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Lessons in Jewish History; Goral HaGra
The Goral HaGra is a practice based on tradition, whereby a skilled and qualified practitioner is able to capture G-d’s advice for what the petitioner should do in a certain situation. A Chumash or Tanach may be utilized and certain seemingly random page-turning is done after proper prayer and spiritual preparation. The pasuk (verse) that comes up after using this system gives an answer to the person’s question.
Although it is attributed in name to the Gra, Rav Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna, there are sources for it going back almost 400 years. R’ Zev Greenwald wrote extensively about the history of this practice in the Sefer Goral HaGra. His fascinating work is the source for this article. Rav Greenwald found that the earliest record of using such a method was by Rav Shaul Serero, the great rabbi of Fez, Morocco, who lived about 400 years ago.
In the introduction to his sefer of drashos, Rav Shaul recounts the situation that led to this extraordinary activity. In the year 5373, there was a terrible drought. Famine struck the land lasting into the month of Iyar. The Jews joined together, barefoot in fasting and prayer and there was great awakening to repentance. Rav Shaul rebuked the people about sins between man and his fellow. People began to go over their sins one by one and admit their guilt. However, there were a few tax collectors who were known to regularly take advantage of impoverished Jews. Rav Shaul saw that they were not confessing their misdeeds. Rav Shaul rebuked these tax collectors specifically, but they showed no remorse. One of them responded roughly to Rav Shaul, but Rav Shaul retorted that it was right of him to rebuke them because since they were among the great men of the community, the responsibility for the community was more on their shoulders. One insulted tax collector promised to take revenge on the rabbi for embarrassing him.
As a result of the fasting and repentance, rain began to fall, but Rav Shaul’s conscience bothered him. Did he go too far in what he said to the recalcitrant men? Would G-d protect him against the man’s threats like He protected the righteous Prophets of old? Perhaps he should give up rebuking people or would it be wrong to give up his noble mission? He decided to solve his doubts by using a type of goral similar to what later became known as the Goral HaGra. His first result was in Yechezkel (3:18), a verse in which the prophet Yechezkel is warned that his role is to rebuke the people and that someone who does not fulfill this role is himself held culpable.
Rav Shaul was happy with the result, but then prayed again to G-d and received a result from Mishlei (11:30-31-12:1) indicating that one who teaches others will get credit for their deeds and that one who shirks rebuke will be punished. After this result, Rav Shaul again worried and prayed to G-d “You know that I want to rebuke the people, but what can I do when it is a dangerous time to do so and I am afraid they may harm me…” He again used the goral and found the result in Dvarim (28:7) which clearly states “G-d will cause your enemies who rise up against you to be struck down before you.”
A second episode of Rav Shaul Serero’s use of this goral is also recorded. Like the one above, it is cited in the work Sifrei Fez V’chachameha. In Nisan 5378, he heard a rumor that his brother had passed away. He was greatly distressed about the rumor, though unwilling to accept it as true. He writes that on the morning of Shabbos HaGadol, he used the goral system and received the result from Dvarim 23:17, “he will dwell with you, amongst you.” This indicated to him that his brother was indeed still among the living. This gave the rav more strength to go ahead with his usual Shabbos HaGadol drasha. Rav Shaul wrote that over a month later, on the 25th of Iyar of that year, he received a letter from his brother written on the very day on which he had first heard the rumor that he had died. If he had died that day after writing the letter, the rumor could not have spread so quickly to Fez as to arrive on the same day. His brother was alive! The rumor was false! The goral’s prediction was correct.
The great disciple of the Arizal, Rav Chaim Vital, also mentions the use of such a goral method to answer difficult questions. In fact it may even be hinted at in the gemara Chulin (95b) as something done by the amora Shmuel. However, in the writings of the Vilna Gaon and his direct disciples, we find no mention of such a process. Rav Greenwald conjectures the reason for this omission is that this procedure is only meant to be used by people of the highest stature in Torah and midos, and even they need the proper preparation. Without this, the procedure cannot be helpful and therefore, may prove to the contrary of its intention. It seems that the instructions for performing the goral HaGra were passed down orally only to those who were seen fit to possess the tradition. It is recorded that the Chofetz Chaim had received these instructions in a direct chain going back to Rav Chaim Volozhiner, who had received it from the Vilna Gaon himself. The Chofetz Chaim then passed it on to such musar giants as Rav Eliyahu Lopian and Rav Eliyahu Dessler. In the past generation, it was known that the great Rosh Yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov, HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro possessed this tradition.
Although we have very few recordings of the use of the Goral HaGra from earlier generations, it proved to be very useful to the spiritual descendants of the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim Volozhiner, the leaders of the Lithuanian yeshivos, in the years of wandering, world war and settlement in Eretz Yisrael. It would take a separate article to describe the many wonders that were wrought for the roshei yeshiva and their talmidim by use of this method during those trying times.
It should be noted that there are halachic considerations about doing such a goral. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah, 119:1) explicitly forbids the use of goral to find out the future, along with asking the future from astrologers. The Chida, however, in his commentary Birkei Yosef there, quotes Rav Yaakov Castro (Maharikash) as making an exception to this rule when the goral is based on the Torah “because it is our life.” He cites a proof from the time of the King Yoshiyahu (Melachim II:22) who reacted with great grief when a sefer Torah was found in the Beis Hamikdash and it was rolled to the verses describing the exile of the Jewish king. The Chida also deduces a proof from the Midrash Yalkut in Mishlei (ch. 219) which states “if you wish to take advice, take it from the Torah.” Rav Yaakov Hillel shlita deals at length with the details of the halachic issues of goral and various types of fortune-telling in his sefer, Tamim Tihyeh.
Although we do not find discussion of this goral in his writings, the Gra does write (Biur L’Safra D’Tzniusa) that everything that will ever occur in the world is included in the Torah. He says this includes what will happen to every single individual from the time he is born until his end in exacting detail. The Ramban writes (Kisvei HaRamban, Drashas Toras Hashem Temimah) that the Torah is called “meshivas nefesh,’ because it removes any doubt from man’s mind. It makes clear the truth of G-d’s existence. The successful use of the goral HaGra is also a way in which we can strengthen our belief in G-d and His Torah. As Rav Shaul Serero writes in his conclusion to his description of the first incident mentioned above, “I wrote all of this to make known the Providence of G-d…”
One Line Summary:Thank you
Comment:Thank you for a well-written, complete article that helped me decide not to do a Goral Hagra.