An overview of Freud & Jewish interpretations of dreams

Thursday, 18 June, 2009 - 7:35 am

The theory of dreams has been a very intriguing and mysterious subject since time immemorial, concerning which there are still many divergent opinions. Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) described dreams as ‘the royal road to the activities of the unconscious mind’. Earlier Freud explained dreams as wish fulfilment or instincts. He also believed that some dreams are not necessarily products of the dynamic unconscious but simply the products of recent experience.


The common denominator in Freud’s theories is that dreams reflect nothing but the self.


This is in contrast to the Jewish view of dreams expressed in the Talmud that dreams can have a particular objective meaning that can be interpreted to refer to an event in the world or an occurrence that might happen to the person.


The Talmudic view, by absence of mention, seems to negate the possibility that a dream is presented to a person merely as a reflection of the unconscious self. According to Freud there is no concept of a good dream or a bad dream. A bad dream is only a distortion of a bad experience the person had rather than a bad omen for the person. Judaism on the other hand has instituted fasting for bad dreams to prevent them from happening (Tanit Chalom).


To be sure, Freud did believe in the concept of ‘dreamwork’, which includes displacement, condensation and symbolization. Displacement occurs when one object comes to represent another. Condensation is when a dream analysis can be many times longer that the account of the dream itself; when the manifest content of a dream is normally an abbreviation of the latent content and symbolization is when one object can represent another in a dream, and that the symbol tends to be an innocuous object sharing some characteristic of the affective object.


However, the theory of dreamwork according to Freud is all in the context of the interpretation of dreams reflecting the self, either the unconscious self or recent experiences but not something objective.


I will present a number of types of dreams based on Jewish thought, which all seem opposed to Freud’s theories on dreams.


The first kind of dream is prophetic about the future. In Jewish teaching there are Biblical prophetic dreams, as in Joseph’s dreams of the eleven stars and sun and the moon all bowing down to him (Genesis 37:9). This predicted the rise of Joseph to greatness. Pharaoh’s dreams predicted the years of plenty and the famine (Genesis 40:1-7).


These dreams, although they use some of the methods of dreamwork, as the use of stars for the brothers of Jacob and the sun and the moon for the patriarch Jacob and matriarch Rachel, their interpretation is typically in a manifest form, whereby the bowing down to Joseph’s star overtly refers to domination and subservience.




According to the Rabbi Isaac Abrabanel (1437 - 1508), the difficulty that occurred with interpreting Pharaoh’s dream by the necromancers (Genesis 41:8) was that they applied the various rules of dreamwork to them, when really the dreams were meant to have been understood in their manifest form; emaciated cows mean famine and fat cows mean plenty. They instead applied the method of symbolization that they meant daughters of Pharaoh being born and buried or cities being conquered and revolting (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 89:6).


Another possibility (Lekutei Sichot Vol. 15, p. 348) is that the necromancers understood that the dreams were meant to have been interpreted in their manifest form but did not fully comprehend the juxtaposition of the fat cows and emaciated cows existing simultaneously, represented by the emergence of the emaciated cows and standing next to the fat cows on the bank of the river (Genesis 40:3). This seems to present the possibility of two conflicting events, famine and plenty, existing simultaneously; an impossibility.


The wisdom of Joseph then was his explanation in this regard. He explained that the preparation for the years of famine needs to commence during the famine years (41:34). By offering this suggestion, it wasn’t Joseph offering his unsolicited advice how he thinks Pharaoh should run his country’s affairs, but rather as part of the interpretation of the dream itself.


According to this analysis, it was his insight in interpreting the details of the dreams that brought him to become ruler over Egypt, under Pharaoh, rather than merely his identification of the dream type.


A more simplistic approach might be the fact that Pharaoh merely preferred the interpretation of Joseph over his necromancers with no relation to the method or any deep insight in particular. If we assume that dreams are dependent on its interpretation, there can then conceivably be more than one potential interpretation to a dream, as indeed the necromancers had more than one interpretation on offer. Accordingly, it could be that it wasn’t due to any particular ingenuity that Pharaoh saw in Joseph’s dream interpretation but rather mere preference.


This theory is based on the statement in the Talmud that “dreams follow the mouth” (Berachot 55b). This implies that dreams can be analysed in different ways and depending on the acceptance of the dreamer of one of these interpretations as the true interpretation so will be the actualization of the dream.


This however can hardy be the case in the dream of Pharaoh, as he would have unlikely dismissed the interpretations of his professional necromancers to be replaced by a Hebrew slave due only to his preference for a likable interpretation. He would have rather chosen the least evil interpretation of his necromancers rather than summon a slave from prison for help. It seems obvious that the reason for choosing Joseph’s interpretation was due to his belief that his dream had a single correct interpretation which had not been provided by the necromancers.


Multiple interpretations in reality


There is the possibility, according to the Talmud, that a dream can have more than one correct interpretation that is consistent with the content of a dream. The Talmud states (Berachot 56a) “once I dreamt a dream and went round to all (twenty four) dream interpreters in Jerusalem. They all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled, thus confirming that which is said: All dreams follow the mouth.”


Furthermore, there are a number of examples in which the two sages had the same dream and their dreams were interpreted differently. The sages “Rabba and Abaye said to an interpreter, in our dream we had to read the verse, Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, etc. To Raba he said, your business will be a failure, and you will be so grieved that you will have no appetite to eat. To Abaye he said, your business will prosper, and you will not be able to eat from sheer joy.


They then said to him “we had to read in our dream the verse, Thou shalt beget sons and daughters but they shall not be thine, etc. To Raba he interpreted it in its literal unfavourable sense. To Abaye he said, you have numerous sons and daughters, and your daughters will be married and go away, and it will seem to you as if they have gone into captivity.”


They then said to him “we were made to read the verse, Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people. To Abaye he said, you will have numerous sons and daughters; you will want your daughters to marry your relatives, and your wife will want them to marry her relatives, and she will force you to marry them to her relatives, which will be like giving them to another people. To Raba he said, your wife will die, and her sons and daughters will come under the sway of another wife“.


They further said “we were made to read in our dream the verse, Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, etc. To Abaye he said, your business will prosper, and you will eat and drink, and recite this verse out of the joy of your heart. To Raba he said, your business will fail, you will slaughter cattle and not eat or drink and you will read Scripture to allay your anxiety.”


It is clear that these interpretations are based on symbolizations and reflect not the inner conscious of the person but about possible objective reality.


Recent experiences


There is also the belief in Jewish teaching that dreams don’t have any meaning whatsoever and are merely products of thoughts one had during the day. The Talmud says (Berachot 56a) “R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan, a man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts. This is proved by the fact that a man is never shown in a dream a date palm of gold, or an elephant going through the eye of a needle because he never thinks of such things.


The Emperor of Rome said to R. Joshua b. R. Hananyah, you, Jews, profess to be very clever. Tell me what I shall see in my dream. He said to him, you will see the Persians making you do forced labour, and despoiling you and making you feed unclean animals with a golden crook. He thought about it all day, and in the night he saw it in his dream. King Shapor once said to Samuel, you, Jews, profess to be very clever. Tell me what I shall see in my dream. He said to him, you will see the Romans coming and taking you captive and making you grind date-stones in a golden mill. He thought about it the whole day and in the night saw it in a dream.”


This is consistent with Freud who suggests that dreams can merely be products of recent conscious thoughts or experiences.


A commonality between Freud and the Talmud is that dreams can be meaningful to the person. According to Freud dreams are healing for a person. They help a person struggle with powerful unconscious urges, as anxiety, unfulfilled wishes that the person cannot have in reality or helps the person cope with a traumatic event.


The Talmud seems to see dreams as either merely products of conscious thoughts during the day or a form of insight into the future, which either have a fixed interpretation or multiple possible interpretations (Maharsha Berachot 57).


Dream dictionaries


This latter category is the basis for the authorship of many books on dreams and dictionaries of dream interpretation, as Ten thousand dreams interpreted by Gustavus Hindman Miller, 1901. These books take a similar method of approach to dreams as the Talmud and many interpretations can be probably dated back to the Talmudic era, 5th century. The difference seems to be only the method of interpreting symbols.


