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Bibliomancy, and the Sacred Lottery of the Vilna Gaon

How the technique of chancing upon a passage in a Torah scroll or printed Pentateuch came to be a staple of fortune tellers

Shraga Bar-On
March 10, 2017
Original photo: VCU Libraries/Flickr
Original photo: VCU Libraries/Flickr
Original photo: VCU Libraries/Flickr
Original photo: VCU Libraries/Flickr
A sacred silence filled the hall. The burning candles added to the aura of this awesome assembly. The Bible was opened without a specific folio or page in mind. After each opening, they again leafed through the book at random seven times, and then they repeated the procedure another seven times.

This is how the journalist Yitzhak Deutsch described the event that took place in 1950 in the study hall of the famous tzadik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969). Rabbi Levin had brought to a close a personal and national tragedy in the nascent State of Israel. By means of a technique known (mistakenly) as “the lottery of the Gaon of Vilna,” Rabbi Levin had identified the bodies of 12 of the Lamed-Heh.

The Convoy of the Lamed-Heh was a platoon of 35 fighters who attempted to resupply the blockaded Etzion Bloc during the Israeli War of Independence. In the course of a difficult battle, the fighters were killed, and their bodies were subsequently brought for temporary burial to Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. However, by the end of the war, the settlements of the Etzion Bloc had fallen, and so they were transferred to Jerusalem for formal burial. Twelve of the dead could not be identified, a fact that would have complicated digging graves and setting up tombstones for them. Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Zevi Pesah Frank (1873-1960) recommended contacting Rabbi Aryeh Levin so that he would perform the kabbalistic ceremony. Those present at the event described how opening to a random biblical verse yielded results that matched the names of the fighters. Rabbi Levin documented the outcomes of the lottery in his own hand. So, for instance, the body of Binyamin Bugoslavsky was identified via the verse “and out of the tribe of Benjamin [Binyamin] by lot” (Josh. 21:4); that of Oded Ben-Yamin via “Am not I a Benjamite [ben-yemini]” (I Sam. 9:21); and that of Eitan Gaon via “But the pride [ge’on] of Israel shall testify to his face” (Hos. 7:10).

This story exemplifies the uses of bibliomancy, the use of Scripture for the purposes of revealing the hidden and divining the future. It may be that the earliest evidence of using the Torah to uncover secrets can be found in Scripture itself. So, for instance, in Psalms 119:18 the psalmist pleads, “Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.” Usually, the verse is interpreted as a request for divine assistance in properly understanding the Torah. However, it is doubtful whether such an explanation fully exhausts the semantic scope of the term “wondrous things” when it is used in the context of the discovery of new information. This certainly might be an extremely early witness to the use of the Torah itself as a means for revealing the future, even if the verse gives no hint about the manner in which those wondrous things are to be extracted therefrom. In light of this, we should not wonder that a later rabbinic homily on Psalm 119 declares Torah-based fortune telling to be normative:

Whenever you seek to find counsel, it is in the Torah you should seek to find it. As David said: When I sought to find counsel, I would look into the Torah and there find counsel: “I will meditate in Thy precepts, and look into Thy ways” (Ps. 119:15), and again: “From Thy precepts I get understanding” (Ps. 119:104). (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, piska 12)

How did the expectation develop that the Torah would also serve the faithful by revealing wondrous things to them? According to early rabbinic homilies, the Torah served as the blueprint for the creation of the universe: “The Holy One, blessed be he, consulted the Torah when he created the world” (Be-Reshit Rabbah 1:1 [trans. Neusner, p. 1]). The complete equivalence between the Torah and the universe, the range of ways in which it is anthropomorphized, and its identification at times with God himself lent legitimacy to various interactions with the Torah that went far beyond simply studying its laws and abiding by them.

