A rationalist 19th century British interpretation of a Talmudic oracle
The specific piece reads as follows
He [the Emperor] sent against them Nero the Caesar. As he was coming he shot an arrow towards the east, and it fell in Jerusalem. He then shot one towards the west, and it again fell in Jerusalem. He shot towards all four points of the compass, and each time it fell in Jerusalem. He said to a certain boy: Repeat to me [the last] verse of Scripture you have learnt. He said: (Ezekiel 25) And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel. He said: The Holy One, blessed be He, desires to lay waste his House and to lay the lame on me. So he ran away and became a proselyte, and R. Meir was descended from him.
In 1882, שבת שקלים, Hermann Adler (1839-1911), Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, delivered a sermon about the plight of Russian Jewry, a theme which justly occupied the attention and concern of Western Jews at that time.
As you can see, the sense of the passage is that Nero asked the boy what verse of Scripture had learned and took it as an oracle. R. Adler, however, responding to the needs of his time interprets it very differently:
"Now, think not, my brethren, that this was a superstitious practice, or a kind of divination. Our Synagogue fathers knew full well that, in a time of national stress, the wise schoolmaster would teach his young charges such Bible texts as would afford some comfort, guidance, and wise practical counsel how to meet the crisis."But it can easily be seen that such a method was seen as oracular by the Sages themselves, by comparing this with the other instances where the פסוק לי פסוקיך method occurs; e.g., Gittin 67b-68a
The Exilarch once said to R. Shesheth, Why will your honour not dine with us? He replied: Because your servants are not reliable, being suspected of taking a limb from a living animal. You don't say so, said the Exilarch. He replied, I will just show you. He then told his attendant to steal a leg from an animal and bring it. When he brought it to him he said [to the Servants of the Exilarch], place the pieces of the animal before me. They brought three legs and placed them before him. He said to them, This must have been a three-legged animal. They then cut a leg off an animal and brought it. He then said to his attendant, Now produce yours. He did so, and he then said to them, This must have been a five-legged animal. The Exilarch said to him, That being the case, let them prepare the food in your presence and then you can eat it. Very good, he replied. They brought up a table and placed meat before him, and set in front of him a portion with a dangerous bone. He felt it and took and wrapped it in his scarf. When he had finished they said to him, A silver cup has been stolen from us.1 In the course of their search for it they found the meat wrapped in his scarf, whereupon they said to the Exilarch, See, sir, that he does not want to eat, but only to vex us. He said, I did eat, but I found in it the taste of a boil. They said to him, No animal with a boil has been prepared for us to-day. He said to them, Examine the place [where my portion came from]. since R. Hisda has said that a white spot on black skin or a black spot on white skin is a mark of disease. They examined and found that it was so. When he was about to depart they dug a pit and threw a mat over it, and said to him, Come, sir, and recline. R. Hisda snorted behind him. and he said to a boy. Tell me the last verse you have learnt. The boy said. Turn thee aside to thy right hand or to thy left. He said to his attendant, What can you see? He replied. A mat thrown across [the path]. He said, Turn aside from it. When he got out, R. Hisda said to him, How did you know, sir? He replied. For one thing because you, sir, snorted [behind me], and again from the verse which the boy quoted, and also because the servants are suspect of playing tricks.
in this case, the servants of the ריש גלותא were laying a trap for רב ששת and he used a schoolchild's verse to let him know what to do. Was this a time of national or person stress? רב ששת is using פסוק לי פסוקיך for it's oracular ability.
Finally, and more clearly, Hullin 95b
Rab used to regard a ferry-boat as a sign. Samuel a [passage in a] book, and R. Johanan [a verse quoted] by a child. During the lifetime of Rab, R. Johanan used to address him thus in his letters: Greetings to our Master in Babylon! After Rab's death R. Johanan used to address Samuel thus: Greetings to our colleague in Babylon! Said Samuel to himself, ‘Is there nothing in which I am his master’? He thereupon sent [to R. Johanan] the calculations for the intercalation of months for sixty years. Said [R. Johanan], ‘He only knows mere calculations’. So he [Samuel] wrote out and sent [R. Johanan] thirteen camel loads of questions concerning doubtful cases of trefah. Said [R. Johanan], ‘It is clear that I have a Master in Babylon; I must go and see him’. So he said to a child, ‘Tell me the [last] verse you have learnt’. He answered: ‘Now Samuel was dead’. Said [R. Johanan], ‘This means that Samuel has died’. But it was not the case; Samuel was not dead then, and [this happened] only that R. Johanan should not trouble himself.
In this case we see most clearly that פסוק לי פסוקיך is regarded as a sign. (And, as it happens, in this case the sign was misleading, albeit deliberately so). The practice itself, called bibliomancy, was used and taken quite literally among Jews in early modern Europe. A variation, called gorel ha-gr"a, persists even today.
This specific sermon was printed in R. Adler's collection Anglo-Jewish memories, and other sermons (1909: New York). In the introduction, he notes that he had recently reached his 70th birthday: "During the present month I shall, by Divine mercy, complete the threescore years and ten ordinarily allotted to man." In addition, it had been about 50 years since he had delivered his first derasha on behalf of his father R. Nathan Adler, who was sick on that occasion. In honor of these anniversaries he decided to publish some of his discourses, with prominence given to "those delivered on occasions which moved our hearts both as Englishmen and as Jews."
You can download the entire "Cry of Our Russian Brethren" sermon here.
All in all, a most interesting, very 19th century interpretation of a well-known Talmudic passage.