AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Wednesday, 11 January 2017


Good dreams, bad dreams -- what could they all mean?

I've always been bothered by dreams and their interpretation, at least ever since reading Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In the introduction, he writes: "[...] The dream proves on psychological investigation to be the first of a series of abnormal psychic formations, a series whose succeeding members - the hysterical phobias, the obsessions, the delusions - must, for practical reasons, claim the attention of the physician. The dream, as we shall see, has no title to such practical importance, but for that very reason its theoretical value as a typical formation is all the greater, and the physician who cannot explain the origin of dream-images will strive in vain to understand the phobias and the obsessive and delusional ideas, or to influence them by therapeutic methods."¹

So, here I intend to linger on dreams and dream interpretation, examining some of the literature generated by Judaism, dream interpreters par excellence since the times of Joseph.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs, among others, states the Bible expresses the belief that dreams can contain revelations from on high, as in the dreams of Jacob, Joseph, and Pharaoh in the book of Genesis. The prophetic vision, the Bible states (Numbers 12:6), comes in a dream. A rabbinic saying has it that a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy. Maimonides(Guide of the Perplexed, 3.36-8) develops his theory that in the dream the imaginative faculty is awakened, without which prophecy is impossible.

There is a good deal of material on dreams in the Talmud but a degree of ambiguity about the efficacy of dreams. In one talmudic passage it is implied that dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious, as Freud suggests, or, at least, this is the meaning that can be given to the talmudic statement: “A man is only shown in a dream that of which he thinks during the day.”

Legal Status of Dreams

In matters of law, information obtained in a dream is disregarded. The illustration is given of a man whose father appeared to him in a dream and informed him that a sum of money, hidden in such-and-such a place had been designated by him for charity and it belonged to the poor. The ruling given was that the dream could be disregarded and the son could keep the money for himself.

While a rabbinic scholar might occasionally claim that a suggested interpretation of a biblical or talmudic text came to him in a dream, the habit of Jacob of Marvege (13th century) of using information conveyed to him in dreams as authoritative in law was extremely unusual.

After fasting and employing other techniques, Jacob would present halakhic (Jewish legal) queries to heaven, to which he received replies in dreams. These replies are recorded in Jacob’s work entitled Responsa from Heaven. We should not be surprised that, according to the work, ‘Heaven’ always had the same halakhic opinions as the French talmudists.

Interpretation & Fasting

The talmudic statement that a dream depends on how it is interpreted, puzzling to the more philosophically minded, is discussed in the Responsa of Solomon Ibn Adret. Based on a talmudic passage, a special ceremony developed of interpreting for good a bad dream. The procedure was for the man who had the dream to say to three other persons: “I have had a dream and do not know what to make of it”; and they would reply: “The dream is a good one and is for your good.”

Many people, disturbed by a bad dream, would fast in order to ward off the possible evil effects. The rabbis allowed such a fast to be undertaken even on the Sabbath in order to release the man from his anxiety but they required him to undertake another fast for having fasted on the Sabbath.

Judaism and Dreams²

The concept of dreams has both fascinated and haunted mankind. We dream about our hopes, we dream about our fears and anxieties, and we dream about our fantasies. Most of the time we dream about the people and events which occupy our minds during the day, but at times our dreams catch us completely by surprise. Psychologists see dreams as one of the keys to understanding the human subconscious. What is the hidden significance behind our dreams?

Even the Jewish sources on the matter are not entirely clear. On the one hand, the Talmud states that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy (Brachot 57b). Yet at the same time the Talmud writes that no dreams are without nonsense (ibid., 55a), and that the interpretation of a dream depends on the explanation given by the interpreter (55b). As the Talmud makes clear, any dream can have either a good or a bad interpretation, and it is at the mercy of the one who interprets it. How could a prophecy, even a very minor one, be up for grabs, so to speak, and depend upon how people explain it?

The Biblical Joseph is described in the Torah as a dreamer. He both experienced prophetic dreams himself and interpreted them for others. Why did the young Joseph, who knew he had already aroused his brothers’ jealousy, further antagonize them by telling them his dreams? Wasn’t he just fanning the flames of animosity? Was he just showing off, immaturely attempting to show his brothers that God had greater things in mind for him than them?

Rabbi Yochanan Zweig² noted a fundamental difference between prophecy and dreams. When a prophet is granted a vision or a message about the future, he knows that it is the future he is being shown. He knows that he is now in the present, viewing events which will occur on a future date.

