Cleromancy is defined as “divination by means of casting lots.” What does that mean today, and is it permitted?

There is a clear prohibition in the Torah that “you should not practice divination or act on the basis of fortuitous time.”1 The sages give some examples of statements that would violate this prohibition: “Since my piece of bread fell out of my mouth, or my staff fell from my hand, I will not travel to this place today”; “Since a fox passed on my right side, I will not go out of my door today, since if I were to go out I would meet a deceiver.”

To put it in contemporary terms, superstitions about the number 13,2 a black cat crossing your path, or walking under a ladder would all be prohibited according to the Torah.

At the same time, we find a number of examples of lots being used to determine G‑d’s will in the Torah. The apportionment of the Land of Israel to the tribes3 and finding the guilty party (Achan) in the days of Joshua4 were all done by means of a lottery.

And the examples of divination go further than just lotteries.

We are told in the Torah how Eliezer, servant of Abraham, used a sign to find a bride, Rebecca, for Isaac.5

We also find that Jonathan, son of King Saul, told his armor-bearer as the two came upon the Philistine soldiers: "If they call out to us, ‘Wait until we reach you,’ we should remain in our place and not advance toward them. However, if they say, ‘Come forward to us,’ then we should attack because it is a sign from G‑d that we will be victorious.”6

Are Omens Permitted?

The Talmud states: “Any divination that is not like the divination of Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, or like the divination of Jonathan, son of Saul, is not divination.”7

There is a dispute among earlier commentators whether the Talmud is giving examples of generally prohibited forms of divination (and Eliezer and Jonathan did what they did for specific reasons8),9 or whether the Talmud is giving examples of signs that are effective (and allowed),10 while other signs are not effective and prohibited.

Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, in his gloss to the Code of Jewish Law,11 quotes both opinions, and ends off with saying, “One who proceeds wholeheartedly and trusts in G‑d will be surrounded by kindness.” In other words, although there are opinions that it is permitted, one should follow the verse “Be wholehearted with the L‑rd, your G‑d”12 and generally avoid these practices.

Permitted Forms of Cleromancy: “Quote Me a Verse”

The Talmud continues on to say that Shmuel would divine what would happen to him in the future by opening a scroll of holy writings and reading from the place it opened to.

The Talmud also gives us a fascinating example of how Rabbi Yochanan would check what was in store for him by asking a child to recite the verse he was learning.

Rabbi Yochanan was an up-and-coming sage in the Land of Israel at the same time when Rav and Shmuel led the great academies of Babylonia. Rabbi Yochanan once wished to set out on a journey to visit Shmuel, and before he did so he asked a child to tell him what verse he had been learning. Hearing the child reply, “And Samuel had died,”13 Rabbi Yochanan abandoned his trip, assuming that Shmuel had indeed died. The Talmudic narrative concludes, however, that Shmuel was, in fact, very much alive. Heaven had orchestrated that the child reply as he did to spare Rabbi Yochanan the long and taxing journey.14

This technique was nothing new. In fact, the Midrash relates that 600 years earlier, during the time when the events of Purim were playing out, Mordechai once met Haman on the street. As Haman trailed behind, Mordechai approached three school boys and asked them what they had studied. After each one shared a different verse assuring the Jews of divine protection against schemers, Mordechai smilingly told Haman that he had nothing to fear, as G‑d would surely protect the Jews.15

Based on the above, as well as other similar incidents in the Talmud,16 most rabbis,17 including Rabbi Moshe Isserlis in his gloss to the Code of Jewish Law, are of the opinion that this form of cleromancy would be permitted.18 They explain that, in essence, this is a “glimmer” of prophecy and is therefore permitted.19

Others, however, are of the opinion that this form of cleromancy would generally be prohibited and is only permitted if no action is taken as a result. Thus, we see that Mordechai simply rejoiced upon hearing the news, but didn’t take any actual action based on the quoted verses.20

Alternatively, all these incidents occurred with righteous people who generally already had divine inspiration, and this was merely another form of divine inspiration. But this would not be the case for ordinary people.21

Using a Book: Goral HaGra

Another form of cleromancy mentioned in the Talmud is opening a scroll or book and seeing which verse it opens to.

Certain methods of this type of cleromancy are commonly referred to as the Goral HaGra, referring to the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu—despite there being no actual evidence that he ever used these methods.

Some say that you need to use a certain type of Chumash for this sort of lottery, while others say you can use a full Tanach (Bible) or even a Talmud.

This custom is only performed in a situation where one is considering two options that are equally and completely permissible according to the Torah. Thus, the Rebbe22 once commented that one must be extra careful about respecting holy works, and, especially when the question isn’t necessarily a “Torah question,” one should preferably use a different form of lottery and not use a holy book for this purpose.

A Lottery and Divine Service

The Baal Shem Tov interpreted the word shiviti in the verse “I placed (shiviti) G‑d in front of me at all times” to mean “It is equal for me.” In other words, the person using the lottery is on a level where he is not concerned about the outcome. All that he is concerned about is what G‑d wants him to do. He knows that the outcome of the lottery is a manifestation of Divine Providence.23

So there are indeed permissible forms of cleromancy to ascertain what to do when faced with two equal options. At the same time, it should be kept in mind that we are to serve G‑d in a sincere and whole-hearted manner. If one were to use some sort of lottery (which should not be done lightly), it should be a form of seeking Divine Providence.