On the Casting of Lots at Purim

Lots have been commonly used in Jewish culture as well. In the Bible, the casting of lots is used for the Yom Kippur sacrificial goats

From an etymological point of view, the meaning of the word “lots” (“goral” in Hebrew) is apparently piece or cube or part. The various uses of this “piece” have made lots into a common cultural phenomenon.

Lots are considered to be a convenient method of resolving disputes – accessible, simple and non-violent. It provides a quick resolution of problems whose solution by a different method would require a much greater investment of time. It does not result in the tension that is attributed to resolutions based on more rational arguments or on the basis of power struggles.

This is best summarized by the following epigram: “The lot causeth strife to cease, and parteth asunder the contentious” (Proverbs 18:18).

Agreement to solve a problem using lots eliminates the need to provide explanations, which can involve personal judgment, arguments and violent disputes. However, it appears that not all those who cast lots have looked at it in the same way.

The casting of lots is a procedure that has received various interpretations within the context of its many uses and thus the use of lots in itself is not an indication of the meaning being attached to it. Sitting around a table where lots are being cast, there could be at least four types of people who attribute different meanings to the procedure: one views the casting of lots rationally; the second believes in its magical power; the third gambles as part of his tendency to play and the fourth is afraid to decide a question on his own and therefore gives over the power of decision to the lots.

Different types of people are liable to be casting lots among themselves and each will attribute a different reason and interpretation to it. Therefore, it is preferable to view the casting of lots itself as a “naked technique.” In other words, simply observing the casting of lots does not help us understand the concrete meaning attributed to it by each of its users.

Prevalent uses of lots in Jewish culture

Lots have been commonly used in Jewish culture as well. In the Bible, the casting of lots is used for the Yom Kippur sacrificial goats, in the division of land among the tribes, in the capture of Achan and Yonatan and in the story of Jonah, in the appointment of Shaul to the monarchy and in other cases of appointments, allocation of authority and division of spoils.

There are those who identify the Urim and Tumim as a type of lots used for judgments and decision making and there is even a Jewish holiday named from the verse: “The pur is lots” (Esther 9:24). Already in the Bible, one can distinguish between metaphorical uses of the word lots in the context of a man’s share in the world, such as in the verse: “O LORD, the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup, Thou maintainest my lot.“ (Psalms 16:5)

In later sources, God is desribed not only as determining the outcome of the casting of lots but even casts lots himself. Thus, for example, in the Qumran literature, it is hinted that one’s “lot” is a concept of value that expresses the portion given to man by God.

The “Doctrine of the Two Spirits” from Qumran describes mankind as being divided between “Sons of Light” and “Sons of Darkness” and concludes: “In agreement with man’s inheritance in the truth, he shall be righteous and so abhor injustice; and according to his share in the lot of injustice, he shall act wickedly in it and so abhor the truth. For God has sorted them into equal parts…and has given them as a legacy to the sons of man so that they know good and evil… and to cast the lots of every living being according to his spirit.”

Armin Lange has even suggested the following reading: “and God cast lots for all living things.” According to an ancient Jewish tradition that was preserved in a late midrash, the “choice of Israel” depended on the outcome of a lottery between God and his angels.

The images of God as casting lots raise some difficult theological questions: Does God make himself subject to the casting of lots or does he control the outcome? And if he controls the outcome, why does he cast the lots in the first place? Why doesn’t he reveal himself directly rather than through lots? There is a large literature – both Jewish and Christian – that deals directly and indirectly with these questions.

Apart from these uses, during the Middle Ages lots were used for divination and many books of “lots” were copied (and reprinted in modern times). These include “Goralot Umim Ve’Tumim,” “Goralot Ahitophel” and others. In modern times as well, various types of lots have been used. The most famous case is that of Rabbi Aryeh Levin’s use of the “goral Ha’Gra,” which is mistakenly attributed to the Vilna Gaon, to identify the bodies of the Lamed Heh (the “35”).

Alongside the various uses and interpretations given to the casting of lots in Jewish culture, one also finds opposition to various uses of lots. Thus, for example, in an unconventional midrash of the Sages, Achan protests his capture by lots and accuses Joshua as follows: “With lots you are accusing me? You and Eliezer the Cohen are the greatest men of the generation; if I were to cast lots upon you, on one of you it would fall.“ (Sanhedrin, 43b).

I am “gur goral”

In general, the concept of casting lots in life and in literature has existed since the beginning of human culture. In real life, the phenomenon has received various interpretations that depend on the observer’s point of view and the given culture. In literature, the casting of lots and the depictions of the situations that are dependent on it are used to express various philosophies on the condition of man in this life and the next and to express his view of the phenonoma-God-man relationship. How are the various uses of lots to be interpreted?

How are the metaphors used for the casting of lots to be understood? Perhaps start by reading a poem by Yehuda Amihai.

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