Thus, we should not be surprised that Second Temple sources connect mastery of the Torah to the ability to tell the future. Flavius Josephus describes the Essenes as follows:

There are also among them those who profess to foretell what is to come, being thoroughly trained in holy books, various purifications, and concise sayings of prophets. Rarely if ever do they fail in their predictions. (Judean War, Book Two, ch. 8:159)

Based on Josephus’ account, it would seem that diligent study of the words of the prophets assisted the Essene seers in soothsaying. Use of the Torah as a tool of divination can also be found in the Books of Maccabees. In the deployment leading up to the Battle of Emmaus, the author of First Maccabees writes: “And they opened the book of the law to inquire into those matters about which the Gentiles were consulting the images of their idols” (I Macc. 3:48 [trans. RSV]).

Within the rabbinic corpus, too, use of verses from the Torah to reveal the hidden was quite common. One of the most prominent techniques, identified in some of the sources with bat kol (a heavenly voice), involves asking a child to recite the verse he happens to be studying; the child then quotes the verse, which is regarded as having divinatory power. One Talmudic anecdote reports the following about Rabbi Johanan, one of the greatest Talmudic sages living in the Land of Israel:

During the lifetime of Rab, R. Johanan used to address him thus in his letters: Greetings to our Master in Babylon! After Rab’s death R. Johanan used to address Samuel thus: Greetings to our colleague in Babylon! Said Samuel to himself, ‘Is there nothing in which I am his master’? He thereupon sent [to R. Johanan] the calculations for the intercalation of months for 60 years. Said [R. Johanan], ‘He only knows mere calculations’. So he [Samuel] wrote out and sent [R. Johanan] 13 camel loads of questions concerning doubtful cases of trefah [animals suffering terminal illnesses]. Said [R. Johanan], ‘It is clear that I have a Master in Babylon; I must go and see him’. So he said to a child, ‘Tell me the [last] verse you have learnt’. He answered: ‘Now Samuel was dead’ [I Sam. 28:3]. Said [R. Johanan], ‘This means that Samuel has died’. But it was not the case; Samuel was not dead then, and [this happened] only that R. Johanan should not trouble himself. (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 95b)

In this story (which is, beyond any doubt, saturated with political meaning), the mantic sign serves to explain Rabbi Johanan’s decision not to visit Samuel. It should be noted, however, that nowhere here is the use of a verse as an omen frowned upon; instead, it is considered to be an intentional signal from heaven that carries meaning for Rabbi Johanan. Comparison with the parallel passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, in which it is reported that Samuel had in fact passed on, seemingly tells us that the tradition about the verse Rabbi Johanan had heard from the child did not originally include any interpretation. The Babylonian Talmud’s comment on Rabbi Johanan’s misapprehension of the verse’s import does not negate him acting on account of the verse, but rather affirms its use as a signal from heaven intended to give him a false impression so as to prevent him from unnecessarily exerting himself. Indeed, divination by use of biblical verses need not be restricted by their original meanings; rather, it is meant to be applied to the circumstances in which the soothsayer finds himself.

At times, a biblical book or verse appears as a mantic omen within a different prophetic medium—namely, a dream—or alternatively, springs to a person’s mind upon his waking up: “If one rises early and a Scriptural verse comes to his mouth, this is a kind of minor prophecy” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 55b [trans. Soncino], and elsewhere). At other times, the verse does not appear in the dream itself but can be used to interpret the dream. And so, in the collection of dream interpretations found in the Jerusalem Talmud, we read:

A person once came before R. Ishmael b. R. Yose and said to him, “In a dream-vision, I swallowed a star.” [R. Ishmael] said to him, “The gentleman’s soul will soon expire, for he has killed Jews, as it is written [in Scripture], ‘A star rises from Jacob’ (Num. 24:17).” (Ma’aser Sheni 55b)

It is easy to get the impression that some of the sages regarded these verses as literal prophecies, while others were inclined to denigrate them. Thus, for instance, the Babylonian Talmud reports in a parodic vein on the interpretation of dreams dreamt by two of the greatest Talmudic sages of Babylonia, Abbaye and Rava, which included the very same verses. The interpreter, Bar Hedya, explicated one dream in a negative light and the other in a positive light based on … the amount he was paid (Berakhot 56a).


