Dream Interpretations

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by R. Gil Student

Our dreams intrigue us and sometimes haunt us. Often, they challenge us to try to understand their meaning. Granted, not all dreams contain a divine message. As we discussed earlier, today almost all dreams are products of the messages that are hurled at us non-stop all day. But let’s assume that a specific dream is, indeed, a message from Heaven. How can we understand that message? The Gemara offers us a simple method to find the actual meaning of a dream. Yet, it is so simple that it is hard to believe it works.

I. Do Dreams Have Meanings?

The Gemara (Berakhos 55b) says that all dreams follow the mouth, meaning that whatever interpretation is said out loud will come true. R. Bana’ah (who lived during the transitional period between Tanna’im and Amora’im) tells of his personal experience with a dream. He once went around Yerushalayim to all of the twenty four dream interpreters to ask them about a dream of his. Each one interpreted the dream differently — and all the interpretations came true!

Similarly, the Gemara (Berakhos 56a) tells how Abaye and Rava had the same dream (or dreams). They each went to Bar Hedya, a dream interpreter. However, Abaye paid Bar Hedya for his services while Rava got a free interpretation. Because Abaye paid him, Bar Hedya interpreted his dream as a sign of good things, all of which came true. He interpreted Rava’s same dream as a sign for bad things, all of which came true. This teaches us that dreams follow how people interpret them.

But if this is the case, do dreams mean anything at all? Is there any message in them if they are so malleable? Tosafos (ad loc., 55b s.v. posrei) quote Ri as saying that not just anyone can interpret dreams. You have to be born with the talent. Similarly, Rav Ya’akov of Marvege, in his Responsa Min HaShamayim (no. 22), asked in a dream (!) about dream interpreters and was told that not everyone can interpret dreams, only those born with the talent. This still leaves the main question open. There are three main approaches to this subject.

II. Three Approaches

Rav Eliyahu HaCohen (18th cen., Turkey), the author of Shevet Mussar, discusses this subject at length in his commentary to the aggadata in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Aggadas Eliyahu,Ma’aser Sheini 4:6). He explains that when someone receives a bad dream, that is a message of a punishment to come. Of course, you can change your ways and do teshuvah, which will prevent the punishment. If you find a legitimate dream interpreter who interprets the dream favorably, you will experience the good outcome but it will end up being a punishment in the end. For example, you might have dreamed that you would become poor but someone interpreted it in the reverse. If so, you will become rich, but the wealth will lead to misery.

Rav Yitzchak Arama (15th cen., Spain; Akeidas Yitzchak, no. 29) takes a different approach. He says that every dream that contains a message has many implications that come true, some good and some bad. A wise interpreter will point out the good things, which focuses your attention on them. When the good outcome arrives, you see this as a good dream that comes true. Good things and bad things happen to us all the time. How many of them were predicted in dreams? You will take the bad things as merely part of life, unconnected to the dream, and the good things as a fulfillment of the dream. An interpreter could easily do the reverse, focusing your attention on just the bad so you see a bad dream coming true. In other words, the interpreter does not change the outcome but merely focuses your attention.

Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (16th cen., Turkey; Yefeh To’ar, Bereishis Rabbah 89:10) explains based on Ramban’s commentary to the Torah (Gen. 12:6). Ramban says that a prophecy may or not come true, depending on whether someone sins or improves his ways. However, if the prophet performs a symbolic act, a po’el dimyon, that serves to concretize the prophecy so it definitely comes true. Similarly, suggests Rav Ashkenazi, an interpretation concretizes a dream so that it definitely comes true.

According to Rav Eliyahu HaCohen, an interpreter can change the outcome of a dream but not the ultimate judgement. According to Rav Yitzchak Arama, an interpreter cannot change the outcome of a dream and can only change the perception of a dream. According to Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi, an interpreter can ensure that a dream comes true.

III. Dreams Today

In today’s world, we face two obstacles to dream interpretations. First, most dreams are caused by the constant news and information with which we are bombarded in this fast paced world (see Piskei Teshuvos 220:1). Dreams represent the ideas floating around our conscious and subconscious.

Additionally, it is not clear that today we have any legitimate interpreters. Rav Boaz Shalom (cont. Israel), in his encyclopedic work on dream interpretation Mishnas Ha-Chalomos (pp. 557-559), quotes Torah leaders of the previous generation — Rav Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler), Rav Elazar Shach, Rav Bentzion Abba Shaul — who warned against going to contemporary dream interpreters and Kabbalists. Too often, these “charlatans” (his word) cause real damage by encouraging people to reject good shidduchim or to engage in a risky business deal. He directs people to the approbations to Rav Ya’akov Hillel’s Tamim Tihyeh for a long list of those opposed to dream interpretations today. Rather, as Rav Ovadiah Yosef (Beis Ha-Yayin, p. 195) suggests, the proper response to a bad dream is to say the biblical phrase (Zech. 10::2), “Va-chalomos ha-shav yedabeiru, and the dreams speak falsely” and that is all (ve-zehu).

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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five 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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