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Judaism and Dreams

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.

December 15, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 18

(12) Anonymous, September 25, 2016 1:18 PM

Dreams and Free Will Vs Determinism

Within my own subjective experience, get the impression a time-lag exists between my dreams and elements of those dreams (whether good, bad or mundane) later manifesting themselves in reality sometimes years even decades after giving an eerie sense of deja vu.

How does one reconcile with notions such as free-will plus the belief that making Soul-Corrections / Teshuvah can literally change one's fate on the one hand, yet other dream experiences appear to suggest that free-will is an illusion (or compromised at best) and are unavoidably deterministic making notions such as Soul-Corrections / Teshuvah appear pointless (if one can only play the role Heaven has decreed for them good or bad)?

If the latter is indeed the case (Heaven Forbid), such determinism would effectively mean individuals are free from responsibility and thus cannot be held to account for their conduct in this world in the Heavenly Court since they are merely assuming given roles.

Though Judaism recognizes certain categories of people (e.g. mentally disabled, insane, etc) who cannot be held to account for their actions, it still leaves a bitter taste if there is any truth in the idea based on my dream experiences that free-will is nonsense and the world is in fact deterministic.

Dovid Rosenfeld, October 26, 2017 9:20 AM

dreams are not deterministic

Thank you for your important comment. But in fact, dreams do not compromise man's free will. As the article explains, dreams do not establish what the future holds as prophecy does. What one sees in a dream is still part of the indeterministic future. It is not the future being shown today, but an actual future experience, experienced above the realm of time.

As a result, by definition a dream can come true in multiple ways. Man has free will, so the future experience witnessed may come true in better or worse ways, depending how the dreamer exercises his free will. The Talmud (Brachot 55-57) is replete with examples of dreams which can be either good or bad, often depending on their interpretation. Thus, perhaps (significant) dreams limit the range choices, but they do not contradict man's free will.

(11) L.J., September 7, 2016 1:49 AM

Dreams of an old Rabbi

After learning of my dear old friends' passing, I put on the tazit and tallit and began the prayers for her soul. It is an agreement I made with HaShem's messenger decades earlier. But grief overtook me. I fell asleep without removing these prayer articles. At dawn, a misty pencil outlined figure stood just inside my bedroom doorway, and inside my head it said these four words" she has been delivered"... then I sat up.. and it said "do you understand? She has been delivered." I nodded my head in agreement and the misty tall figure disappeared. After this time, I began having another dream, over and over, unlike any I remember ever having in my life. The dream was a large, huge crowd of spirits coming from far off. Leading them was an old talmudic rabbi with an unhappy woman on either side of him, the schmata scarves being held around their heads bemoaning something. Finally, the knocks on my door and windows and walls... and the dream. The Rabbi was speaking to me emphatically about something. I began to realize this was important. I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. So the one and only time in my life, I sought out assistance. The Rabbi did not approve of my lifestyle. I was not attending shul, I was davening on my own. The Rabbi made it clear he/they would be REAPING my soul/nefesh at the end of my days alive. So, I refuse to be afraid. I DID however, clear my home of idols, which were gifts from people for the most part. I sold my home near the Indian reservation and I am now taking lessons from a Rabbi of my own. It's been a few years. I am depressed and want to leave the shul. But I know I will be reaped by those countless souls of the dead Rabbi's... even after I dismissed them in a ceremony. They left me alone after that a few years ago. My point: dreams can be very real, our lives are real. Fear nothing in this world except what stupid things you do to yourself. Shalom

(10) Kathleen Dahnke Nottestad, August 28, 2016 8:45 PM

Dreams or Nightmares of the future!

I do NOT dream often or if I do so I have little or NO recall. I believe Scientist, Doctors of the mind, at Universities conduct experiments and can and do create in a target person picture stories - 2 only two have been reoccurring - one had on numerous occasions asked God for forgiveness - in this dream which I saw in technicolor in my dream me disgracing MY Country which I would literally give my life for - I believed for years that this had truly happened. I had been put by Dr. On meds which I believe made it impossible for me to sort out the truth - I could NOT find a Dr. To help me off these drugs so I slowly took myself of these unnecessary tools of deception used against me thus my family or orgin and marriage. After off these meds my thought process was restored and I realised I had NEVER even BEEN to the place my terrible actions could NOT have been. I had prayed that God would help me slowly remove the drugs it was SCARRY but I did with his help accomplish this!
I believe at opportune times when in hospital care unbeknownst to me I was and am their experiment - known to only those doing these surgeries. So are they able to extract my dreams and have always wondered which came first the movie story or was it lived and those recording my happenings creating movies? watch Self/Less with Ryan Reynolds - these are many of my thought of what is happening as I write this, BUT ending with the Director continuing his sick fantasies at the expense of human lives. My other nightmare was of Uncle Walt and Aunt Orpha when he was at the UW Hospital battling cancer! Went as a young child to see him and he said to my father "her face says it all". I believe they injected him with cancer serum and that is why I would see him like a flying eagle crashing thru his hospital window falling to his death! recently learned one can cause cancer by injection. I believe we are JEWISH and HITLERS war against US All has never ended as they would like us to believe!

(9) artisanrox, May 14, 2016 1:29 AM

Dream Logs are essential.

I have kept a daily (or as often as possible) dream log for over 16 years. You will be amazed at what you see when you look back at them. G-d has truly tsken me on a fascinating journey through dreaming, and it will only help your spiritual growth if you take the time to write your dreams down in a journal.

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