People’s reliance upon verses appearing in a dream would continue to expand over the course of the Middle Ages. This can be seen, for instance, in the famous question sent to Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038):

And so with respect to asking a query in a dream, there are among us several elders and pious men who know [the divine names] and [periodically] fast for several days, neither eating meat nor drinking wine; sleep in a pure place; pray; and recite specific verses and a certain number of letters. They then lie down and have wondrous dreams, akin to prophecy. Some of them are still alive and are known to us, and each has a specific, determined prophetic avatar: to this one appears an elder; to his fellow appears a lad. The avatar tells him and recites before him verses relating to the matter about which he had asked his query. (Teshuvot ha-Ge’onim ha-Hadashot, p. 126)

Those who sent the question to Rav Hai testify that biblical verses served both to catalyze the prophecy of the dreamers and to answer their queries. In the dreams appeared teachers who would answer the questions. What’s interesting here is that these teachers do not give direct answers to the queries but rather quote verses that suggest something about the future. One intriguing expression of this method of acquiring knowledge is the book Responsa from Heaven by Rabbi Jacob of Marvège (late 12th-13th centuries). Documented in this work are visions that enabled Rabbi Jacob to decide Jewish law. Here, too, there is frequent recourse to biblical verses, as summarized by Israel M. Ta-Shma: “The answer is given in most cases by way of quotation of biblical verses or phrases, from which the questioner can infer the intimations and intentions of the respondent.”

Yet in none of the aforementioned sources have we encountered the act of randomly opening the Torah described as a “lottery.” Use of the term “lottery” in reference to divination by use of books, and not just in reference to the drawing of physical lots, made its way into rabbinic literature from non-Jewish sources. From the 10th century onward, we find numerous instances of an assortment of divination techniques referred to as “lotteries” (and it is quite possible that their sources can be traced back even further, to the immediate post-Talmudic period), both in hundreds of manuscripts and in printed Jewish legal literature.

Among the various means of soothsaying, some of the most prominent were the “books of lots.” Divinatory works like these, used to reveal the future, were quite commonplace in Greek and Roman society. “Books of lots” is a secondary term denoting the expansion of the narrow meaning of a lottery from the use of wooden beams, shards, magical seals, etc., to a broader conception that encompasses the use of other mantic methods like books of astrology and geomancy. Over the years, even into the 20th century, these works were copied many times, printed, and disseminated with ever-widening reach. Such books of lots penetrated, under pronounced Islamic influence, into the Jewish sphere as well, which then “converted” them, all the while leaving clear footprints that traced the process by which these modes of divination had originally become incorporated into Jewish culture. Within this context, the term “lottery” became associated with a mode of fortune telling that uses verses from the Torah and other biblical books as well.

Jewish legists were fundamentally opposed to various forms of augury, which were seen as violations of the prohibition against sorcery. By contrast, the divinatory use of the Torah was given special status in Jewish legal works. So, for instance, in the book Sodei Razayya, attributed to Rabbi Eleazar of Worms (ca. 1165-ca. 1230), the outstanding leader of the Ashkenazic Pietists, this means of soothsaying is ascribed even to the angels themselves:

There are those angels who attain knowledge of the future and of the secrets of the divine Glory by looking into the cloud of His Glory, hearing His voice, being told [the secrets], observing the constellations, and peering into the Torah.

Commentators and Jewish legists with a sharply rationalistic orientation also accorded bibliomancy exceptional status. Even Maimonides (1138-1204), the most outspoken opponent of magic, astrology, and divination, ruled: “If one asks a child, ‘What verse are you learning?’ and he responds with a verse from the blessings, it is permitted for one to rejoice and say, ‘That is a lucky sign’” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 11:5). Still, he limited the power of the omen to revealing information about events already in the past and to situations where receiving the said sign would not lead to any sort of practical course of action.

