Significance of Dreams
I have recently been having a disturbing dream involving someone close to me. The dream has repeated at least once. What does Judaism say about this sort of thing? Is there anything I can or should about it?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
I’m sorry about your upset first of all. I hope the best for you and yours.
Judaism sees dreams as usually inconsequential but once in a while significant. The Talmud (Brachot 55-57) discusses dreams at length and appears to make some contradictory statements about them. On the one hand, the Talmud calls dreams 1/60th of prophecy (57b). Likewise, in the Torah people such as Joseph and Pharaoh experienced prophetic dreams. The Talmud further lists many types of dreams (e.g. where a person sees certain objects or experiences certain events) and explains their significance.
On the other hand, the Talmud writes that the interpretation of dreams is in the hands of the interpreter (55b), and that an unexplained dream has no significance at all – as an unread letter (55a). The implication is that dreams are certainly not prophetic. They do not mean anything at all on their own. They can, however, be interpreted – and their interpretation will come true.
Finally, the Talmud states that people are shown in dreams that which they were thinking about during the day (55b), and that even significant dreams contain their share of nonsense (55a).
Based on the above, dreams appear to be a mixture of different elements. Most of our dreams are entirely insignificant – a simple rehashing of the hopes, worries and fantasies which occupied our minds during the day. Some, however, are not significant on their own but can potentially be – subject to their interpretation. (And in fact, the Talmud writes that many types of dreams usually mean one thing, but can be interpreted to mean something else.) Finally, some dreams may be the actual word of prophecy filtering through our consciousness, entering our dreams. (See Maharsha to Brachot 55b s.v. “she’kol”.)
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto , 18th century Italian rabbi, Kabbalist, and ethicist, explains the significance of dreams (Derech Hashem 3:1:6). When we sleep, most of what happens is that our bodies rest and our brains are given the chance to sort out the thoughts of our day.
However, something else occurs at the same time. The higher parts of our souls become slightly detached from our bodies. (This is why our first prayer upon awakening in the morning is thanking God for returning our souls to us (modeh ani). Only the lowest part of our souls – the “animal soul” all living creatures possess – stays with us overnight.) Once our souls depart our bodies, they are able to roam the spiritual planes of existence where they are most at home. While there, they may interact with other spiritual entities, such as angels, and may hear (or overhear) some of what the future holds in store for man. The message may be actual prophecy, or simply an omen – depending upon the level of being which communicates with the soul. That information might in turn trickle down into our consciousness and work their way into our dreams.
Thus, while dreaming, a person has the potential to become aware of future events which his waking soul would never be privy to – which will then become mixed in with the rest of the nonsense going through his dreaming mind.
As a result, our dreams could be significant, although they usually aren’t. Even when they are, most of what we see is not significant, yet within it, parts of it may be.
One more relevant point. If dreams are potentially prophetic, how does interpreting them change them? How can one take a bad dream and transform it by giving it a nice interpretation? Could a prophet “interpret” his prophecy in a nice way and change the future?
The answer is that even prophetic dreams are not absolute prophecy. They foreshadow a potential future but not events set in stone. And words are a powerful tool. If a person offers a compatible interpretation for a dream, his very words may direct the spiritual force of the dream differently and for the better.
(The ability to reinterpret a dream may depend how prophetic the dream is. The more prophetic the dream, the harder it is to transform it through our words. By contrast, a dream may not be prophetic at all, yet a person’s words can take the force of the dream and direct it, bringing its potential into the physical world. See again Maharsha to Brachot. See also this article, where I present a related treatment of this topic.)
Practically speaking, if you had a dream which is disturbing you, the first question to ask yourself is if you were thinking about anything relevant to it during the day. If you were worried about X, and then dream that X happens, that is most certainly your mind playing out your anxieties during the night. (The same is true if you were just overall depressed and afterwards have a depressing dream – even if not specifically related to what you were depressed about. (Sha’ar Tziyun 220:1).)
If, however, the dream strikes out of nowhere, it might be more significant. A few other possible indications of significance appear in the Talmud (55b): if the dream repeats itself, is about other people, or is dreamt right before waking in the morning. In general, rabbis today do not recommend taking dreams that seriously. Our minds are filled with too many worries and too much nonsense. Bad dreams are much more likely to be figments of our own anxieties rather than messages from angels. Yet again, significant dreams do at times occur. I personally have a sense for when my dreams are significant. If they are bad dreams, I wake up the next day depressed and worried.
If you had a disturbing dream which you think might be significant, Jewish law outlines a few means of mollifying its effects:
(a) Reciting the “amelioration of dreams” prayer. This may be found in any complete prayer book, together with the relevant instructions. The prayer consists primarily of statements and verses which state that the dream was a positive one. It is recited before 3 friends, some parts of the prayer recited by the dreamer and some by the friends (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 220:1).
(b) The Talmud states that fasting the day after a disturbing dream is especially effective, and that one should do so even on Shabbat if the dream occurred Friday night (Shabbat 11a). In practice, since we generally do not take our dreams that seriously today, we need not fast. However, in lieu of fasting it would be appropriate to give charity, study extra Torah, and refrain from wasteful speech (Piskei Teshuvot 220:1).