Parashas Aharei Mos: The Luck of the Draw

My weekly halachah column:

In parashas Acharei Mos (16:8-10), the Torah mandates the casting of lots to determine which of the pair of selected goats shall be “for Hashem” – i.e., offered as a normal sacrifice, and which “to Azazel” in the wilderness. This is one of two Biblical commandments to cast lots, the other being to apportion the Land of Israel among the Jewish people via lottery (Bamidbar 26:55-56). Although the Temple service has not been practiced for millennia, the latter principle that jointly owned property is to be apportioned among its various owners by means of a lottery is codified as normative halachah (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat siman 174).

Similarly, there was a venerable tradition to assign various synagogue privileges, such as the right to say kaddish, via lottery. R. Shlomo Kluger explains that this type of procedure does not violate the Torah’s stricture against all sorts of divination, in which various halachic authorities explicitly include the casting of lots, as the prohibition is of attempts at prognostication, while our procedures are merely intended to resolve the impasse of mutually exclusive claims to some property or privilege (Shut. Ha’Elef Lecha Shlomo Orach Chaim #62).

Various authorities prescribe the casting of lots even where the stakes are higher than mere property or synagogue privileges. The Chasam Sofer rules that when a Jewish community is forced to provide a quota of military draftees, lots should be cast to determine who shall be drafted (Shut. Chasam Sofer 6:29). R. Moshe Feinstein asserts that when a physician is faced with conflicting needs for his services, he should cast lots (where other considerations are not dispositive – Shut. Igros Moshe end of Choshen Mishpat 2:75:2).

My weekly lecture, on the same topic.

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