In a practice popularly known as “the lottery of the Vilna Gaon,” a sage poses a question and then opens a Torah or Hebrew Bible seven times at random. A verse on the final page to be opened is then taken as an omen, and interpreted as an answer to the question. While the attribution of this rite to the 18th-century Rabbi Elijah Kramer of Vilna is mistaken, writes Shraga Bar-On, it does date back several centuries, and has even more ancient precursors:
Based on [the 1st-century-CE historian] 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 talmudic literature], too, use of verses from the Torah [in this fashion] was quite common. One of the most prominent techniques, . . . 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. . . .
At times, a biblical book or verse appears as [an] omen within a different prophetic medium—namely, a dream—or alternatively springs to a person’s mind upon waking up: “If one rises early and a Scriptural verse comes to his mouth, this is a kind of minor prophecy” (Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot 55b and elsewhere). At other times, the verse does not appear in the dream itself but can be used to interpret the dream. . . .
[Even Bible] commentators and Jewish legists with a sharply rationalistic orientation . . . accorded bibliomancy exceptional status. Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), the most outspoken opponent of magic, astrology, and divination, himself ruled that “if one asks a child, ‘What verse are you learning?’ and he responds with a verse from [Moses’] blessings [of the Israelites], it is permitted for one to rejoice and say, ‘That is a lucky sign.’” Still, he limited the power of the omen to revealing information about events already in the past and to situations where receiving the sign would not lead to any sort of practical course of action.