What is the Jewish perspective on dreams? Are we meant to take them as any form of prophecy or is it just an exercise of the subconscious?
Oh, boy. Here we go again.
The reason I say that is because, as we have discussed before, there are shivim panim laTorah, seventy approaches to Torah (not necessarily literally 70 but, you know, many). When I discuss things like this, I take a rationalist approach. This doesn’t sit well with those who adhere to more mystical approaches. They invariably respond with “what about this” and “what about that?” I know about “this” and “that,” I just don’t happen to agree with them. When there are multiple approaches, following one precludes following them all. So, the opinions I express primarily reflect those to which I adhere. If you disagree, that doesn’t make either of us wrong per se, it just means that we disagree.
That having been said, there are basically two schools of thought about dreams: either they’re a little taste of prophecy or they’re utterly meaningless. I, personally, subscribe to the position that dreams are, with rare exception, essentially meaningless.
That’s not to say that such has necessarily always been the case. With the exception of Moshe, who was able to converse with God while wide awake, prophets received their messages in dreams and visions (Numbers 12:6). For example, Yaakov had his famous vision of a ladder to Heaven in a dream (Genesis 28) and Shlomo’s dialogue in which he requested wisdom occurred in a dream (I Kings 3). Most famous, however, are the series of dreams that occurred in the story of Yoseif.
Yoseif himself dreamed two dreams – one in which his brothers’ sheaves of grain bowed to him and one in which the heavenly bodies bowed to him. While in prison, Yoseif interpreted the essentially-similar dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and wine steward. Later, Yoseif interpreted Pharaoh’s own dreams – one of thin cows consuming fat cows and one of parched stalks devouring healthy stalks. One question remains unanswered, though. The story begins with Yoseif having dreams; later he’s interpreting dreams. We all have dreams but that doesn’t qualify us as interpreters. So where did Yoseif get this ability?
In his book Between the Lines of the Bible, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom points out that all the dreams in the story of Yoseif are repeated. He hypothesizes that Yoseif might have received a tradition from his father regarding the significance of recurring dreams. (You will note that Yoseif’s father, Yaakov, discounts the significance of his son’s dream in Genesis 37 but that Yaakov had only been told of one dream. Had he been told of both, he might have felt differently!)
Aside from speaking to prophets, God used dreams to send coded messages to monarchs regarding the fates of their nations. Not only did He communicate with Pharaoh through dreams interpreted by Yoseif, He communicated with Nebuchadnezzar through dreams interpreted by Daniel. There are many other dreams throughout Tanach.
But here’s the thing: we don’t live in Bible times. We’re not tzaddikim like Yoseif, we’re not supreme rulers like Nebuchadnezzar and, even if we were, prophecy has departed. Dreams may indeed be a little taste of prophecy (Talmud Brachos 57b) but the state of prophecy ain’t what it used to be.
The Talmud in Brachos spends a lot of time discussing dreams (pages 55-57). On page 55b, we are told that a dream follows its interpretation – it can be interpreted in either a positive or a negative way. On 55a, we are told that an uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter, i.e., it has no meaning whatsoever. On the same page we are also told that a dream always includes nonsensical elements and that a dream is never completely fulfilled.
My favorite insight on dreams, however, is on page 56a. There, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani tells us that one only dreams about things that he thought about during the day. This is what Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:29), “your thoughts came to you upon your bed.” Such an approach is not unlike our current outlook, in which dreams are considered an outlet for our unconscious thoughts and our anxieties.
The bottom line in the time of the Talmud was that most dreams were utterly meaningless. Nowadays, I think we can upgrade that to “virtually all dreams are utterly meaningless.” (I don’t feel qualified to rule out “all dreams” but I can’t name any specific exceptions.)
Let’s take a look at a halachic question impacted by dreams. In Sanhedrin (30a), the Talmud discusses a case in which a man’s father told him in a dream that he had hidden a certain sum of money in a certain location and that it was earmarked for maaser sheini (second tithe). Even though the man found that sum of money in the place described, the Sages said he could use it for any purpose (i.e., not limited to second tithe). This is because dreams are considered to be of no consequence. The Rambam in Hilchos Zechiah u’Matana (10:7) adds that one may also ignore such a dream if it says that the money belongs to another person.
On the other hand, the Shulchan Aruch says that if a person dreams that he takes a vow about a certain matter, he should have the vow annulled (Yoreh Deah 210:2). The Chasam Sofer explains that this is based on the aforementioned dictum about a person dreaming about the thoughts he had during the day. We are therefore concerned about the possibility that a person may have made such a vow but consciously forgotten about it (YD 222).
Even if dreams are essentially meaningless, the Talmud tells us that bad dreams can be physically debilitating (Brachos 55b). Worry over a nightmare can wreck a person so we are given steps to make ourselves feel better in the aftermath of a disturbing dream.
One course of action after a bad dream is to fast (called a taanis chalom). This fast, undertaken on the day after a troubling dream, is optional; one need not fast if he in unconcerned about a dream regardless of how upsetting it may have been. However, if one is distressed enough about a bad dream, he might be permitted to fast even on Shabbos or yom tov, days on which fasting is normally prohibited. (See Shulchan Aruch OC 288:5 for what kind of dreams might qualify.) As with all fasts, a person undertaking a taanis chalom should also perform teshuvah (repentance) and give charity.
The other course of action is called hatavas chalom, the rectification of a bad dream. Based on a procedure recommended in Brachos (55b), the dreamer assembles a panel of three friends and reports having had a disturbing dream. (The details of the dream are unimportant and need not be shared with the panel.) The participants recite various verses and prayers expressing the hope that the dream should have a favorable interpretation.
On the other hand, when the amora Shmuel would have a bad dream, he would merely recite Zechariah 10:2, “…dreams speak falsely…” (Brachos 55b).
In closing, let me share a completely true story about dreams that some may feel undermines my rationalist approach. Years ago, a neighbor came over on a Saturday night. She had had a disturbing dream so we convened a panel and performed hatavas chalom. She died a week later, on Shabbos Shuvah. Some might want to establish a correlation between her bad dream, whatever it might have been, and the fact that she died shortly after. From my perspective, many people die without having had bad dreams first, and many people have bad dreams without dying soon after. It follows logically that some small percentage of people will both have bad dreams and pass away; that doesn’t prove the dream was prophetic.
So why should I mention this incident at all, knowing that there are those who will see it as proof against my own position? I mention it because I always try to be intellectually honest. I have a position to which I subscribe and I don’t see this incident as disproving it. As always, however, every reader is free to draw their own conclusions.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent