Dreams, Social Media and Jewish Law

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by R. Gil Student

Dreams are a common part of daily life to which the Talmudic Sages attribute great importance. They see in dreams both danger and opportunity, and therefore created three ceremonies or opportunities to rid ourselves of bad omens in dreams. However, on a more careful look, we find conflicting thoughts about dreams in the Talmud and a steadily decreasing concern for them over the ages. As the centuries passed, life changed dramatically and dreams seemed to lose some of their importance. Does that affect halakhah?

I. Responding to Dreams

The Gemara (Shabbos 11a) says that fasting is effective to neutralize a bad dream like a fire burns kindling. If you have a bad dream, you may fast even on Shabbos, a day on which fasting is normally forbidden. Another option is mentioned in a different Gemara (Berakhos 55b). If you have a bad dream that bothers you, you should gather three friends and have them interpret it positively, i.e. tell you that it is really a good dream. This will eliminate the negative impact of the dream. A further practice is to recite a standard formula during the priestly blessings (Birkas Kohanim) asking for positive outcomes from your dreams.

This all implies a serious concern for dreams. Similarly, the Gemara (Nedarim 8a) says that if you are excommunicated in a dream, you should gather ten men to undo the excommunication. The commentators (Ran and Rosh, ad loc.) say that even though this occurred only in a dream, we are concerned that you were excommunicated in Heaven.

And yet, another passage indicates a different attitude. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 30a) says that if your father comes to you in a dream and says that certain money he left for you is forbidden for specific reasons, you can ignore the dream because “Matters in a dream have neither positive nor negative impact (divrei chalomos lo ma’alin ve-lo yordin).” We do not rely on dreams for practical matters; therefore you can safely ignore them.

In a different instance, a legal guardian for orphans was selling their land for a reckless investment, to which R. Meir objected (Gittin 52a). R. Meir saw in a dream that this reckless sale was desired by Heaven but he continued in his opposition because, “Matters in a dream have neither positive nor negative impact.” But if dreams have no practical impact, why do we have different options for trying to neutralize them including fasting on Shabbos?

II. Are Dreams Important?

Rav Shimon Ben Tzemach Duran (Rashbatz, 15th cen., Algeria; Responsa Tashbetz 2:128) suggests that the case in Sanhedrin involves someone else dreaming about your father saying that the money is forbidden. We do not believe someone else’s dreams about you. However, we believe a dream that you have about yourself. While that might explain the passage in Sanhedrin, in Gittin R. Meir dreamed about himself and still ignored his dream.

Rather, he quotes Rava (Berakhos 55b) who contrasts two verses. On the one hand, God says “I speak with him in a dream” (Num. 12:6), implying that there is divine truth in a dream. On the other hand, “the dreams speak falsely” (Zech. 10:12). Rava answers that dreams transmitted by angels are true but those transmitted by demons are not. According to Rashbatz, the angel here means divine providence and the demon means an unhealthy imagination for any of a number of reasons. In other words, some dreams are true — messages from Heaven — and some are false, caused by psychological forces, physiological phenomena or otherwise. Therefore, we are left in doubt whether any specific dream is true. We do not divest someone of money for a doubtful claim; therefore dreams have no impact on monetary matters. However, when something is forbidden and easily remedied, we put in the effort to make it permissible when there is even a doubt. Therefore, you should undo an excommunication that occurs in a dream or fast to neutralize dream.

In Medieval times, we start to find authorities questioning whether people still have bad dreams that emerge from a divine source. The Tur (15th cen., Germany/Spain; Orach Chaim 568) quotes R. Amram, R. Kalonymus and R. Eliezer Ben Yoel (Ra’aviah) who say that today (in their day), we do not know which dreams are truly bad and therefore you should not fast on Shabbos over a dream. Rav Yosef Karo (16th cen., Israel; Beis Yosef, ad loc.) quotes other Medieval authorities with similar hesitations but Rav Karo (Shulchan Arukh, ad loc., 5; 288:4-5) does not follow those authorities completely, and allows fasting on Shabbos for dreams listed in the Talmud. We find additional concerns in later generations.

III. Should We Worry About Dreams?

Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 288:7) quotes approvingly Rav Yeshayahu Horowitz (17th cen., Germany; Shenei Luchos Ha-Beris, Shabbos, s.v. ve-sa’anis chalom) who says that you should not fast on Shabbos for any dream. Rav Ovadiah Yosef (21st cen., Israel; Yechaveh Da’as 4:24) quotes Rav Horowitz as going even further (I could not find this passage). Rav Horowitz quotes the Gemara (Pesachim 110b) about a demonic problem of doing things in even numbers (such as drinking 2 or 4 cups). The Gemara says that someone who is concerned about this will be taken to task for doing it; someone who is not concerned for this will not face negative repercussions. If you are worried about doing things in even numbers, then if for some reason you drink 2 cups (rather than 1 or 3), then the demons will make trouble for you. If you don’t care, then it doesn’t matter if you drink 2 cups. Rav Horowitz says the same applies to bad dreams — if they worry you, then you need to be concerned and possibly fast over them. If you aren’t worried about a bad dream, then you have no reason for concern.[1]See also Responsa Rivash, no. 513.

But can you control whether you are scared by a bad dream? We can assume that bad dreams are not from a divine source. Therefore, Rav Ovadiah Yosef (ibid.) concludes by quoting Rav Chaim Palaggi (19th cen., Turkey; Ruach Chaim 288:1) that if you have a bad dream on Shabbos, rather than fasting you should say extra Tehillim and study Torah diligently. Elsewhere, Rav Yosef seems unconcerned with bad dreams, almost as if they are a practical joke on you that you should ignore (Beis Ha-Yayin, Yamim Nora’im, pp. 195-196). You should just say the verse “the dreams speak falsely” or, if you are very worried, take the standard formula (Ribbono Shel Olam) that is used for Birkas Kohanim, and say it on your own on any day, even without Birkas Kohanim. And, if you are very worried and you are greatly pained, then you may follow the Gemara and fast on Shabbos (fulfilling all the halakhic details).

Going even further, Rav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (Chazon Ish, 20th cen., Israel; Kovetz Iggeros Chazon Ish, vol. 2, no. 149) writes briefly that personally he just ignores his bad dreams. He continues that if you have a bad dream, say the Ribbono Shel Olam and move on with your day. We cannot just tell someone not to worry about their dream but we can redirect them to a brief verse or prayer.

Rav Simcha Rabinowitz (cont., Israel; Piskei Teshuvos 220:1) explains Chazon Ish’s approach. In modern times, people are busier and their lives are more filled with global concerns than in ancient times. Nowadays, dreams are about what we hear during our busy days and the concerns we face in our lives. Therefore, we should not pay much attention to our dreams because they are not divine predictions about the future. Rather, they are manifestations of our thoughts, which might give insight into our psychological well-being but will not tell us what will happen in the future.

The Chazon Ish died in 1953. At that time, there were daily newspapers and radio programs so that modern media was spreading news quickly. I am old enough to remember when, if you wanted to get the latest news, you had to watch the news at certain times or listen to the radio every twenty two minutes. And if you wanted to check stock prices, you had to read the morning newspaper. Then came 24-hour news channels and financial news. Then came the internet, with breaking news and real-time financial information. Now we have social media, with constant updates and opinions. The pace of life today is much faster than it was forty years ago, and even more so than it was four hundred years ago. Modern communication brings us so much news and information that overwhelm our dreams. If you are worried that your dreams might come true, you can recite the specific verses or formulas about dreams. However, according to Chazon Ish and others, there is no need to do so.


1See also Responsa Rivash, no. 513.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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