In Ten thousand dreams interpreted it says “if one sees beetles on your person, it denotes poverty and small ills. To kill them is good. It states further, bees signify pleasant and profitable engagements. For an officer, it brings obedient subjects and healthful environments. To a preacher, many new members and a praying congregation. To business men, increase in trade. To parents, much pleasure from dutiful children. If one stings, loss or injury will bear upon you from a friendly source. Another interpretation states, if one sees a Jew’s harp in a dream, it foretells you will experience a slight improvement in your affairs. To play one is a sign you will fall in love with a stranger.”


Freud was irritated by dream dictionaries. However, these interpretations are actually similar to the Talmudic approach. The only difference is that the dream dictionaries use logic, whereas the Talmud reflects the context of Biblical versus, the Hebrew language, in addition to logic.


For example, the Talmud relates that “a man came to an interpreter and said I dreamt that both my hands were cut off. He replied you will not require the labour of your hands. He said to him, I dreamt that both my legs were cut off. He replied you will ride on horseback.”  This seems to be a logical interpretation.


The following is based on the Hebrew language: “He said to an interpreter, I dreamt that they said to me, you will die in the Hebrew month of Adar (March) and not see the Hebrew month of Nisan (April). He replied: You will die in all honour (in Aramaic adrutha, route of the word Adar, means honour), and not be brought into temptation (in Hebrew nisayon, which means test is related to the word Nisan).”


The following is based on a Biblical verse: “R. Hanina said if one sees a well in a dream, he will behold peace, since it says ‘And Isaac's servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water’. R. Nathan said: He will find Torah, since it says, ‘Whoso findeth me findeth life’ and it is written here, ‘a well of living water’.”


Both these methods have commonality in the sense that they both allow for dreams to be understood as insight into an objective reality in the future.


Reflections of the past


A similar approach of the Talmud to dreams is not necessarily insight into the future but reflecting past actions of the person, regarding which a person might feel guilty. This might be similar to Freud that dreams help a person express unconscious feelings, although he does not talk about guilt in particular.


The Talmud relates “a certain heretic said to R. Ishmael, I saw myself in a dream pouring oil on olives. He replied this man has outraged his mother. He said to him, I dreamt I plucked a star. He replied you have stolen an Israelite. He said to him, I dreamt that I swallowed the star. He replied you have sold an Israelite and consumed the proceeds.


He said to him, I dreamt that my eyes were kissing one another. He replied this man has outraged his sister. He said to him, I dreamt that I kissed the moon. He replied he has outraged the wife of an Israelite. He said to him, I dreamt that I was walking in the shade of a myrtle. He replied he has outraged a betrothed damsel. He said to him, I dreamt that there was a shade above me, and yet it was beneath me. He replied it means unnatural intercourse. He said to him, I saw pigeons keep on coming to my bed. He replied you have defiled many women.


He said to him, I dreamt that I took two doves and they flew away. He replied you have married two wives and dismissed them without a bill of divorce. He said to him, I dreamt that I was shelling eggs. He replied you have been stripping the dead.


He then said to him, you are right in all of these, except the last of which I am not guilty. Just then a woman came and said to him: This cloak which you are wearing belonged to so-and-so who is dead, and you have stripped it from him."


Now, it is unclear whether these dreams regarding past actions of the person reflect the unconscious mind with the purpose of possibly relieving guilt or refecting a traumatic experience, or merely the conscious mind reflecting his daytime thoughts.


It would seem that from the final case, in which he was accused of stripping the dead, he was indeed unaware of his actions. He otherwise wouldn’t have admitted to the other episodes but not the stripping of the dead, as it would have been obvious that he was lying. As his other actions were revealed by the dream, so would have the stripping of the dead been true. It was rather that he was truly unaware of the fact that he stripped the dead (he simply bought the garment unknowingly) and this was being told to him in a dream. This would likely also be the concept behind the other dreams that although they are about his past actions, they are viewed as deliberate messages relayed to the person through dreams.


It is unclear whether it can be construed as support for the theory of dreams as a product of the dynamic unconscious mind.


However, in the final analysis, one can equally say that independent of the dream of the stripping of the dead, the other dreams about past possible trauma related actions like outraging a betrothed damsel or dismissing wives and remarrying without a divorce could have caused repression of thoughts and feelings and discharged themselves in a dream.


This could then conceivaby be entirely consistent with Freud's theory of dreams as the pathway to the unconcious mind.


