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“All Dreams Follow the Interpretation” – Even for the Rabbis!

A New Approach to the Story of Abaye, Rava and the Dream Interpreter Bar Hedya (b. Berakhot 55b-56a).

Dreams – an involuntary human experience of unclear purpose, and of symbolic and enigmatic elements – presented the rabbis with an interpretive, cultural, and theological crux. Their struggle with this challenge, extending from the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.) all the way to the late midrashim (eighth-ninth centuries), is reflected in dozens of statements, stories, and theological discussions.

In addition to these asides about dreams, three lengthy passages devoted to dreams have come down to us: y. Ma‘aser Sheni 4; 55b-c; Eichah Rabbah, and part of the ninth chapter of b. Berakhot, known by scholars as “Tractate Dreams,” 1 which will be the focus of this article.

Dreamer and Interpreter: An Ancient, Fraught Encounter
In antiquity, an individual who wanted a dream interpreted might approach a professional dream interpreter. This encounter could be tense, as the dreamer is required to reveal the contents of his dream to someone else, often a total stranger. Moreover, the dream may be distressingly enigmatic or non-normative, and the dreamer may be terrified by the destructive, immoral, and subversive desires manifested in some dreams, fearing that they reveal his inner world.

Jerusalem’s Twenty-Four Interpreters
Rabbinic literature notes the function and position of dream interpreters in society. In “Tractate Dreams,” for instance, the following statement is attributed to R. Bena’ah, who lived at the end of the second century CE:
בבלי ברכות נה ע”ב
עשרים וארבעה פותרי חלומות היו בירושלים ופעם אחת חלמתי חלום והלכתי אצל כולם ומה שפתר לי זה לא פתר לי זה וכולם התקיימו בי. לקיים מה שנאמר, כל החלומות הולכים אחר הפה.
b. Berakhot 55b
There were twenty-four dream interpreters in Jerusalem. One time I had a dream and went to each of them. What one interpreted for me, the other did not interpret for me, and (yet) they were all realized in me, to fulfill that which is stated: “all dreams follow the interpretation (literally, “mouth”)”.
Even if the number twenty-four is formulaic, R. Bena’ah assumes a world where their presence was natural and substantial. R. Bena’ah receives twenty-four different, yet valid explanations to his dream because of his personal initiative to consult twenty-four different interpreters – not because the interpreters coordinated in offering the different readings. R. Bena’ah’s actions reflect a dual approach that accepts the authority of dream interpreters and trusts in their ability to mediate between dream and meaning, yet simultaneously subverts this authority by demonstrating how someone can produce an assemblage of differing interpretations which are all equally legitimate.

The Story of Rava, Abaye, and Bar Hedaya
R. Bena’ah’s statement can be read as an introduction to one of the longest stories in rabbinic literature – a puzzling tale about two significant Torah scholars, Abaye and Rava, and the dream interpreter Bar Hedaya. The story begins:
בבלי ברכות נו ע”א
בר-הדיא מפשר חלמי הוה. מאן דיהיב ליה אגרא מפשר ליה למעליותא, ומאן דלא יהיב ליה אגרא מפשר ליה לגריעותא.
אביי ורבא חזו חלמא. אביי יהיב ליה זוזא ורבא לא יהיב ליה.
b. Berakhot 56a
Bar Hedaya was a dream interpreter. To someone who gave him payment, he (Bar Hedaya) would offer a positive interpretation. To someone who did not pay, he would interpret unfavorably.
Abaye and Rava had a dream. Abaye gave him a zuz and Rava did not give him a zuz.
Bar Hedaya – Professional Dream-Interpreter
Bar Hedaya is depicted as a professional, rather than amateur, dream interpreter. His name, probably a nickname, הדיא, is Aramaic for “hawk”; this may reflect his occupation, since hawks are known for their excellent vision. So too, dream interpreters can see things hidden from regular people. The hawk moniker may also point to the great violence that can accompany the act of dream interpretation; Bar Hedaya attacks and harms the dreamer just as a hawk pounces on its prey.

Sages and Dream Interpreters:
A Reversal of Interpretive Authority

In constructing the drama, the story posits that both sages dream the very same dream which they recount together to Bar Hedaya. This draws our attention to the peculiar processes of dream interpretation, as Bar Hedaya offers two different, indeed, opposite interpretations to the very same text.

With this in mind, let us examine the first dream and pair of interpretations:
בבלי ברכות נו ע”א
אמרי ליה: אקרינן בחלמין “שורך טבוח לעיניך וגו'” (דברים כ”ח, ל”א). לרבא אמר ליה: פסיד עסקך ולא אהני לך למיכל מעוצבא דלבך. לאביי אמר ליה: מרווח עסקך, ולא אהני לך למיכל מחדוא דלבך.
b. Berakhot 56a
They said to him: We recited (the following verse) in our dream: “Your ox shall be slain before your eyes etc.” (Deuteronomy 28:31). To Rava he said: Your business will fail and you will be unable to eat due to your sadness. To Abaye he said: Your business will prosper and you will not be able to eat out of joy.
Abaye and Rava are the two most prominent amoraim in the Bavli, perpetually involved in learned discussion and responsible for numerous students. 2 Unusually in our story, both sages recite the verse in one voice, like students reciting texts before their masters – even though Bar Hedaya is a non-rabbinic figure. But now that the verse is taken out of the normal context of rabbinic study, the rabbis are suddenly unable to explain it.3

A Troubling Verse at the Center of the Dream

The beginning of the dream verse – from the rebuke section of Deuteronomy – describes an ox lying slaughtered and ready to enjoy in front of someone who, strangely, cannot eat it:
דבריםי כח:יג
שׁוֹרְךָ טָבוּחַ לְעֵינֶיךָ וְלֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ חֲמֹרְךָ גָּזוּל מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וְלֹא יָשׁוּב לָךְ צֹאנְךָ נְתֻנוֹת לְאֹיְבֶיךָ וְאֵין לְךָ מוֹשִׁיעַ.
Deuteronomy 28:13
Your ox shall be slain before your eyes and you shall not eat of it, your donkey will be violently taken away from before your face and will not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies; and you will have none to save you.
Bar Hedaya produces two opposing explanations for why the person does not eat, suggesting that Abaye will enjoy such intense happiness because of substantial profit, and Rava will be in such great pain due to significance losses.

