The knowledge of the Sages on matters of dreams and their interpretation
“Rava found a contradiction between the verses: It is written ‘In a dream I shall speak to him’ (Numbers 12:6) and it is written ‘And the dreams speak falsely’ (Zacariah 10:2). It is no question. Once it is from an angel and once from a demon.” (Tractate Berachot 55b).
In this essay we will present to you, the student who seeks truth, the words of our rabbis on the matter of dreams. We will see that all which is said is only from their own knowledge and whimsy. They contradict themselves and say something, its opposite, and the opposite of its opposite, all at the same time. You will see with your own eyes how the whole issue of interpreting dreams and their “veracity” is nonsense. Nothing about dreams and their interpretation can be learned from our rabbis.
According to the gemara above, there are two types of dreams:
A dream from an angel–a dream which will come true. About this the Scriptures wrote, “In a dream I shall speak to him.”
A dream from a demon–will not come true. About this the Scriptures wrote: “And the dreams speak falsely.”
Come see something wonderful. We have already written in the essay on prophecy that it is impossible to judge if a prophet is true, and here–it’s the rule about dreams. It is written (Genesis 28:11-20) “And he lay down in that place and dreamed…and G-d stood above him and said I am G-d, the Lord of Abraham….and I will watch you wherever you may roam…and Jacob made a vow, saying if G-d will be with me and watch me along the road.” We see that Jacob our forefather actually doubts G-d’s promise which came to him in a dream. He says, “If the Lord will watch me” and is not certain of the Lord’s promise at all. In the essay on prophecy we wrote that Chazal answered “lest the sin void it,” but the Zohar has a different explanation. Zohar, part one, page 52b: “And Jacob made a vow, saying ‘if G-d will be with me’…Rabbi Judah said that since the holy One, blessed be He, promised to watch Jacob, why did he not believe, to the extent that he said ‘if G-d will be with me’? Jacob knew that there are true dreams and dreams which are not true, and therefore he said that if the dream comes true he would know that it had been true.”
How amazing! Jacob our forefather, to whom G-d revealed Himself in a dream, woke, and it is written, “And Jacob arose from his slumber and said G-d is indeed in this place and I did not know” (Genesis 28:16). Even so, he cast doubt on the dream that he dreamt, fearing that a demon misled him. Simply put, if our forefathers didn’t know how to tell which were G-dly dreams and which came from demons, the Talmudic sages certainly did not know. But they are like all theologians who balk at nothing–even if they don’t understand what they speak about.
See what else our rabbis said about dreams:
A dream is realized according to its interpretation–Berachot 55b: “There were 24 dream interpreters in Jerusalem. Once I dreamed a dream and went to all of them. What one said the next did not–and all came true, to uphold what is said: All dreams follow the mouth.” Here our rabbis literally disaffirm that dreams can have true content and determine that the dream “comes true” through its interpretation (and if it has multiple interpretations, it will “come true” several times…). How do those who speak of “the truth of dreams” take this? Don’t worry. Our interpreting rabbis will do anything to uphold the words of their predecessors. Explains the Maharsha: “‘All dreams’…and according to [what the Talmud says on] the issue, there are three types of dreams: one follows the mouth and without an interpretation is neither good nor bad…these are those dreams which come from a demon… the second kind has an interpretation close to the truth and will come about without getting an interpretation. This is the kind of dream Pharaoh’s two eunuchs had…this dream comes from the Heavenly realm. The third is dreams which have only one true interpretation which does not change, like the dream of Joseph the righteous, and it comes from an angel…” The Maharsha didn’t have enough demons on the one hand and angels on the other, so he went and added another type of dream, which comes from the “Heavenly realm.” We do not know what this “Heavenly realm” is. Perhaps there demons and angels work hand-in-hand.
Ibn Ezra wrote explicitly on Genesis 40:8, “The saying that ‘all dreams follow the mouth’ is a single opinion” — that is, this opinion simply is not true.
