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Drawing the Lots


This week’s article deals with the use of lots to divide the land. Are lots a reputable method for decision-making? Are they a heavenly omen that indicates the correct answer? When were they first put into use? Can lots be used to determine the guilty party for criminal charges? Can public positions be filled through lots? Can one be forced to live somewhere by drawing a lot? Is it possible to lay an argument to rest through drawing of lots, or is it preferrable for each to make his case in a logical manner? Of this and more, in the coming article.


In this week’s parasha the Torah repeats that the Land of Israel shall be allocated to the Tribes by drawing lots. Should lots be used for making personal decisions? Is division of assets by a lot halachically acceptable? When there’s an argument in shul about who should say kaddish or lead the prayers, can it be settled through casting lots? Is the lot just random “luck” or is it an expression of G-d’s Will to determine who deserves what?

The topic will be divided into two instalments. In the first we will explain the power of lots and if its use is acceptable according to Halacha, and perhaps even — recommended. In the second instalment we will deal with practical questions involving lots – their validity, how to conduct a lottery properly, as well as clarifying the various occasions it was used in the Tanach.

Dividing the Land

The lot is mentioned as one of the methods for dividing the land to the twelve Tribes and for dividing every portion of land to the families within the tribe. When, after they entered the land and lost the war against Ai, a lot was used again. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (43b) describes:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Yehoshua: “Yisrael has sinned” (Yehoshua 7:11), Yehoshua said to Him: “Master of the Universe, who is the one who has sinned?” G-d said to him: “Am I an informer [deilator]? Go cast lots and find out for yourself.” Yehoshua then went and cast lots, and the lot fell upon Achan. Achan said to him: “Yehoshua, do you come to execute me merely based on a lot, without any corroborating evidence? You and Elazar the priest are the two most distinguished leaders of the generation, but if I cast a lot upon the two of you, it will perforce fall upon one of you. What then can you prove from a lottery?” Yehoshua said to him: “I ask of you, do not spread slander about the lots, as Eretz Yisrael will one day be divided by lots, as it is stated: ‘Nevertheless, the land shall be divided by lot’ (Bamidbar 26:55). Due to you, the results of that lottery may be challenged. Therefore, Joshua used the word “na,” pleading with Achan to confess.

Seemingly, Yehoshua insinuated that the lots are a heavenly tool that mustn’t be challenged, as it was used as a tool to allocate the land. But is it a tool for determining who committed a crime?

Lots in the Mikdash

Lots have a central role in the Yom Kippur service. The Two Goats Sacrifice that takes the center stage in the service, require a lot to be cast in order to determine what each one’s fate will be: “And Aharon shall place lots upon the two he goats: one lot ‘For the Lord,’ and the other lot, ‘For Azazel’” (Vayikra 16:8). The Ramban (ibid) explains that the Kohen’s intention with the lot is to present both goats before Hashem and He chooses that which he desires for each sacrifice. He uses the pasuk: “The lot is cast in the lap, but all his judgment is from the Lord” (Mishlei 16:33) to illustrate the divine nature of lots – they serve as a medium for delivering G-d’s decision.

Hiring By Lots

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a) explains that Moshe was ordered to place 70 elders to assist in leading the Jewish Nation. But how could the 70 slots be divided into 12 tribes? Therefore, Hashem told Moshe Rabbenu that ten tribes would send six elders, and two — only five. Knowing that every tribe would argue they don’t deserve to be of the two tribes and a random decision will cause the two tribes to feel Moshe forced his decision on them, Hashem told him to cast a lot: All tribes would send six elders each. Moshe would write “Elder” on seventy pieces of paper while two would be left blank. Every elder would be offered to remove one paper. This method would eliminate all jealousy.

Paying According to Lots

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a) tells of another lot Moshe cast in the desert. The Levites served in the Mikdash in place of the firstborn males. In order to do so, there was a public exchanging ceremony – 22 thousand Levites were exchanged for 22 thousand firstborn males. Since there were 273 more firstborn males than Levites, those 273 males required redemption (Pidyon Haben) and had to pay five silver coins to a Kohen in exchange. “How do I determine who to exchange with a living Levi and who will be required to pay the coins to redeem himself?” asked Moshe Rabbenu. Hashem told him to employ the same method – write 22,000 notes with the words “ben Levi”, and 273 – with the words “five shekels”. This way, who had to pay was determined by the lots.