The story goes on to describe fourteen identical dreams seen by Abaye and Rava, in which each time Abaye pays he receives a positive interpretation while Rava’s refusal to pay garners a negative interpretation. Notably, a disproportionate number of these are from the same “rebuke” section of Deuteronomy, such as “Your sons and daughters shall be given unto another people (Deuteronomy 28:41) and “You shall carry much seed out into the field and shall gather little in (Deuteronomy 28:38).

Rava Finally Pays
Subsequently, without any explanation, Abaye stops coming, while Rava keeps consulting Bar Hedaya. Rava does not understand that by withholding payment, he receives negative interpretations that lead to the death of his wife and children, the failure of his businesses, and his loss of status, prestige, and basically everything he has.

Only at the very end of the story does Rava change course and decide to pay Bar Hedaya. In turn, Bar Hedaya offers positive interpretations, though these only provide minor corrections for the profound damage that has taken place:
בבלי ברכות נו ע”א
[1] אמר ליה: אקריון הללא מצראה בחלמא. אמר ליה: ניסא מתרחשי לך.
[2] הוה קא אזיל בהדיה בארבא, אמר: בהדי גברא דמתרחיש ליה ניסא למה לי? בהדי דקא סליק נפל סיפרא מיניה, אשכחיה רבא וחזא דהוה כתיב ביה: כל החלומות הולכין אחר הפה.
[3] אמר: רשע! בדידך קיימא וצערתן כולי האי! כולהו מחילנא לך, בר מברתיה דרב חסדא. יהא רעוא דלמסר ההוא גברא לידי דמלכותא דלא מרחמו עליה. אמר: מאי אעביד? גמירי: דקללת חכם אפילו בחנם היא באה, וכל שכן רבא – דבדינא קא לייט, אמר: איקום ואגלי, דאמר מר: גלות מכפרת עון.
b. Berakhot 56a
[1] He (Rava) said to him (Bar Hedaya): They recited the “Egyptian Hallel” in my dream. He (Bar Hedaya) said to him (Rava): A miracle will happen to you.
[2] In the end, the two of them went down to the ferry. He (Bar Hedaya) said (to himself): Why do I need to be with a person to whom a miracle will happen? When he went onto (the shore) a book fell from him. Rava found it and saw that in it was written: “all dreams follow the interpretation (literally, “mouth”).
[3] Rava said: Wicked one! The matter was in your hand and yet you pained me so?! I forgive you for everything except (what happened to) the daughter of Rav Hisda (Rava’s wife, who died as a result of one of Bar Hedaya’s negative interpretations)! May it be (His) will that that man (Bar Hedaya) will be given over to a kingdom that will have no mercy on him. He (Bar Hedaya) said: What should I do? For we have learned – the curse of a wise man comes (true), even for naught, and all the more so Rava(’s), for he cursed justifiably. He (Bar Hedaya) said: I will get up and go into exile, for exile atones for sin.
A Dramatic Reversal:
Rava’s Final Dream

In this final section, Bar Hedaya devolves from an all-powerful interpreter who harms Rava time and again, to a frightened and persecuted man whose world has come undone. The interpretive approach that he had previously pioneered changes from a tool with which he harmed others to one which will ultimately hurt himself. Rava, on the other hand, morphs from a dreamer who is entirely dependent on Bar Hedaya and his interpretations into a person whose power and self-confidence have returned to him. Rava finally understands the senselessness of the situation and regains his powerful standing by using a tool that, as a Torah scholar, he has had at his disposal all along.
  • Three significant elements come to the fore in this section:
  • The miracle and its symbol – the “Egyptian Hallel”; 
  • The book which falls out of Bar Hedaya’s hands; 
  • Rava curses Bar Hedaya. 
Each one of these uncovers the limitations of Bar Hedaya’s interpretive approach, and brings Rava back to his natural state, that of a leading sage.

Rava’s Future Miracle as a Double-edged Sword
הלל המצרי – the so-called “Egyptian Hallel” which is read to Rava in the dream, is the regular Hallel prayer (Pss. 113-118), which the rabbis connected to the Exodus from Egypt (b. Pesahim 117a). The dream interpretation which Bar Hedaya proposes is rather simple: Hallel represents the miracle of the Exodus, and thus some sort of miracle will happen to Rava.

Notably, for the first time in the entire story, Bar Hedaya speaks in general rather than specific terms. Because of this open-ended interpretation, Rava transforms into a walking hazard, since he alone is promised safety from a future, perilous event while anyone in his vicinity will be exposed to the danger without ready protection.

Crossing the Sea of Reeds
Immediately, such a situation arises. Bar Hedaya chances upon a ferry with Rava and is stricken by his fear of the potential danger. Of course, in the ancient world water travel was always dangerous. The similarity between the contents of Rava’s dream and his setting out on a ferry likely added additional concern.

Rava saw in his dream that they were reading to him the Egyptial Hallel. This text was connected to the Exodus, which included the miracle God performed at the Sea of Reeds when the Israelites passed through on dry land while the Egyptians drowned. Bar Hedaya realizes that he has set up a sharp division between Rava and himself, where Rava is likened to Israel and thus will be safe in this river crossing, while he – Bar Hedaya – will be like the Egyptians who had drowned. It is also possible that by placing Rava on the Israelites’ side, Bar Hedaya finally realizes the great violence and cruelty which he had inflicted on Rava, and of the punishment which will certainly come in its wake.

The Book of Dream Interpretations
While fleeing the ferry, Bar Hedaya drops a book, which Rava picks up and sees contains the words: “All dreams follow the interpretation.” This book is the only evidence in rabbinic literature to the existence of professional guide-books for dream interpreters.4 Nothing else is known about the book’s contents. Bar Hedaya’s authority as an interpreter apparently derives from this book. Yet the very quote that we hear negates the standing of the book as a source of interpretive knowledge. The interpreter does not actually mediate between the symbols that appear in the book and the concrete dream that he interprets, for according to the authority that the book grants, the interpreter alone creates the meaning of the dream.

Rava Reestablishes his Power

At this point, Rava understands that the negative interpretations that he received stemmed from the calculated actions of Bar Hedaya. Rava’s tragic error throughout the story was that he saw in Bar Hedaya an interpreter who could objectively mediate between his dreams and their fixed meanings. Now, Rava ruefully declares: “Wicked one! The matter was in your hand and yet you pained me so!”—in other words, you decided through your own authority to interpret my dreams in such a negative fashion.