Contemporary Jewish sources for theories on dreams


Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch (1773-1827) wrote a profound theory regarding dreams that predates Freud but is strikingly similar. This is even more interesting as there has been much written on Freud and Hasidism by psychoanalyst Dr. Joseph Burke, David Bakan (Sigmund Freud and The Jewish Mystical Tradition 1957) and others, suggesting that Hasidism had some influence on his theories.


Rabbi Dov Ber bases his discourse on the verse in Psalms (ch. 126:1) “When G-d returned the captivity of Zion we were like dreamers”. As the verse compares dreams to exile, it offers insight into the concept and meaning of dreams through which we are able to understand the spiritual challenges of exile.


Rabbi Dov Ber points out a number of observations regarding dreams. He says dreams are not logical and orderly thoughts but rather conflicting and confused. A person can, in a dream, be deeply emotionally distressed to the degree of weeping profusely in one moment and then happy and joyful a moment later.


Dreams also exaggerate. One can appear to be flying in the air, which is impossible in reality.


He explains that everything that occurs in a dream is based on truth. It reflects some experience the person must have had in the past, ether during the day the person had the dream or over a few days or longer. These thoughts become condensed in a very short amount of time in a dream. This is similar to what Freud referred to as condensation.


Dream interpretation, then, according to Rabbi Dov Ber is to sort out these disparate events and identify them in the person’s life. Regarding things which have no resemblance to a former action, he says they are representation ‘by comparison or deduced from a comparison’, but they ultimately must have a relation to aspects of the person’s thoughts or actions in the past.


The condensation of the dream which produces conflicting feelings of joy and sorrow moments apart is what is found in the spiritual concept of exile. A person can easily be confused with propensities to good and evil moments apart. A person can desire the spiritual one moment and a moment later be transformed to an uncontrollable materialistic person with beastly desires. He explains that it is due to the concealment of G-d in this world that allows for confusion between good and bad and for them to exist almost simultaneously in a person’s life.


Rabbi Dov Ber continues to analyse the confusion that appears in dreams further by explaining that it is due to one’s physiology. It is the person’s diet that confuses the mind in a dream with a distortion of reality. He suggests that if a person would be able to refine the self to the degree that the person it dominated not by the physiology but by the mind and soul, his or her dreams would be with clarity and meaningful.


He agrees with the Talmud that every dream is mixed with some nonsense. The Talmud says, “what is the connection of straw and wheat with a dream? The truth is, said R. Johanan in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai that just as wheat cannot be without straw, so there cannot be a dream without some nonsense.”


This, Rabbi Dov Ber explains, is due to the physiology of the body. The more the person is dominated by the mind, rather than body, dreams will not include nonsense and will need less expert interpretation, as the meanings will be unconfused and true reflections of the person’s real life.


He maintains that dreams are the purest state of the person’s mind that is expressed when asleep, when unencumbered by the reality of the world and the needs of the body.


He concludes by saying that since all dreams take place in a state of sleep, which is when the conscious mind and all other faculties of the person, including movement, speech, active thought, emotions, feelings and desires have limited function, dreams are therefore just the product of the power of imagination, the lowest of all faculties. The source of dreams, however, is what he Kabalistically describes as Makifim, the product of the unconscious soul, which transcends the mind and all the other faculties of the person. This, he says, is one of the reasons why dreams appear disorderly and confused, as they transcend the conscious mind, which is defined by order.


This theory seems strikingly similar to Freud’s theory of dreams as products of the unconscious mind and self.


It is clear that there are many different types of dreams and the Talmud mainly reflects dreams in terms of knowledge imparted to a person in the form of a symbolic dream, although it also implies the possibility of dreams being the product of the unconscious, as mentioned earlier.


The explanation for the category of objective dreams related in the Talmud, can, I believe, also be elucidated by Rabbi Dov Ber’s analysis. He explains that when a person’s existence becomes unencumbered by ones physiology and dominated by the mind, dreams can reveal to the person existences not just relating to the person’s material thoughts in the past in a clear manner and not just the unconscious realities of the past but also things which are totally beyond one’s natural ability to perceive. This can indeed be produced in the form of knowledge of present reality or even future reality.


Although Freud only relates to inner knowledge of the unconscious self through dreams, Rabbi Dov Ber takes this concept a step further implying an idea that Freud would not have necessarily disagreed with.


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