A dream, by contrast, is an entirely different experience. The dreamer is not merely viewing the future. He is experiencing it right then. He feels that the events of his dream are occurring to him at that very moment. We often wake up from dreams with the thought “Thank goodness – it was only a dream!” Thus, unlike a prophecy in which a prophet today is being shown a vision of the future, the dreamer is actually transported to the future, to experience it right here and now.

Why is this distinction significant? Because of the critical role that time and free will play in Jewish philosophy. As Maimonides (Laws of Repentance, Ch. 5) explains, free will is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. Our actions are in our own hands. We can determine our future. There is no predestination in the eyes of the Torah. Our future is indeterminate. Every day of our lives we can wake up and decide if we want to be good or wicked. And as a result, God will reward or punish us for our every action and decision.

Prophecy can be viewed as an override of this principle. When a prophet comes and informs mankind what is in store for the future, it is no longer indeterminate. If a prophet would come along today and proclaim that the Chaldeans will attack tomorrow, presumably the Chaldeans have no choice but to attack. It has to happen; God already told us it would. Thus, free will would seem to be compromised. The future is no longer in the hands of man.

(At the same time, it should be mentioned that prophecies – especially ones which discuss distant events such as the End of Days, are often purposely vague. There are many ways in which they may come true. Such prophecies are vague specifically because they discuss events which are not yet entirely determined and may come true in many ways – generally depending upon how worthy we will be at the time. Likewise, Maimonides (Laws of Fundamentals of Torah 10:4) writes that negative prophecies may not actually occur. Such prophecies come as warnings to mankind; if we repent, we can avert them.)

Based on this, the distinction we made between prophecy and dreams becomes very significant. Prophecy means that a prophet is standing here today being told what will occur tomorrow. “Tomorrow” is thus no longer indeterminate. It has been established already today; free will has been compromised. Dreams, by contrast, are an experience in which the dreamer actually experiences the future. Dreams are a beyond-time experience. The future has not been announced and brought down to the present. It is still the inchoate future, and so by definition – since free will exists – it can happen in more than one way.

This is the intent of the Talmud when it states that dreams follow their interpretation. A dream by definition can come true in more than one way. It is still a “future” experience, not yet compromised by entering the world of time. Thus, until an interpretation is offered – whether good or bad – a dream by its very nature must have two possible outcomes.

Joseph recognized that he was a dreamer. He had the ability to relate to the universe beyond time, to future events not yet conceived. When he received his prophetic dreams, he realized he could not just sit back and wait for them to occur. These were not prophecies of the future brought down to the world of time – which would transpire whether we cooperate with them or not. They were dreams. Joseph was being informed of his potential future – what might be if he would only exercise his free will to make it happen. Thus, Joseph realized he had to act on his dreams, to concretize his potential future and make it his reality.

The Talmud writes that a dream which is not interpreted is akin to an unread letter (Brachot 55a). A dream which is relegated to the world of dreams has never left the future and so has no impact on the present. Joseph thus realized that he had to publicize his dreams, to begin actualizing his future potential. Far from immaturely boasting his dreams of grandeur to his brothers, Joseph recognized that his future would only be his if he himself would make the effort.

Our dreams today may be more or less prophetic, depending on how much nonsense we fill our heads with during our waking hours. To some degree, it is in our hands to latch on to our nobler dreams – both our sleeping and our waking ones – and to put in our own effort into making them come true.

Significance of Dreams

Judaism sees dreams as usually inconsequential but once in a while significant. The Talmud (Brachot 55-57) discusses dreams at length and appears to make some contradictory statements about them. On the one hand, the Talmud calls dreams 1/60th of prophecy (57b). Likewise, in the Torah people such as Joseph and Pharaoh experienced prophetic dreams. The Talmud further lists many types of dreams (e.g. where a person sees certain objects or experiences certain events) and explains their significance.

On the other hand, the Talmud writes that the interpretation of dreams is in the hands of the interpreter (55b), and that an unexplained dream has no significance at all – as an unread letter (55a). The implication is that dreams are certainly not prophetic. They do not mean anything at all on their own. They can, however, be interpreted – and their interpretation will come true.

Finally, the Talmud states that people are shown in dreams that which they were thinking about during the day (55b), and that even significant dreams contain their share of nonsense (55a).