With the reestablishment of the usual power dynamic between the Torah giant and the rabbinically unlearned dream interpreter, the story reaches its climax with Rava’s curse: “May it be (His) will that that man (Bar Hedaya) will be given over to a kingdom that will have no mercy on him!” Through Rava’s curse, Bar Hedaya is now stripped of his powers while Rava dishes it out to him, measure for measure. Just as Bar Hedaya used his power to hurt Rava, so Rava uses his power as a Torah sage to curse Bar Hedaya. Indeed, just as Bar Hedaya himself admits, the curse of a Torah sage has an effect even without a good reason (“for naught”).

Between Rabbis and Dream Interpreters

The story of Rava and Abaye’s encounter with Bar Hedaya uncovers complex, violent, and subversive features of the encounter between the rabbi and the dream-interpreter. The fact that two Torah giants would wholly give themselves over to an unknown dream interpreter who, time and again, does with them and their dreams as his wont, exemplifies the negative attitude of the rabbis toward the dream interpreters.

The reversal of the regular power dynamic between rabbis and the rabbinically unlearned, and the fact that the greatest victims of this approach are the rabbis themselves, draws our critical attention to the interpretive process of deriving meaning from dreams. As it turns out, dream interpretation is not a simple, innocent act, but a particularly fraught and exploitable encounter. In the final analysis, it is not clear whether dream interpreters should be consulted. Perhaps this story suggests that it is best to avoid them altogether and to leave the dream in its natural, uninterpreted state.

  1. The phenomenon of sub-tractates, including “tractate Dreams” was extensively explored by Abraham Weiss, Studies in the Literature of the Amoraim (Hebrew; New York: Horev and Yeshiva University, 1962). See also Shai Secunda’s TABS essay on the Esther midrash preserved at the end of the first chapter of b. Megillah. 
  2. Indeed, a talmudic term for learned discussions is “the debates of Abaye and Rava.” 
  3. To my knowledge, this is the only time that this verse is expounded in rabbinic literature. This fact heightens the oddness of the situation in which these two sages find themselves. It is not simply that the meeting with Bar Hedaya takes them out of their natural environment but also that the verse at the center of the discussion is one which has been left out of the regular discussions of the study hall. It is possible that this dream, as well as the ones that follow it, reveals those texts which the institutionalized, rabbinic consciousness tried to suppress. Perhaps due to the threatening and scary nature of the Deuteronomy’s “rebuke”, rabbinic discussion regularly avoids directly discussing it. 
  4. On dream interpretation books in ancient world see: Alan Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, Third Series: Chester Beatty Gift (London, 1935), pp. 7–27; A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (Philadelphia, 1956); and Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams (Robert J. White, trans; New Jersey, 1975).
Dr. Haim Weiss is a Senior lecturer of Rabbinic literature at the department of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is the author of “All Dreams Follow the Mouth”? A Literary and Cultural Reading in the Talmudic ‘Dream Tractate’ (Beer-Sheva 2011) (Hebrew). His next book on the image of Shimon Bar-Kosibah in Jewish culture will be published next year.


What is the Jewish view of dreams? Dreams have always agitated and fascinated people. Indeed, the study of dreams goes back to ancient times. The question that has always existed is whether dreams have any significance?

According to Sigmund Freud in his book The Interpretation of Dreams (Published 1900) he claims that all details of a dream, even the most ridiculous of them, have significance. In his view, dreams represent the subconscious, which the person usually suppresses due to social prohibitions. During waking hours, logical tendencies predominate, not allowing instinctive desires to be expressed and satisfied. According to Freud, these desires are primarily sexual.

Though Freud’s theories have been rejected, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts do not contradict the fact that dreams are important and have significance. According to psychoanalysts such as Adler and Jung dreams are important and express other contents, such as aggressive tendencies or various personal desires.

However, according to psychiatrists F. Crick and G. Mitchison (Nature 304:111, 1983) the content of dreams do not have any significance. The main purpose of dreams is in order to forget some learned material, thereby producing “cleanliness of the head” and to liberate brain energy to gather other and varied material.

According to all the opinions above, they do not suggest that dreams need to be interpreted. They are rather just reflective of ones hidden desires or the activity of ones memory, which appears in the form of a dream.

In Judaism, however, there is considerable amount of literature on dreams, which seem to reflect a totally different view. In Jewish thought dreams not only have significance but they can be even out-of-body experiences receiving important messages to the person.

The book of Genesis is scattered with dreams of the Patriarchs and others. The first dream is (28:12), Jacob dreamt of a ladder standing on the ground with its head in the heaven and angels ascending and descending. This was a message to Jacob that there will be new angels accompanying him during his journey to Charan replacing the angels who accompanied him in Israel (Rashi). Similarly, the dream of Joseph and the eleven stars (37:5) were a message that Joseph would in the future reign over his brothers in Egypt.

This view of dreams reflects a different approach to that of psychologists and psychoanalysts; dreams need to be sometimes interpreted as they might have meaningful messages relating to the person, someone else or occurrences in the world.

What is the nature of these dreams and how are they interpreted? The Talmud (Berachos 55b) states that the realization of all dreams follows the mouth, i.e. the import of a dream depends upon the interpretation given to it. Indeed, R’ Bana’ah says that there were twenty-four interpreter of dreams residing in Jerusalem. Now, he says, once I dreamt a dream and I went to each of them to ask for its interpretation. And that which this one interpreted to me was not the same as that which the other one interpreted to me; rather, I received twenty-four interpretations for the same dream. Yet, all of these interpretations were realized for me, as indeed, each predicted event in fact materialized.

According to this statement of the Talmud there is no such thing as a negative or positive dream. If a dream is interpreted positively it becomes a positive dream and if interpreted negatively it becomes a negative dream. Theoretically, a dream can be negative and positive at the same time, depending on its interpretation.

However, this view is contradicted by the bulk of Talmudic literature related to dreams. The Talmud (Berachos 55b) states, Rav Chisda said, ‘a positive dream’ is not destined to be fulfilled in its entirety nor is a ‘negative dream’. This is derived from the fact that Joseph saw in his dream, in addition to the eleven stars, the sun and the moon, reflecting his two parents, Jacob and Rachel, who would also become subservient to him. This is despite the fact that Rachel, his mother, passed away before the dream was realized years later in Egypt.

However, this statement, referring to dreams as negative or positive, is in contradiction to the statement of R’ Bana’ah, since it implies that there is indeed such a thing as an absolute positive or negative dream, which cannot be influenced by interpretation.

In the text of Joseph’s dream, it says (Genesis 37:5; 10) that ‘he told the dream to his brothers’. This might be understood to mean that the ‘telling’ of the dream ‘with its interpretation’ was the factor that upset Joseph’s brothers and aroused jealousy. However, this analysis can be refuted since in the case of Joseph’s dream the interpretation of his dream was so apparent, that it was unnecessary to even offer an interpretation. Indeed, the brothers of Joseph understood the obvious meaning and were therefore jealous.

