what to do with the Yeshiva and community in Radin at the outset of World War I. There are many other examples that have been made public. Years ago a Rosh Yeshiva told me of a life-changing decision he made, involving the Goral HaGra, and how the verse was perfectly suited to the issue and provided a clear resolution. The commentaries explain, however, that this manner of decision-making based on verses is not the same as the mini-prophecy of a child’s Torah study. It is rooted in the fact that that the Torah is our life and the length of our days. As the verse states, “For they (the words of the Torah) shall add length of days and years of life and peace to you.” (Proverbs 3:2)
§ Chullin 95b