From a legal responsum that he composed, we learn of the phenomenological existence of bibliomancy, referred to as a lottery:

Question: Please instruct us regarding the case of a person who opens Torah scrolls by lottery—is doing so permissible or not? Especially since the man in question is a prayer leader, and he goes to the non-Jews and the uncircumcised to open the scrolls and cast (lots) for them and has achieved renown among them in this connection, and this has, at times, been beneficial. Is this behavior permissible? He himself is not ashamed, nor is the community displeased, and there is no desecration of God’s Name. Should he be relieved of his position or not?

The moderate response of Maimonides, who had declared an annihilatory war against all types of divination, seeing them as forms of idolatry, is rather surprising:

He should be prevented from doing so for non-Jews, because this can result in the desecration of God’s Name. But he should not be removed (from his position) and should not be punished. So writes Moses. (Teshuvot ha-Rambam, no. 172)

The process by which these practices were formally sanctioned reached its zenith upon their incorporation into the canonical works of Jewish law: the Arba’ah Turim, Shulhan Arukh, and Mappah (Rabbi Moses Isserles’ [ca. 1530-1572] glosses to the latter). Thus, Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) writes in his Shulhan Arukh: “If one builds a house, has a son, or marries [and is subsequently successful in business], though he may not treat this as a divinatory omen, it does nevertheless portend well for him.” Isserles adds: “Similarly, it is permissible to tell a child, ‘Recite for me the verse you are learning’ […] though one who maintains his innocence and simply trusts in God, mercy encompasses him (Ps. 32:10)” (Yoreh De‘ah 179:4).

The foregoing relates to divination by means of biblical verses recited orally, not necessarily to the use of books for mantic purposes. However, a contemporary of Caro and Isserles, Rabbi Jacob Castro (1525-1610), in commenting on the ruling of the Shulhan Arukh that one should not inquire of astrologers and soothsayers, writes: “Nevertheless, we are not overly exacting with people about this.” He also proposes a workaround: “It is possible that asking someone who has consulted with astrologers or soothsayers is not so severe a violation.” Later, he adds: “It seems to me that everyone would agree that it is permissible to open the Torah to see which verse turns up, for it is our lifeblood” (Erekh Lehem, f. 35a).


Common Jewish folklore credits the Gaon of Vilna with the invention of bibliomancy. However, as opposed to the many other attributions of this technique to various sages, there is no clear source that would help establish a connection to the Gaon, except for one manuscript whose title includes an ascription to “the pride [ge’on] of our strength, Rabbi Elijah, of blessed memory.” How, then, did bibliomancy become known as “the lottery of the Gaon of Vilna”?

In my opinion, the answer to this question may lie in the mistaken decipherment of an acronym in yet another commentary on the Shulhan Arukh. In his widely distributed book Birkei Yosef, the legist, kabbalist, and rabbinic emissary Rabbi Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (1724-1806) comments on the aforementioned passage from the Shulhan Arukh that it is permissible to use Scripture for divinatory purposes. In support of his ruling, he writes:

I found in a manuscript pamphlet written by Rabbi Elijah ha-Kohen, of blessed memory (the author of Shevet Musar, etc.), as follows: “I have a tradition from my teachers that when they wanted to do something but were unsure whether or not to follow through on it, they would take a printed Pentateuch or Bible and open it, looking to the verse at the top of the page and acting in accordance with it. It would thus turn out that they would consult the Torah about what to do in all matters. This is hinted to in the rabbinic statement that one should ‘find counsel in the Torah’…”