Therefore, from the story of Joseph’s dream one cannot prove that it was the interpretation rather than the dream itself that caused the implementation of the dream, as there existed only one interpretation that the “eleven stars bowing down to me” meant that his brother would be subservient to him. Furthermore, there is no mention of the interpretation in the text.

However, the view of R’ Bana’ah might be supported by an analyses of the story of Pharaoh’s dream (Genesis 41:1). In the narrative Pharaoh requested an interpretation to his dream but was unsatisfied until he heard the interpretation of Joseph.

This might suggest that Pharaoh knew that the implementation of the dream depended ‘on the mouth’, i.e. the interpretation that he accepts as a meaning of the dream. He therefore rejected the unacceptable interpretations of the necromancers until he heard an interpretation that satisfied him.

This might be consistent with the view of R’ Bana’ah.

After further analysis it becomes clear that the story of Pharaoh’s dream does not lend support to this view. On the contrary it reflects the view that there is only a single interpretation to a dream that cannot be altered.

A study of Pharaoh’s dream:
In Genesis (41:1) it relates that Pharaoh had a dream that he was standing by the river when out of the river emerged seven cows of beautiful appearance and robust flesh and they were grazing in the marshland. Then behold seven other cows emerged after them out of the river of ugly appearance and gaunt flesh; and they stood next to the cows on the bank of the river.

The cows of ugly appearance and gaunt flesh ate the seven cows of beautiful appearance and robust, and Pharaoh awoke.

He fell asleep and dreamt a second time and behold seven ears of grain were sprouting on a single stalk healthy and good. And behold seven ears thin and scorched by the east wind were growing after them. Then the seven thin ears swallowed up the seven healthy and full ears. Pharaoh awoke and behold it had been a dream.

In the morning his spirit was agitated so he sent and summoned all the necromancers of Egypt and all its wise men. Pharaoh related his dream to them but none could interpret them for Pharaoh.

The interpretation of the necromancers
The Midrash Rabba (69:6) states Rabbi Joshua of Siknin said in R. Levi’s name: There were indeed interpreters of the dream, but their interpretations were unacceptable to Pharaoh. He explains that the necromancers interpreted the dream that seven good cows mean that Pharaoh will beget seven daughters; the seven ill-favoured cows, that you will bury seven daughters. The seven full ears of corn, that you will conquer seven provinces; the seven thin ears, that seven provinces will revolt against you.

Joseph’s interpretation
Joseph said (41:25) to Pharaoh, the dream of Pharaoh is a single one. The seven good cows are seven years and the seven good ears are seven years. It is a single dream. Similarly, the seven emaciated cows that emerged after them and the seven scorched ears are seven years.

There should be seven years of famine.

Behold, seven years are coming of great abundance throughout the land of Egypt then seven years of famine will arise after them and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.

As for the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh it is because the matter stands ready before God and God is hastening to accomplish it.

Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt and let him prepare the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. Let them gather all the food of this approaching good years and the food will be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine, which will befall the Land of Egypt so that the land will not perish in the famine.

The Biblical narrative concludes that the matter appeared good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants.

What was the novelty of Joseph’s interpretation over the interpretation of the necromancers? The interpretation of Joseph is of the simplest logic. Emaciated cows and ears represent famine and good cows and healthy ears represent years of abundance. Indeed, the river Nile was the source of water for agriculture in Egypt. Therefore the fat cows and emaciated emerging from the river Nile can not mean anything else than years of plenty and famine respectively.

On the contrary the interpretation of the necromancers are less logical that the interpretation of Joseph.

However, when analysing the introduction of the interpretation of Joseph one can understand the novelty in his interpretation. He opens by emphasising that ‘the dream of Pharaoh is a single one.’

This point eluded the necromancers. They thought that since Pharaoh had the dreams in two parts they reflected two separate interpretations. They therefore gave two interpretations one referring to the conquering of seven provinces and the revolt of seven provinces and the second dream referring to the birth of seven daughters and the burial of another seven daughters.

Furthermore, the interpretation of the necromancers did not explain another enigmatic portion of the dream, ‘and they stood next to the cows on the bank of the river.’

Why did the emaciated cows stand next to the fat cows on the bank of the river? However, Joseph understood that this meant that although the two periods of seven years will follow one another, there had to be a relevant overlap of the final seven years on the first seven years.

This was answered in Joseph’s interpretation that Pharaoh should appoint someone to oversee the gathering of the food during the seven years of plenty to preserve for the seven years of famine.

According to this analysis of the story of Pharaoh’s dream, it is evident that the reason that Pharaoh did not accept the interpretation of the necromancers was not because he knew that whatever interpretation was given would follow the mouth of the interpreter and therefore for whatever reason did not accept their interpretation but rather because there was a single absolute interpretation which only Joseph offered and therefore satisfied Pharaoh.

This enforces the above-mentioned contradiction to the statement of R’ Bana’ah that realization of dreams follows the mouth, implying the possibility of more than one interpretation to a dream and the absence of negative or positive dreams.

The great Talmudic medieval sage Maharsha reconciles this contradiction. He explains that in Biblical and Talmudic literature it refers to three categories of dreams. The first is a type that has more than one interpretation. The Talmud says (Berachot 56a) Abaye and Rava came before Bar Hedya [cf. 1st article above], an interpreter of dreams and said that they both saw in their dreams a pomegranate sprouting from the mouth of a keg. To Abaye Bar Hedye said, your merchandise will be expensive like a pomegranate. But to Rava he said, your merchandise will be tart like a pomegranate, i.e. you wine will be bitter, and everyone will therefore despise it.

In this category if none interprets the dream, although there exists the negative potential as there exists positive, there will be not any negative effect in reality. This is the reference of R’ Bana’ah’s statement that the realization of a dream follows the mouth of the interpreter.

There is second category of dreams that have a particular interpretation and can therefore be considered either a negative or positive dream. But nevertheless its interpretation can change the dream from either positive to negative or from negative to positive. The Talmud (Berachot 56b) states that whoever sees a well in a dream beholds peace for him or herself. However if the dreamer contemplates an ominous passage pertaining to wells it can be transmuted negatively.

A third category of dreams is prophetic. Prophetic dreams have only a single interpretation and cannot be changed. In this category fall the dreams of Jacob, Joseph and Pharaoh.