Capital Punishment with Lots

Capital punishment was determined through lots on two occasions. The first was in the above-mentioned occasion with Achan, when the lot was used to determine who was to blame for losing the battle. The second occurred with King Shaul:

The nation was at war with the Plishtim. On the day of the decisive battle the king proclaimed a fast until the battle would be won. His son, Yehonoson was absent from the encampment and wasn’t aware of the proclamation. He tasted some honey from the end of his staff, and along with his manservant, they won the war against the Plishtim. Later, when King Shaul asked Hashem through the Urim v’Tumim how to proceed, he was not answered. He understood someone had sinned, causing G-d to depart from them. The King cast lots to discover who had sinned and realized it was his very own son. Yehonoson understood he was to blame for G-d’s departure, and was willing to pay the price and die, but the people redeemed him – i.e. they annulled the king’s vow (Shmuel I, 14). This incident also teaches us that a lot can be used as an instrument for determining who deserves to die.

In the second installment on this topic we will mention the dispute among the poskim surrounding Achan’s lot: was he actually put to death as a result of the lot and his confession was only necessary  to ensure no one would dispute the lot’s validity, and also to allow for his death to atone for his sin — or was it used as a tool to force him to expose where he had hidden the stolen loot.

Dividing Service

Many positions in the Jewish nation were determined through lots. King David divided the twenty-four priestly families that served in the Mikdash by lots as described in the pasuk: “And they divided them by lots, these with those, because they were princes of the Sanctuary and princes of G-d of the sons of Eleazar and of the sons of Itamar” (Divrei Hayomim I 24:5). Since all were princes and equally holy, there was no way to determine who was more worthy than another. Therefore, it was  determined by casting lots.

The same division occurred when King David divided the Levities’ guards in the Mikdash. While for the priests the lot was determined between equal parties, among the Levites there were differences that had to be settled: some families had more talented singers, while others needed more practice. The lots were cast here, too, as the psukim in Divrei Hayomim describe: “And they cast lots, a watch against [a watch], like the small one so the great one, scholar with pupil” (I, 25:8). Here, King David didn’t give preference to families who were more accomplished or talented than others. The right to serve in the Mikdash was determined only by the lots.

The same thing happened when King David divided the Levites to guards who stood sentry at the gates of the Mikdash: “And they cast lots, the small like the great, to their fathers’ houses, for each gate” (Divrei Hayomim I, 26:13).

A similar lot was cast during the early period of the Second Temple as described in Nechemia (10:35-36). Every family whose name was drawn merited providing the wood for the Altar as long as the Second Temple stood.

Living In Jerusalem

When Ezra returned to Eretz Yisroel, we find the leaders instituted a takana obligating 10% of the nation to live in Jerusalem. The rest of the nation was permitted to disperse throughout the land, till the soil and rebuild the towns. The residents of Jerusalem were expected to assist with the service in the Mikdash and study Torah. Determining who would live where was also done by casing lots as we find in Nechemia (11:1): “And the rulers of the people dwelt in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one of ten to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city, and nine parts in [other] cities”.

Lots for Non-Jews

The Chavos Ya’ir, when discussing lots, mentions that the nations of the world also know the power of lots. The sailors on Yona’s ship used them (Yona 1:7): “And they said, each one to his fellow, ‘Come, let’s cast lots, so that we will know because of whom this evil has befallen us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell upon Yonah.” And Haman, with his infamous lots, used them to determine when to annihilate the Jewish Nation (Esther 3:7) “In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Achashveirosh, one cast the pur –– that is the lot — before Haman.”

Non-Jews also divided booty though lots, as Esther said: “They share my garments among themselves and cast lots for my raiment” (Tehilim 22:19). On her way to meet with Achashveirosh she heard the guards dividing her clothing amongst themselves, so sure they were she would be executed.

