Judaism and Dreams
The significance of dreams in Jewish thought.
In my dream I was in some sort of huge, endless mall. I was wandering aimlessly, searching in vain for someone I knew to be missing. It was supposedly one of my younger children – though it was never specified which. In my dream I knew it was hopeless, that the lost child would never be found. The dream repeated itself a second time. After each time, I woke up depressed, with a heavy sense of foreboding.
Shortly after, my 18-year-old nephew passed away.
At the time of my dreams I had no idea my nephew was at the time experiencing headaches on account of a not-yet-diagnosed brain tumor. Ever since, I have learned to take very seriously my dreams which cause me to wake up depressed.
The concept of dreams has both fascinated and haunted mankind. We dream about our hopes, we dream about our fears and anxieties, and we dream about our fantasies. Most of the time we dream about the people and events which occupy our minds during the day, but at times our dreams catch us completely by surprise. Psychologists see dreams as one of the keys to understanding the human subconscious. What is the hidden significance behind our dreams?
Even the Jewish sources on the matter are not entirely clear. On the one hand, the Talmud states that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy (Brachot 57b). Yet at the same time the Talmud writes that no dreams are without nonsense (ibid., 55a), and that the interpretation of a dream depends on the explanation given by the interpreter (55b). As the Talmud makes clear, any dream can have either a good or a bad interpretation, and it is at the mercy of the one who interprets it. How could a prophecy, even a very minor one, be up for grabs, so to speak, and depend upon how people explain it?
The Biblical Joseph is described in the Torah as a dreamer. He both experienced prophetic dreams himself and interpreted them for others. Why did the young Joseph, who knew he had already aroused his brothers’ jealousy, further antagonize them by telling them his dreams? Wasn’t he just fanning the flames of animosity? Was he just showing off, immaturely attempting to show his brothers that God had greater things in mind for him than them?
My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig noted a fundamental difference between prophecy and dreams. When a prophet is granted a vision or a message about the future, he knows that it is the future he is being shown. He knows that he is now in the present, viewing events which will occur on a future date.
A dream, by contrast, is an entirely different experience. The dreamer is not merely viewing the future. He is experiencing it right then. He feels that the events of his dream are occurring to him at that very moment. We often wake up from dreams with the thought “Thank goodness – it was only a dream!” Thus, unlike a prophecy in which a prophet today is being shown a vision of the future, the dreamer is actually transported to the future, to experience it right here and now.
We can determine our future. There is no predestination in the eyes of the Torah.
Why is this distinction significant? Because of the critical role that time and free will play in Jewish philosophy. As Maimonides (Laws of Repentance, Ch. 5) explains, free will is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. Our actions are in our own hands. We can determine our future. There is no predestination in the eyes of the Torah. Our future is indeterminate. Every day of our lives we can wake up and decide if we want to be good or wicked. And as a result, God will reward or punish us for our every action and decision.
Prophecy can be viewed as an override of this principle. When a prophet comes and informs mankind what is in store for the future, it is no longer indeterminate. If a prophet would come along today and proclaim that the Chaldeans will attack tomorrow, presumably the Chaldeans have no choice but to attack. It has to happen; God already told us it would. Thus, free will would seem to be compromised. The future is no longer in the hands of man.
(At the same time, it should be mentioned that prophecies – especially ones which discuss distant events such as the End of Days, are often purposely vague. There are many ways in which they may come true. Such prophecies are vague specifically because they discuss events which are not yet entirely determined and may come true in many ways – generally depending upon how worthy we will be at the time. Likewise, Maimonides (Laws of Fundamentals of Torah 10:4) writes that negative prophecies may not actually occur. Such prophecies come as warnings to mankind; if we repent, we can avert them.)
Based on this, the distinction we made between prophecy and dreams becomes very significant. Prophecy means that a prophet is standing here today being told what will occur tomorrow. “Tomorrow” is thus no longer indeterminate. It has been established already today; free will has been compromised. Dreams, by contrast, are an experience in which the dreamer actually experiences the future. Dreams are a beyond-time experience. The future has not been announced and brought down to the present. It is still the inchoate future, and so by definition – since free will exists – it can happen in more than one way.
This is the intent of the Talmud when it states that dreams follow their interpretation. A dream by definition can come true in more than one way. It is still a “future” experience, not yet compromised by entering the world of time. Thus, until an interpretation is offered – whether good or bad – a dream by its very nature must have two possible outcomes.
Dreams show us our potential future. We must act on them ourselves.
Joseph recognized that he was a dreamer. He had the ability to relate to the universe beyond time, to future events not yet conceived. When he received his prophetic dreams, he realized he could not just sit back and wait for them to occur. These were not prophecies of the future brought down to the world of time – which would transpire whether we cooperate with them or not. They were dreams. Joseph was being informed of his potential future – what might be if he would only exercise his free will to make it happen. Thus, Joseph realized he had to act on his dreams, to concretize his potential future and make it his reality.
The Talmud writes that a dream which is not interpreted is akin to an unread letter (Brachot 55a). A dream which is relegated to the world of dreams has never left the future and so has no impact on the present. Joseph thus realized that he had to publicize his dreams, to begin actualizing his future potential. Far from immaturely boasting his dreams of grandeur to his brothers, Joseph recognized that his future would only be his if he himself would make the effort.
Our dreams today may be more or less prophetic, depending on how much nonsense we fill our heads with during our waking hours. To some degree, it is in our hands to latch on to our nobler dreams – both our sleeping and our waking ones – and to put in our own effort into making them come true.
Based primarily on thoughts heard from my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of the Talmudic University of Florida.
For a more general treatment of dreams, see this response in the Ask the Rabbi section.