Dreams which come from the heart’s reflections— We place before you the words of one of our rabbis, who shows that dreams have no real meaning and that one need not treat them seriously, for they only express a man’s inner feelings. Berachot 55b: “Rabbi Samuel the son of Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: A man is only shown his heart’s reflections…Rabba said: know that the proof of this is that a man is not shown, in his dreams, a golden palm nor an elephant entering the eye of a needle.” But it seems that this rule is not always used by the Sages. Look and see what Rav Ashi relates about himself (Berachot 57a): “One who sees a goose in a dream may expect wisdom…and if he has intercourse with it, he will be the head of a yeshiva. Rav Ashi said ‘I saw her and had intercourse with her, and I rose to greatness’.” Oh, what a wonderful dream did Rav Ashi have: He had sex with a goose! And then he went and hung on this act of intercourse with a bird a Heavenly sign that he was fit to be head of a yeshiva. Why didn’t the Sages think about saying he dreamed about a goose because of his own heart’s reflections? (Indeed, there are heads of yeshivot in our days for whose rise to greatness this is the only possible explanation.) Similarly about acts of incest in dreams: (Berachot 57a) “One who sleeps with his mother may expect wisdom, as is said (Ecclesiastes 2:3) ‘For if (im) to wisdom he is called.’ [Notice that the word in the verse is im, meaning “if.” Our rabbis turned this into em, meaning “mother.”] One who has intercourse with a betrothed girl (me’orasa) may expect Torah, as is said (Deuteronomy 33:4) ‘Moses gave the Torah to us, a heritage (morasha) to the community of Jacob.’ Do not read it morasha but me’orasa.” Here, too, our rabbis interpret dreams from explication of verses, changing and distorting. See what we wrote in the essay Poetical Rhetoric about the explication “do not read thus, but thus.”
There is no limit to what can be loaded onto the back of a dream. We will bring an example of how our rabbis indulge in polemics about dreams (Berachot 56b): “One who sees an elephant in a dream will have wonders performed for him. [One who sees] elephants, major wonders are performed for him. Yet, we have learnt that all sorts of animals are good to see in dreams aside from elephants and monkeys. There is no question: one is saddled [with a saddle on his back–Rashi] and the other one is not.”
Here is the big question: What about someone who sees elephants in his dream, some saddled and some not? (Or, as the mathematicians say, what is the functional expression which balances the number of saddled elephants in a dream and the wonders which will be performed for the dreamer?) There is no end to the nonsense.
There is no dream without frivolity–after our Sages said that there are dreams which are true (sent by an angel) and they said that there is no dream which is true (it is only the heart’s reflections), now come see that there are dreams which are only partly true. Tractate Berachot 55a: “Rabbi Jonathan, quoting Rabbi Simon the son of Yochai, said that just as there is no wheat without chaff, so is there no dream without frivolity. Rabbi Berachya said: a dream, even if some of it comes true, does not come true. How do you know? From Joseph, of whom it is written (Genesis 37:9) ‘Here is the sun and the moon…’ [we see that even a dream sent by an angel has frivolity].”
Therefore it is no wonder that things get more and more confused. Come see how absurd things get. Nedarim 8a: “Rav Joseph said: If one was excommunicated in a dream, he needs ten men to release the ban…If he dreams that his ban was released, does he need that it be released [by people]? They told him, just as there is no wheat without chaff, there is no dream without frivolity.” Thus, too, ruled the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 334, section 35: “If one was excommunicated in a dream he must get the ban on him released. If the ban was released in a dream, it does not help.”