Recommended or Not

King Shlomo writes (Mishlei 18:18): “The lot causes quarrels to cease, and it separates contentious people.” When there are endless quarrels on who deserves what, a lot can simplify the matters and lay fights to rest. Lots allow participants the peace of mind that nobody is getting more than he deserves.

Lots have an added benefit: every party knows that they stand the same chance to lose as to win and none feel cheated or taken advantage of. This point is illustrated through a story that took place in the city of Brisk:

A butcher once appeared for a Din Torah. The Beis Halevi who presided over the Beis Din, ruled the butcher was obligated to pay his adversary a small sum of money. The butcher was fuming and reacted violently, almost endangering the rav. “Why did the man react so violently?” his students wondered. “Doesn’t he regularly ask the rav about his animals, losing several thousand rubles if the rav deems an animal unkosher?” The rav answered that the answer is simple: as a butcher, he is prepared for the possibility that the animal would be unkosher. Then, when the rav determines an animal unkosher, well — that’s just part of the business. However, when he had to pay a few coins to his adversary he blew his top because he was sure he had his case made. Therefore, and when he saw his opponent won instead, he couldn’t contain his anger. While a Beis Din can determine who is guilty and who is not – it cannot lower the flames of animosity between the parties. This is the advantage of lots – nobody thinks it was hijacked or biased. A lot is random, not subjected to exploitation or whim.

Similarly, Shlomo Hamelech writes: “The lot is cast in the lap, but judgment is from the Lord” (Mishlei 16:33). Rashi explains: “his judgment: to choose for each one his share.” G-d determines a lot’s outcome. The Alshiech adds that when one casts a lot and is afraid perhaps his opponent’s luck is stronger than his own thinking his chances of winning through fights and arguments are better, he should know that the lots are not sheer luck or random results. The pasuk writes: “The lot is cast in the lap” — even before they’ve been cast the results have been already determined in heaven. The lot simply announces that which was heavenly destined. Therefore, there is no reason to try to rig the lottery or reach the desired outcome with arguments – whatever is destined will arrive without effort.

The Malbim also explains the lot is a display of Hashgacha Pratis – Divine Providence. While some things might appear random, there really is no such thing. Where human choice is no longer present, G-d’s supervision is clearly displayed.

Lots For Decisions

Seemingly, a lot has power to convey G-d’s Will to us, and it can serve as a medium for reliable decision making. However, the Tosefos mentions (Shabbos 156b) that the Sifri (in an unknown source) writes one is not permitted to use lots, as it is written (Devarim 18:13): “Be wholehearted with the Lord, your G-d.” The Tosefos add that this is the reason for the prohibition to use stargazers or fortune tellers because lots and fortune tellers are essentially the same thing. The Shulchan Aruch  (179:1) follows this opinion l’halacha. How, then, did the Jewish nation use lots to determine their actions in the above-mentioned scenes from the Tanach, and why does Shlomo Hamelech recommend it?

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (Ha’Elef Lecha Shlomo, OC 62) answers that the prohibition of using lots is to foretell the future, for example to determine if an ill man will live or die, if a lost item will be found, etc. However to divide up who gets what – portions, jobs, possessions – is permitted. This ruling appears also in Shevet Halevi (VII, 16:6).

Furthermore, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos V’Hanhagos I, 454) notes that his father-in-law told him that when a case appears in which he does not know how to decide, he should cast a lot and pray that G-d direct him through it: “The Lord is my allotted portion and my cup; You guide my destiny” (Tehilim 16:5).  He asked the Chazon Ish if it permitted to proceed this way, and was answered that since he sees it not as a Heavenly message but as a suggestion, doing so is permitted. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef writes (Yabia Omer VI, CM 4) that when the prophets casted lots, especially if it was according to G-d’s direct instruction, the result was known to be G-d’s answer. However, today, we must not trust lots, even for future decisions, because sin can cause the answer to be wrong.

Next week’s article will discuss the halachos of a postponed Tisha’a b’Av, and the following week’s article will complete this topic and discuss practical aspects of lots.

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