In all these three categories it recognises the significance of dreams that they can be interpreted, in contrast to the opinion of the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in the beginning of this essay. However, there is indeed a fourth category in Jewish thought that recognises that many dreams have no relevance whatsoever.

The Abarabnel (Genesis 40:24) writes that dreams are the revelation of disorganized thoughts that are suppressed during waking hours and released during sleep. Such dreams are vain, have no meaning and have no effect one way or the other. This is consistent with the views of the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts mentioned at the beginning of this essay.

Furthermore, according to Maimonides (Mishne Torah Maaser Sheni 6:6) even specific dreams relating that certain money located in a particular place is tithe has no significance one way or another and the money can be used for profane purposes. The reason for this is that these dreams fall in the category of most dreams that have no significance at all.


Dreams preferably should be interpreted on the morning following the night they have been dreamt.
"Please listen to this dream..." (Gen. 37:6)
He had to add the word 'please', because at first they had refused to listen.
Alternatively, in accordance with the Talmud(Berachot 56) dreams should preferably be interpreted on the day following the night they have been dreamt. This is the reason that one may fast even on the Shabbat if one has had a bad dream. Joseph therefore insisted that the brothers hear him out at once. Any delay might result in the dream not being fulfilled.
Any delay might result in the dream not being fulfilled.
He may also have wanted to prove to them that he had not told any of his friends about this dream expecting them to give him a positive interpretation, but had instead come to his brothers first. Had he first told his friends of his dream, the brothers would not have believed that he wanted to convince them that he wanted to be on good terms with them. However, when contradictory interpretations are received the more recent interpretation cannot cancel out a previous one. Joseph may have wanted to convince the brothers of his sincerity by offering them a chance to come up with a negative interpretation of his dream which his friends could not later nullify. He did this by urging them to listen to his dream immediately.
"This dream": the use of the definite article 'hei' in front of the word 'chalom/dream' indicates that he had already told them that he had had a dream without revealing any details about it. Now he repeated: "please listen to the dream which I have dreamed."
"'We [each] had a dream…and there is no one to interpret it.' 'Interpretations are G‑d's business,' replied Joseph, 'please tell me [your dreams]'" (Gen. 40:8)
They meant that there was no one to interpret it at all, as distinct from Pharaoh's dream (Ibid. 41:8) when a variety of interpretations were offered, none of which satisfied Pharaoh.
"Interpretations are God's business." This was Joseph's way of saying that although he offered his services as an interpreter they should not think that he claimed to boast about his ability, but that God had many interpreters at His disposal; he, Joseph, was only one of them. He invited them to tell him their dreams.
An interpretation can only claim to be accurate when it is given on the day after the night the dream has occurred; Joseph's use of the word please, meant that he urged the ministers to tell him their dreams at once before the interpretations would become useless to them.
Joseph was anxious that they should tell their dreams to him rather than to someone else...
The second reason Joseph said please, is also related to a statement in the Talmud. (the next folio, Berachot 55) We are told there that most dreams follow the mouth, i.e. the interpreter. This is why Joseph was anxious that they should tell their dreams to him rather than to someone else in order that his interpretation would be fulfilled. And so, he emphasized: "please tell now!"
On that same page it is related that Rabbi Banah had a dream, and went separately to each of the twenty four regular dream-interpreters in Jerusalem. Each offered a different interpretation, and all their interpretations happened to come true. I maintain that this was so only because none of the twenty four interpretations contradicted one another. If, for instance, the first interpreter would say that the prisoner would be released whereas the second interpreter would say that the prisoner would remain in jail until dead, only the first interpretation would be fulfilled. Joseph urged them to make him the first interpreter of their dreams for their sakes.
[Selected with permission from the five-volume English edition of "OhrHaChaim: the Torah Commentary of Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar" by Eliyahu Munk.]
Rabbi Chaim (ben Moshe) ibn Attar (Sale, Western Morocco, 1696–Jerusalem, 1743) is best known as the author of one of the most important and popular commentaries on the Torah: the Ohr HaChaim, printed in Venice in 1741, while the author was on his way to the Holy Land. He established a major yeshivah in Israel, after moving there from Morocco. Chassidic tradition is that the main reason the Baal Shem Tov twice tried so hard (and failed) to get to the Holy Land was that he said if he could join the Ohr HaChaim there, together they could bring Moshiach. Rabbi Chaim acquired a reputation as a miracle worker, hence his title “the holy,” although some apply this title only to his Torah commentary. He is buried outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Eliyahu Munk, the translator, was born in Frankfurt, and emigrated to England as a young man, later moving to Toronto. After retiring from education and moving to Israel in 1978, he began an extraordinary second career as a translator, publishing English versions of the Torah commentaries of Rabbeinu Bechayei, Akeidat Yitzchak, Shelah, Alshich and Ohr Hachaim.

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Jacob's Dream, by Marc Chagall


The biblical view of dreams agrees substantially with that held by almost all ancient peoples. Dreams are visions of things actually transpiring on an ultramundane plane, where persons are not bound to bodies or events to specific moments and places. This plane is indistinguishable from that of the gods (or God), and dreams are therefore considered to be divine communications (Gen. 20:3, 6; 31:10–11). What is thus revealed may subsequently be actualized in historical fact. Accordingly, dreams are regarded as presages or omens. They are best understood by visionaries, i.e., by prophets, mantics, and ecstatics, who, in their suprasensory states, are in rapport with the "divine dimension," and it is to such persons that God vouchsafes dreams when He wishes to communicate with mankind (cf. Num. 12:6). In the Bible, "dreamer," "prophet," and "magician" are related terms (cf. Jer. 23:28; 27:9; 29:8; see *Divination). The final interpretation of dreams rests with God (Gen. 40:8).

Dreams are usually symbolic, and their interpretation (known as oneiromancy) revolves around the unraveling of their images. Dreambooks, in which such images are codified, feature in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. Biblical examples of such symbolic dreams are those of Joseph (Gen. 37:5ff.), of Pharaoh's butler and baker (ibid. 40:1ff.), and of Pharaoh himself (ibid. 41:1, 5); in Judges (7:13ff.) a man's dream that a cake of barley rolls onto the Midianite camp and bowls it over is taken to portend the imminent discomfiture of that people. Ancient Near Eastern parallels are afforded by a series of prophetic dreams related in the Babylonian "Epic of Gilgamesh" and in the Hittite "Legend of Kessi."