Dreams which do not make a difference–The gates of confusion are still not closed. What do we have? Dreams from an angel are true and dreams from a demon are lies; all dreams are lies (and are the heart’s reflections); all dreams are part true and part lies; now we have dreams which might be true and might be false, but don’t make a difference! Sanhedrin 30a: “One who grieved for the monies his father left him and in the dream he is told: They are here, in this place, and they are of the second tithe –this happened, and they said to him: dreams do not make a difference.” Thus ruled Maimonides in Laws of the Second Tithe and Fourth-Year Seedlings, chapter six, halacha six: “One who is told in a dream, ‘Your father’s second tithe, which you have been looking for, is in this place’ — Though he finds there what he was told he would, he does not tithe it, for dreams do not make a difference.”
If you are puzzled how this can be reconciled with the Sages requiring a man be released from a dream-ban, it is simple: If the dream came from an angel the dream is true, and if it comes from a demon the dream is nonsense, and thus the Tashbetz reconciles the matter in his Responsa, part two, paragraph 128: “They, OBM, saw and realized that there are dreams which should be relied upon and heeded and there were those which should not be relied upon nor heeded. Some are from an angel and angels will not deceive, and some are from demons and they have no truth.” Perfect. Only one small question remains: How do we determine if the “dream of being excommunicated” is from an angel or a demon?
We will also see how generations come and go and the handling of dreams changes. The Gemara in Berachot 31b: “And Rabbi Eleazar quoted Rabbi Yossi the son of Zamra: All who fast on the Sabbath have judgements of 70 years revoked.” The Tosafot wrote, s.v. kol hayoshev: “R’ Chananel explained this refers to a fast [undertaken after a disturbing] dream.” Even though it is an important commandment to eat and drink on Sabbath, they permitted a man to fast if he had a disturbing dream because of the danger being shown to him by the Heavens. As it says in the Chatam Sofer’s responsa, part one (Orach Chaim), paragraph 268: “And even a fast for pleasure is forbidden (but not a fast due to a dream because of the danger to life).” Thus do our rabbis relate to a bad dream, as a real danger to life, to the extent that they even allowed fasting on Sabbath to overturn the judgment conveyed through a dream.
But the Raviyah (part three–Laws of Fasts, paragraph 860) wrote: “In the name of Rabbi Kalonimus I found that it is forbidden to fast on Sabbath nowadays, even a fast due to a dream, for we are not expert in knowing the interpretation of dreams — which of them are good and which are bad. The earlier ones knew this, as is written in the chapter HaRoeh [the 9th chapter of Tractate Berachot] and in Eicha Rabbati. And one should not fast due to doubt. So it seems to me that even though the judgments of 70 years are revoked and for a hope of saving lives one violates the Sabbath, as written in Tractate Yoma, it still seems to me we do not fast on Sabbath.” Did the early ones really know to interpret dreams? Even our forefather Jacob was not expert in this, as stated in the Zohar we brought above.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, paragraph 285, section 5), makes a sort of compromise: “Some say we do not fast on Sabbath due to a dream except for a dream which has been seen thrice. Some say that in these days we do not fast on Sabbath due to a dream, for we are not expert in interpreting dreams and in knowing which are good and which are bad. The rest say that in ancient books we find that for three dreams we fast on Sabbath: one who sees a Torah scroll burned, or the Day of Atonement during the Ne’ilah prayer, or the walls of his house or his teeth falling. Some say one who sees the Day of Atonement, even not during the Ne’ilah prayer [should also fast]. Some say one who sees himself reading from the Torah; some say one who sees himself marrying a woman. Saying that one sees one’s teeth falling means specifically the teeth; if he sees his cheeks shrunken it is a good dream, announcing ill for those who speak ill of him. It seems to me that one should also fast on Sabbath due to those dreams listed as bad in the chapter HaRoeh.”
But in our day we do not fast on the Sabbath; who even takes dreams seriously? Therefore Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wrote in Yichaveh Daat, part four, paragraph 24: “One who sees a bad dream on Friday night should not fast on the Sabbath [we have not heard of people who fast over dreams even during the week], even if the dream is one of the three bad dreams mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch.” Rabbi Ovadiah is a well-known dreamer (see below) and he did well to invalidate the danger to life caused by even those dreams mentioned in the Gemara and the Shulchan Aruch as bad.