Azulai reports here on a manuscript that came into his possession which describes a lottery involving a printed Pentateuch or Bible. According to him, the manuscript had belonged to “Rabbi Elijah.” By this, Azulai meant Rabbi Elijah ha-Kohen ha-Itamari (ca. 1659-1729), the author of Shevet Musar (as pointed out in the parentheses), with whose son he was in regular contact and from whose son he received other manuscripts as well. Ha-Itamari was a kabbalist and a justice on a rabbinic court in Izmir, Turkey. It is reasonable to assume that Eastern European readers, who were not familiar with Ha-Itamari but encountered the acronym G.R.A. standing for his name (or, alternatively, who heard oral traditions describing “the lottery of the ga’on, Rabbi Elijah,” referring to Ha-Itamari and not the Gaon of Vilna) were quick to attribute it, mistakenly, to the Gaon of Vilna instead. It is even possible that the title from the aforementioned manuscript that ascribes the Pentateuchal lottery to “the pride of our strength, Rabbi Elijah, of blessed memory,” originally referred to Rabbi Elijah ha-Itamari and not to the Gaon of Vilna. If this is indeed the case, the attribution of this to technique to “the Gaon of Vilna” is actually a popular legend. However, it is very doubtful whether this myth would have achieved the resonance and dissemination that it did were it not to have found particularly fertile ground.

I would like to suggest that two factors contributed to the consolidation of the attribution of the Pentateuchal lottery to the Gaon of Vilna. The first is the widespread use of the technique and the Jewish legal legitimacy accorded it. The second is the incorporation of this technique into the Kulturkampf between Hasidim and their Lithuanian opponents.

Various scholars have discussed the unique relationship Hasidism developed toward Torah study and the new interpretation it gave the concept “Torah for its own sake.” Within this context, use of the Torah as a prophetic medium became commonplace in Hasidic circles, based both on the aforementioned rabbinic sources and on preexisting kabbalistic traditions. For instance, Rabbi Meir Margoliot (ca. 1707-1790) writes about the Ba’al Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760):

And when he merited to understand and cling to the holy letters, he was able to discern even the future from the letters themselves. That is why the Torah is described as “enlightening the eyes” [Ps. 19:9], for it enlightens the eyes of one who clings to it in sanctity and purity, just like the letters of the Urim and Thummim.

In various Hasidic circles, this idea expanded. The sanctity accorded the Torah, which allowed it to be employed as a tool of divination, was transferred among various streams and groups of Hasidim to Hasidic rebbes and saints, their charms and writings. Thus, in addition to the Hasidic employment of bibliomancy, there developed a tendency to use Hasidic writings in order to arrive at decisions by lottery. In Chabad, for instance, the daily use of the epistles of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of blessed and saintly memory (1902-1994), for the purpose of receiving guidance is very widespread. These types of uses, which extended sacred status to individuals, objects, and written works associated with the new movement, fed into foundational Hasidic assumptions about the power of the tzadik and his charms.

By contrast, it is possible to view the “Lithuanian” use of the Torah as a kind of declaration of faithfulness to the Torah alone, similar to the principle of sola scriptura which characterized the Protestant Reformation. While Hasidic divinatory techniques involved a wealth of mediating sources, the “lottery of the Gaon of Vilna” refers the person in need of guidance to the Torah itself for help in arriving at a decision. And so was born an appropriately non-Hasidic option for reaching decisions under anxiety-arousing circumstances, which does not undermine the foundational cultural assumptions that characterize this group. Just the opposite: the ability to offer an alternative to the Hasidic mechanisms of consultation and guidance only strengthened the centrality of the role of the Torah within the Lithuanian camp and simultaneously constituted a proportional response to Hasidic behavior. Once the practice was attributed to the Gaon of Vilna himself, its use only continued to spread.

And so, the technique of chancing upon a passage in a Torah scroll or printed Pentateuch that became associated with the Gaon is today prevalent not only among the masses but also among expert fortune tellers, and even among certain sectors of the Lithuanian rabbinic elite.

Translated from Hebrew by Shaul Seidler-Feller. 

Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the department for Israeli Leadership. He co-founded the Beit Midrash for New Israeli Rabbis and teaches Talmud at Shalem College, Jerusalem, Israel.