Dreams that occur in sacred places are considered to be revelations from the resident deity. People in search of divine direction resort to such shrines and sleep on the premises. This widespread practice, called incubation, is attested for the ancient Near East by a Sumerian inscription of Gudea of Lagash and a Hittite text of King Mursilis II of Hatti. The only clear instance in the Bible is the story of Jacob at Beer-Sheba (Gen. 46:1ff.), though some scholars claim that the narratives of the infant Samuel at Shiloh and of Jacob at Beth-El fall within the same category. It is necessary, however, to distinguish between incubation, which involves a purposeful visit to a shrine, and more general revelation through dreams, such as is described, for example, in I Kings 3:5–15 (Solomon at Gibeon). In sundry passages (e.g., Jer. 23:25; Zech. 10:2), the Bible speaks of false dreams. There appear to be two criteria for this designation, as there are also for false prophecy: a dream may be deemed false either because it is not subsequently realized, or because it never occurred at all. In the future Golden Age, says the prophet Joel (3:1), the gift of prophetic dreaming will be bestowed on all men, young and old alike. In the Greco-Roman age, apocalyptic visions were thought to be vouchsafed in dreams. Literary works inspired by this idea are the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypses of Ezra and Baruch. There is evidence of a pious protest against oneiromancy; both Ben Sira (31:1ff.) and the Letter of Aristeas (213–216) denounce belief in dreams.
[Theodor H. Gaster]

Diametrically opposed views on dreams were expressed by the sages. Jonathan stated that "a man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts" (Ber. 55b). This statement is similar to Freud's views that certain thoughts which during the day are suppressed to the unconscious, reappear in a dream, where they find gratification. It is told of Meir and Nathan that after behaving unbecomingly toward Simeon b. Gamaliel the nasi, "they were told in their dreams to go and pacify him. Nathan went, but Meir did not, saying, 'Dreams are of no consequence'" (Hor. 13b; see also Git. 52a). The extent to which the sages did not set store by dreams is attested by Hanan's statement that "even if the genius of dreams informs a man that on the morrow he will die, he should not desist from prayer, since it is said (Eccles. 5:6): 'For through the multitude of dreams and vanities there are also many words; but fear thou God'" (Ber. 10b). There were sages who believed in dreams, however, and regarded them as being in the nature of prophecy; Ḥanina b. Isaac declared that "a dream is a variety of prophecy" (Gen. R. 17:5), and R. Joseph said, "If one was placed under a ban in a dream, ten persons are necessary for lifting the ban" (Ned. 8a). Some fasted on account of a bad dream, the *fast being known as ta'anit ḥalom ("dream-fast"). Thus Rav asserted: "Fasting is as potent against a dream as fire is against tow. Ḥisda said: Provided it is on the same day. R. Joseph added: Even on the Sabbath" (Shab. 11a).

The Talmud contains a prayer which originated in the last generation of the amoraim and which, said during the priestly benediction, reads as follows: "Sovereign of the Universe, I am Thine and my dreams are Thine. I have dreamt a dream and do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamt about myself, or my companions have dreamt about me, or I have dreamt about others, if they are good dreams, confirm and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were healed by Moses our teacher, and as Miriam was healed of her leprosy and Hezekiah of his sickness, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. As Thou didst turn the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into something beneficial for me" (Ber. 55b). The Talmud records that there were 24 professional interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem (ibid.), an indication of how deep-rooted a belief in dreams was among the masses. (Extensive material on dreams and their interpretation is given in Ber. 55a–57b.) A third view, midway between these two extremes, regarded dreams as composed alike of truth and of incidental features. This was stated by Johanan in the name of Simeon b. Yoḥai: "Just as there can be no grain without straw, so can there be no dream without meaningless matter." A similar view was expressed by Berechiah, "While part of a dream may be fulfilled, the whole of it is never fulfilled," and by Ḥisda: "Neither a good dream nor a bad one is wholly fulfilled" (Ber. 55a). Some sages distinguished between one dream that lacks all substance and another that is fulfilled. This was the view of Johanan, who declared that "three dreams are fulfilled: an early morning dream, a dream which a friend has about one, and a dream which is interpreted within a dream" (Ber. 55b).
[Abraham Arzi]

Interest in dreams continued through the Middle Ages to modern times, especially among the kabbalists and Ḥasidim. The Zohar discusses the problem of the admixture of truth and falsehood in dreams, and distinguishes between the dreams of the wicked, which derive from the forces of impurity, and the dreams of the righteous, which contain the visions, images, and prophecies seen by the soul in the higher worlds. Nevertheless, even the dreams of the righteous are infected by the false notions of the sitra aḥra. The angel in charge of the dreams of the righteous is Gabriel. These dreams, while they are not as great as prophecy, are close to prophecy (Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 (1961), 136–43). Maimonides developed a conception of dreams, based on his psychology and epistemology, as an integral part of philosophical anthropology, which totally rejects all supernatural categories. The religious significance of Maimonides' conception lies in his identification of dreams and prophecy in terms of their essence, and their distinction in terms of their content (Guide of the Perplexed, 2:36–38; cf. Shemonah Perakim, 1; Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 7:2). Maimonides attributes no cognitive significance to dreams in the sense of a spiritual process which introduces new ideas or knowledge which was not previously known. Dreams are a function of the imagination only, not of the senses or the intellect. What one learns in dreams is not a new product of one's soul or a new idea from the outside, but is rather brought up from the imaginative faculty, the storehouse of sensual and intellectual impressions: "The thing which engages greatly and earnestly man's attention while he is awake and in the full possession of his senses forms during his sleep the object of the action of his imaginative faculty." The prophetic dream is unique in that "his [the prophet's] attention must be directed to the knowledge of God.… There must be an absence of the lower desires and appetites." If the prophet fulfills these requirements while he is awake, of necessity he will, in his dreams, "perceive things very extraordinary and divine, and see nothing but God and His angels." The experiences of the dream, those of both the prophet and the ordinary person, occur only "when the senses are at rest and pause in their action." In his dreams a person apprehends ideas which he previously had and which left their impression in his imaginative faculty, which "sees the thing as if it came from without and perceives it as if through the medium of bodily senses." It thus appears as if these are new ideas which have never before been experienced. From this conception of the essence of dreams it can be seen that Maimonides avoids the traditional interpretation of the "dream-fast" as a means of protection from an anticipated danger or for the purpose of abolishing a harmful decree, and sees the fast as an obligation which has a didacticpsychological purpose: "that he may reexamine his actions and analyze them and repent" (Yad, Ta'aniyyot 1:12). A later attempt to promulgate a belief in dreams and their interpretation on a "philosophical" basis was made by Solomon Almoli, whose book Mefasher Ḥelmin or Pitron Ḥalomot ("The Interpretation of Dreams") was very popular among eastern European Jews. Some medieval thinkers would rely on dreams even in matters of religious law, as, for example, Jacob of Marvège in his responsa. Other scholars, however, strongly opposed this practice: "We do not require the dream of R. Jacob … nor his interpretation based on a dream … and one should take no notice of dreams, because we know that it is not in the heavens" (Zedekiah b. Abraham Anav's Shibbolei ha-Leket (1896), no. 157). Nevertheless, there were people in later generations who made decisions on the basis of dreams.
[Encyclopaedia Hebraica]


A. Lowinger, Der Traum in der juedischen Literatur (1908); A. Kristianpoller, Traum und Traumdeutung (Monumenta Talmudica, 4, 1923); J. St. Lincoln, Dream in Primitive Culture (1935); E.L. Ehrlich, in: BZAW, 73 (1953), 1–170; H.L. Oppenheim, Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (1956); Jacob of Marvège, She'elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim, ed. by R. Margoliouth (1957), introduction, 3–20; S. Lieberman, Yevanit ve-Yavnut be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1962), 204–9; M. Harris, in: PAAJR, 31 (1963), 51–80.

➤Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Job's Evil Dreams, by William Blake (1805)

Joseph and the Dreams
of Many Colors
Understanding the practice of dream interpretation in the Joseph story by using the ANE interpretive traditions as background.

Dreams across Centuries

Millennia before Sigmund Freud penned his classic work Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899) and long before the 2nd century CE professional diviner, Artemidorus of Daldis, distilled centuries of traditions on dream interpretation into his Oneirocritica,¹ people in the Ancient Near East had cultivated a strong interest in dreams and their interpretations. From the Freudian perspective, dreams are an expression of a person’s subconscious, and they teach us about a person’s inner life.

In antiquity, however, a dream was understood as a message from a deity, often reflecting an issue of importance to an entire community. In fact, in the conception of the ancients, a dream could affect many people beyond its recipient. Thus, in the ANE, a process of evaluating dreams developed, which included the following investigations: their viability, their veracity, their import, and their fulfillment.

First, experts needed to determine the viability of a dream, i.e., whether the report of the dreamer should be taken seriously as containing a possible message from a god. Such a determination took into account both the time in which a dream was received as well as an examination of the dreamer. We learn about this process from documents that are non-literary, such as the letters exchanged among the elite.

For instance, at Mari, a city state in the mid-Euphrates region that has a left us extensive archives mostly from the time of Hammurabi of Babylon (early 18th c. BCE), a diviner reported to the king (From the Mari Archives [FMA], 285),
I have taken omens about the dream of Sammetar (an official). That dream (occurred) at the first watch. It was (therefore) not seen (i.e., of no consequence).²
We see here that the diviner considered the timing of the dream to be wrong, disqualifying the dream from being a possible divine message.

The diviner could also come to the decision about a dream’s viability by submitting test material taken from the dreamer, likely snippets of hair and items of his clothing. This material was then taken for testing through extispicy, the inspection of internal organs from a sacrificed sheep.³ The process of testing is not fully clear to us. In the fullest extent account (FMA 277), a king writes to his wife,
About the lock (of hair) and (garment) fringes of the young man that you conveyed to me: I took omens over the lock and fringes, and they are favorable. The young man on whom is settled the “hand of God” (likely epilepsy) will fully restore (to health), as there is no damage….
Even when the king was the dreamer (FMA, 287), the diviner’s judgment prevailed, royal status having little bearing on the decision.

A dream or dreamer’s viability did not prove the dream’s veracity, however. For this, some sort of confirmation was needed, either through another dream or evidence from some other medium. Thus, a dream that recurred within a close interval (FMA, 286) demanded attention. So did differing, mutually reinforcing dreams that occurred in the same night. For example, in one case, a kin of the king of Mari had two dreams in prompt succession(FMA 285-286), both with unsettling signs—a goddess forsaking her shrine and a dead High Priest making eerie utterances. Furthermore, the dreamer evoked her alarm by piggy backing on a cautionary prophecy just then reported to her. This dream is so striking that it is worth citing almost in full:
…In my dream, I entered the chapel of Belet-ekallim (“Lady of the Palace”); but Belet-ekallim was not in residence! Moreover, the statues before her were not there either. Seeing this, I broke into weeping. This dream of mine occurred during the first watch. I then turned around and Dada, priest of the Bisra Ištar, was standing at the gate of Belet-ekallim’s chapel; but an eerie voice kept uttering: “Return (to me), O Dagan; return (to me), O Dagan.” This is what it kept on uttering. Another matter: A woman-ecstatic (muḫḫutum) rose in Annunitum’s temple to say, “Zimri- Lim, you must not go on a journey. Stay in Mari, and I shall continue to be communicating (with you).” My lord should not neglect his personal safety. I have now personally placed sampling from my hair and garment under seal and have sent them to my lord.
The synchronism of persistent alerts via differing media (dreams and prophecy) obviously reinforced their substance, heightening certainty about the dream’s truthfulness.

The import of a dream required an outside interpreter; in antiquity, dreamers would not determine the possible significance of their own dreams. To reveal their import, a dreamer in Mesopotamia, Egypt and elsewhere turned to expert interpreters. Gudea of Lagash (around 2100), a city in the south of modern day Iraq, had his dream explained by his mother, a goddess, who goes on to suggest concrete ways of applying the interpretation. Those not as well connected, looked for specialists steeped in amassed lore or with ready access to written compilations updated over the centuries, which essentially emulated the format and rules of divination. These anthologies are precursors to Artemidorus’s work.

Written compilations of dreams also helped determine whether they were going to be fulfilled. In these works, an articulated dream from the past was paired with a significant event that followed it. This would then be applied to any future dream presented for analysis to a diviner. If the dream was identical to that in the book, the correlating event was sure to follow. A 19th Dynasty Egyptian compilation offered these examples: If man saw himself in a dream copulating with his own sister, the results were good: It meant transferal to him of property. But if he dreamed that he was uncovering his own rear, then the omens were bad, as he will be orphaned. More elaborate compilations are known from Mesopotamia.

Biblical Dreams

The Hebrew Bible includes dreams in practically every genre within its pages, and especially so in apocalyptic literature (Daniel and the like). Viability was determined by God. In Deuteronomy, a dream’s viability was measured by the dreamer’s adherence to Gods’ laws as revealed to Moses (Deut 13:2). In Jeremiah, we read of examples in which God has to inform a true prophet that another prophet’s dreams are false (Jer 23:25-28). The Bible also has its own version of a divination ritual, the Urim VeTumim, but we never hear of it being used to check the viability of dreams or dreamers.

