A Jewish view on dreams

Friday, 15 May, 2009 - 10:05 am

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 Dream (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 G-d and G-d 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, 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.

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