After what we clarified on the matter of dreams, how ridiculous it is that our rabbis speak often of dreams from which they made Halachic rulings. An example can be found in our essay What the Sages Knew About Fish. Rabbi Ephraim permitted eating catfish, which has no scales. In a dream he was told that he permitted the forbidden, and subsequently he forbade it.
See what is written about this in the responsa Noda B’Yehuda, second edition, Yoreh Deah, paragraph 30: “I say dreams do not make a difference, and I have never heard of proving a law from a dream; dreams speak falsely. Even though Rabbeynu Ephraim OBM was a righteous one and he feared because of his dream — in which he was told he had permitted the forbidden, and feared this might be true and related it to his permitting the catfish–if R’ Ephraim had found out that this fish has scales, as the Tosafot found out, he would have related the interpretation of his dream to another item which he permitted and was unsure of. But to bring proof from a dream is nonsense and has no substance. I ask his exaltedness why this dream did not come to the other Tosafot authors–Rabbeynu Tam and the other great arbiters who permitted catfish–and reveal the truth to them so that his dream would be known.” You see that everything follows the interpretation: they push the dream aside and change its meaning until the interpretation matches some reality or other. Therefore the Noda B’Yehuda says that if Rabbeynu Ephraim had found out that the catfish has scales, he simply would have found a different interpretation for his dream.
We cannot conclude this discussion of dreams without mentioning a story about Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. In the Maariv newspaper of June 28, 2001, Shlomo Tzezna wrote: “Rabbi Ovadiah said: ‘On Friday night I had a dream and saw the Messiah arriving at the Western Wall. In the plaza there were many people. [The Messiah] said to them: Gentlemen, I came now–there are a million schoolchildren who do not learn Torah, who learn in secular schools. I want all the yeshiva students to enlist. Those who are for G-d, come to me. Let them be teachers, to teach them Torah. There should not be a single school in which there is no Torah. All will learn Torah’.”
Now that we have already cited many things on this issue, it is a pity that Rabbi Ovadiah did not ask Daat Emet to interpret his dream. Had he done so, we would have said:
First, your dream was on Friday night, after a big meal. This point has already been mentioned by Abarbanel, as brought in the Shivat Zion responsa, paragraph 52: “See what the wise man Rabbi Abarbanel wrote on the portion of Miketz. He went on at length and built extensive logical constructs, and concluded that there are dreams brought about by physical reasons, like the digestion of food which raises vapors or by weakening health. These dreams are nonsense with nothing of substance.”
If his honor the rabbi did not eat his fill, perhaps the dream came from a demon. The rabbi himself wrote in the responsa Yichaveh Daat, part four, paragraph 24: “It should be mentioned that the rabbi, the gaon and mystic Rabbi Judah Petaya wrote in the book Minchat Yehuda (paragraph 47), that demons know which things people are worried about if seen in a dream–like one who sees in a dream that his teeth fall out or that he is clad in black, etc. Therefore [the demons] may show a person such things to distress him and cause him to fast, and therefore one need not pay heed to such dreams.” Perhaps his dream was the work of demons to distress the good citizens of Israel, that if, G-d forbid, the dream comes true their children will get no education and will go from failure to failure until the state is destroyed. The rabbi did well to rule that we need not heed bad dreams of this sort.
And if the rabbi insists on saying that his dream was obviously from an angel (though our forefather Jacob could not be so sure, as written above), we will tell him that even of the righteous Joseph, whose dream came from an angel, it was said “there are no dreams without frivolity”; see above. Therefore, this is how we would interpret the dream: “students who do not learn Torah” means students in the Shas school system who do not learn the ways of life, only the ways of a book. “I want all the yeshiva students to enlist” is meant plainly, that they should enlist in the army. The “million” is an exaggeration and all the rest of the dream is the frivolity found in any dream, even ones dreamed by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.
Words of True Knowledge