As in Mesopotamia, veracity could be affirmed when messages repeated. We will look at how this plays out in the Joseph story shortly, with the double repetition of each dream, but another example comes in the story of Gideon (Judges 7:9-14), in which God reassures a skittish Gideon by having him eavesdrop on a Midianite who, in reporting his dream to his companion, receives an interpretation that favors Israel, the entire scene having been choreographed by God.

Biblical texts emphasize the import of dreams. This is true both of narratives and apocalyptic texts. Their fulfillment often generates the plot line of relevant episodes and so it is in the Joseph story.

Overview of the Context of the Joseph Story

The saga of Jacob occupies half of the chapters of Genesis. Flanked by notices about his birth and death, the story is blocked out by two major episodes (at 27 and 48) in which dim-eyed patriarchs (Isaac and Jacob) give blessings and birthrights to the younger of two brothers (Jacob/Esau; Ephraim/ Manasseh). The tale of Joseph is spliced within Jacob’s biography (“This is Jacob’s lineage” at 37:2). It begins when Joseph is 17 (Gen 37:2) and peters out just after Jacob had spent 17 years in Egypt (Gen 47:28).

After a delicious pun, יוֹסֵף… הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן (Joseph… hāyâ rōceh ʼet-ēḥāyv baṣṣôn), “Joseph tended flocks with his brothers,” which can playfully also mean, “Joseph tended his brothers, among sheep,” we meet with three sets of dreams, each pair covering similar grounds.

Joseph’s Youthful Dreams

The first essentially places the tale on its trajectory; for even when his brothers had other reasons to loathe Joseph, only when his father joined them as critic did their resolve to distance him hardened. As reported, the dreams themselves (about his brothers’ sheaves bowing to his; about stars doing the same, Gen 37:5-11), had moved from describing to practically interpreting, and so had merged roles that were kept strictly separate in antiquity. Thus, when in his second dream Joseph included sun, moon, and 11 stars among the kowtowers, he had already deciphered its import. No one in his family misread what he meant and Jacob’s indignant interpretation merely decoded the implicit and understood allegory already present in the dream.

With the dreams driving the plot, the Joseph narratives will not find a satisfying resolution until their fulfillment. Even as ten of his brothers were bowing down to him on their first encounter in Egypt, Joseph recalled his own dreams (Gen 42:8) and strove to actualize their main feature: that his brother’s earthly (sheaves) as well as their eleven cosmic (stars) representations will pay him obeisance. For this to happen, his father’s resolve to keep Benjamin away from Egypt had to be broken.

Joseph forces on his family (and on us) some of the most psychologically harrowing scenarios ever found in biblical narratives. Eventually, broken in spirit, keen to embrace his long-lost son, but also seduced by pharaoh’s promised land (Gen 45:19-20), Jacob abandons the Promised Land, receiving divine approbation while already on his way (Gen 46:1-5). He was to return there as a mummified corpse (Gen 50:1-14). His descendants, however, would enter an exile and enslavement that swallowed many centuries. So much for the gift of Joseph’s success.

Dreams in Pharaoh’s court

The other two sets of dream-sequences embedded in the Joseph story prove more prosaic in their adherence to ancient oneiric tenets and criteria: They feature dreamers but also interpreters; their viability is bolstered by the proximity of manifestations; their veracityis hardly in doubt, given their origin and purpose; and their import is promptly fulfilled in one case, in the other eventually so.

The Cup-Bearer and the Chief Baker
The first set (Gen 40) involves two major officials in pharaoh’s court, both disgraced, having a dream on the same night. The first (a cup-bearer) had a dream gravitating to the benign. The second (the chief baker) needed reassurance before reporting, for his dream was ominous. As often occurs in divination and dream interpretation, the exegesis depended on coordinating numbers (3 branches/baskets = 3 days) and on establishing meanings for the same idiom that prove opposite in consequence: nāśāʼ ʼet-rōʼš, “to lift up the head” of someone is metaphoric for “honoring” and concrete for “decapitating.” Eventually, one official was honored while the other beheaded.

Pharaoh’s Dreams
The second set of dreams came to pharaoh in the same night, both were so clearly duplicate in their use of numbers and symbols that they must be significant dreams from a deity. Their meaning is so patently ominous and transparent, that it strains credulity when no one in Pharaoh’s kingdom could decipher them. Seizing the occasion, Joseph reassured pharaoh that whatever the contents of the dreams, God would realize for them a good outcome (Gen 41:16).

Listening to pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph audaciously charted their import into a libretto for a successful fulfilment. Joseph was clearly acting beyond the duty of a dream interpreter, much as Gudea’s divine interpreter had done (see above). In fact, Joseph was setting himself on the path toward a felicitous fulfilment of his own, earlier dreams.
Professor Jack M. Sasson is the Mary Jane Werthan Professor (Emeritus) of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University as well as Kenan Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University. Sasson’s publications include commentaries on the Biblical books of Ruth (1979), Jonah (1991), Judges 1-12 (2014), and Judges 13-21 (in preparation). His most recent monograph is From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters (Eisenbrauns, 2015).

[1] A good translation of the work is accessible online at

[2] Cited documents are drawn from Jack M. Sasson, From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015), where can be found documentation and bibliography. On pp. 271-293 will be found many letters that treat divination, prophecy, visions, dreams, natural phenomena, and ordeals.

[3] Editor’s note: For more on extispicy and similar divination practices, see Uri Gabbay’s TABS essay, “The Practice of Divination in the Ancient Near East.”

[4] Homer’s Penelope (Odyssey 19:562-67) distinguished between a deceitful dream (originating in the Gates of Ivory) and a truthful one (arising from the Gates of Horns).

[5] The documents is translated at

[6] In the section on dream interpretation in the 9th chapter of b. Berakhot, we read (57a):

הבא על אחותו בחלום יצפה לחכמה, שנאמר אמר לחכמה אחתי את. He who dreams of having intercourse with his sister may hope for wisdom, as it is said, “Say to Wisdom, you are my sister” (Prov 7:4).

[7] From Robert K. Rittner in The Context of Scripture (Leiden, 1997), I:50-52. The compendia from ancient Mesopotamia were much more elaborate and diverse; see A. Leo Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1956).

[8] Editor’s note: For more on the Urim VeTumim and a survey of suggestions of what this may have been, see the TABS essay, “The Urim VeTumim.”