Based on the above, dreams appear to be a mixture of different elements. Most of our dreams are entirely insignificant – a simple rehashing of the hopes, worries and fantasies which occupied our minds during the day. Some, however, are not significant on their own but can potentially be – subject to their interpretation. (And in fact, the Talmud writes that many types of dreams usually mean one thing, but can be interpreted to mean something else.) Finally, some dreams may be the actual word of prophecy filtering through our consciousness, entering our dreams. (See Maharsha to Brachot 55b s.v. “she’kol”.)

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 18th century Italian rabbi, Kabbalist, and ethicist, explains the significance of dreams (Derech Hashem 3:1:6). When we sleep, most of what happens is that our bodies rest and our brains are given the chance to sort out the thoughts of our day.

However, something else occurs at the same time. The higher parts of our souls become slightly detached from our bodies. (This is why our first prayer upon awakening in the morning is thanking God for returning our souls to us (modeh ani). Only the lowest part of our souls – the “animal soul” all living creatures possess – stays with us overnight.) Once our souls depart our bodies, they are able to roam the spiritual planes of existence where they are most at home. While there, they may interact with other spiritual entities, such as angels, and may hear (or overhear) some of what the future holds in store for man. The message may be actual prophecy, or simply an omen – depending upon the level of being which communicates with the soul. That information might in turn trickle down into our consciousness and work their way into our dreams.

Thus, while dreaming, a person has the potential to become aware of future events which his waking soul would never be privy to – which will then become mixed in with the rest of the nonsense going through his dreaming mind.

As a result, our dreams could be significant, although they usually aren’t. Even when they are, most of what we see is not significant, yet within it, parts of it may be.

One more relevant point. If dreams are potentially prophetic, how does interpreting them change them? How can one take a bad dream and transform it by giving it a nice interpretation? Could a prophet “interpret” his prophecy in a nice way and change the future?

The answer is that even prophetic dreams are not absolute prophecy. They foreshadow a potential future but not events set in stone. And words are a powerful tool. If a person offers a compatible interpretation for a dream, his very words may direct the spiritual force of the dream differently and for the better.

(The ability to reinterpret a dream may depend how prophetic the dream is. The more prophetic the dream, the harder it is to transform it through our words. By contrast, a dream may not be prophetic at all, yet a person’s words can take the force of the dream and direct it, bringing its potential into the physical world. See again Maharsha to Brachot.)

Practically speaking, if you had a dream which is disturbing you, the first question to ask yourself is if you were thinking about anything relevant to it during the day. If you were worried about X, and then dream that X happens, that is most certainly your mind playing out your anxieties during the night. (The same is true if you were just overall depressed and afterwards have a depressing dream – even if not specifically related to what you were depressed about. Cf. Sha’ar Tziyun 220:1.)

If, however, the dream strikes out of nowhere, it might be more significant. A few other possible indications of significance appear in the Talmud (55b): if the dream repeats itself, is about other people, or is dreamt right before waking in the morning. In general, rabbis today do not recommend taking dreams that seriously. Our minds are filled with too many worries and too much nonsense. Bad dreams are much more likely to be figments of our own anxieties rather than messages from angels. Yet again, significant dreams do at times occur. I personally have a sense for when my dreams are significant. If they are bad dreams, I wake up the next day depressed and worried.³

If you had a disturbing dream which you think might be significant, Jewish law outlines a few means of mollifying its effects:

(a) Reciting the “amelioration of dreams” prayer. This may be found in any complete prayer book, together with the relevant instructions. The prayer consists primarily of statements and verses which state that the dream was a positive one. It is recited before 3 friends, some parts of the prayer recited by the dreamer and some by the friends (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 220:1).

(b) The Talmud states that fasting the day after a disturbing dream is especially effective, and that one should do so even on Shabbat if the dream occurred Friday night (Shabbat 11a). In practice, since we generally do not take our dreams that seriously today, we need not fast. However, in lieu of fasting it would be appropriate to give charity, study extra Torah, and refrain from wasteful speech (Piskei Teshuvot 220:1).


¹ You can read (or download in PDF) Freud's book The Interpretation of Dreams at this link: Alternatively you can ask me to email it to you as a PDF attachment.
² Based primarily on thoughts heard from my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of the Talmudic University of Florida.
³ On this see also Rabbi Berel Wein's explanation here: