The Stuff of Dreams
Question #1: Which approach is best?
“I had a bad dream. Should I fast, go to the nearest Sefardi shul and pray while the kohanim are duchening, or perform the hatovas chalom ceremony?”
Question #2: Fast again?
“I was told that if someone fasts for a bad dream, he is supposed to fast again. Why?”
Question #3: Strange dreamer
“I often have strange dreams. Should I be concerned?”
This week’s parsha begins with the famous story of Pharaoh’s dreams, certainly providing an opportunity to discuss the many passages of Gemara relating to dreams.
Before we discuss these Talmudic passages, let me explain some of the ideas mentioned in the opening questions. The Gemara mentions three different solutions to guarantee that disturbing dreams have pleasant results. The first is to daven while the kohanim bless the people, the second is a procedure called hatovas chalom – literally, rectifying the dream, and the third is to fast on the day that the person wakes up with the disturbing dream.We will cite these three approaches in the course of this article.
The first question we need to address is whether one should place any weight at all on dreams. In the following passage, the Gemara itself implies that one should not:
Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeini said, quoting Rav Yonasan, “You dream at night what you think about during the daytime” (Brachos 55b). As proof, the Gemara notes that people do not dream of palm trees made of gold or of elephants climbing through the eyes of needles. Since no one thinks about these things during the day, one does not dream about them at night.
In this context, the Gemara shares the following anecdote: The emperor of Rome, in the midst of one of his wars with the Persians, asked Rabbi Yehoshua what he would dream about the coming night. Undaunted, Rabbi Yehoshua answered him, “You will dream that the Persians will be serving you as their king” (Brachos 55b). We can all guess what the emperor dreamed the following night. We call this the power of suggestion.
Thus, the Gemara’s view is that dreams should not be relied upon. A corollary of this idea is that one need not take action when one wakes with a disturbing dream. Following this approach, the Gemara quotes the prophet Zecharyah (10:2), who stated, “Dreamers speak falsehood.”
On the other hand, both Tanach and the writings of Chazal contain numerous instances wherein dreams are taken very seriously. Let us begin with Chumash. Aside from the dreams of the officers of Pharaoh discussed in last week’s parsha, and those of Pharaoh himself this week, we have Yaakov’s dream at the beginning of parshas Vayeitzei, and those of Yosef at the beginning of parshas Vayeishev. Furthermore, in Bamidbar (12:6), Hashem tells Miriam and Aharon, regarding most prophets, “In a dream, I speak to him.” Obviously, these dreams are prophetic.
Also in Nach, we have numerous examples of prophecy occurring through dreams. In the second perek of Daniel, we are told about Nevuchadnetzar’s terrifying and forgotten dream; he tests Daniel by demanding that the latter discover and reveal it – and the dream is fulfilled. Again, we have the pasuk (Shmuel I, 28:6) which says, “And Shaul asked of Hashem, and Hashem did not answer him, not with dreams, nor with the Urim, nor with prophets.” Thus, we see that Shaul’s dreams included communication from Hashem.
In this context, the Gemara reports that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy (Brachos 57b). This expression means that although many aspects of a dream are fictitious or represent one’s imagination, there is a kernel of prophecy in the dream.
Moreover, an extensive discussion in the Gemara (Brachos 55b-57b) mentions numerous lessons and messages, both positive and negative, that can be derived from dreams.
The Gemara even tells us how to guarantee a good result from a dream. It states that the spoken interpretation of a dream determines its outcome (Brachos 55b), and implies that one can even pay the interpreter of the dream in order to gain a favorable consequence (Brachos 55b). This means that if someone has a dream, he can hire someone to provide a favorable interpretation, which will indeed come true as fulfillment of the dream.
In this context, Rav Binah said that in his day, there were 24 dream interpreters in Yerushalayim. “Once I had a dream, and I went to all of them and received 24 different interpretations – and all 24 interpretations happened!” According to the Maharsha, this means that all 24 approaches lay within the dream, and therefore they were all true.
The Gemara also states that one could wait up to 22 years for a good dream to be fulfilled (Brachos 55b). The proof is from Yosef, since what he dreamed when he was 17 was not fulfilled until his brothers came down to Egypt, 22 years later.
Although the main part of the dream might be prophetic, the Gemara concludes that just as all grain includes chaff, every dream includes meaningless parts (Nedorim 8a and Brachos 55a).
Dreams to motivate teshuvah
Rav Huna said that a good man never has a good dream, and a bad man never has a bad one (Brachos 55b). Rashi explains that the good person is motivated by a bad dream to do teshuvah, whereas with a good dream the bad person receives his reward in this world for the mitzvos he performed. The specific examples cited are Dovid Hamelech, who never had a good dream, and Achitofel, who never had a bad one.
In a deep medical-psychological evaluation, the Gemara notes that a bad dream is worse for the body than receiving a brutal physical beating, because the worry about what the bad dream means harms a person in a much greater way than being beaten (Brachos 55a). This helps us understand our previous comment about dreams being used to encourage a person to do teshuvah.
A different passage of Gemara (Sanhedrin 30a) relates an event and the resultant halachic ruling. A person knew that his father had hidden money but didn’t know where his now-deceased father had placed it. A “baal hachalom” – apparently someone who either could have a prophetic dream or had the ability to interpret one – told him where the money was located, how much was there, and also that the money had the sanctity of maaser sheini, which may be used only to purchase food that must be eaten in Yerushalayim. The Gemara concludes that the heir is permitted to ignore the statement that the money is maaser sheini, notwithstanding the fact that the very same interpreter successfully located the money and named the sum! This Gemara is quoted as the final halacha by the authorities (Rif and Rosh, ad locum; Rambam, Hilchos Ma’aser Sheini 6:6). The words of the Gemara are “divrei chalomos einan ma’alin v’einan moridin – dreams are meaningless and neither help nor hinder” (Sanhedrin 30a).
The Gemara reports that when the amora Shmuel had a bad dream, he would quote the above-referenced verse of Zecharyah that dreams lie; yet, when he had a good dream, he would refer to Chumash as proof that this was a good indication. The Gemara notes that these two statements of Shmuel appear contradictory, to which the Gemara responds that it depends whether the dream was conveyed by an angel or by a demon (sheid). A dream conveyed by an angel is considered a form of prophecy, whereas one from a demon or other questionable source should be ignored. Many halachic authorities explain that when one cannot attribute the dream to an angel, this is the same as blaming it on a demon, and one may ignore the dream (see, for example, Shu”t Tashbeitz, vol. II, #128; Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 220:1).
Later dream interpretation
The Jewish literature and history involved in dream interpretation did not end with the closure of the Gemara. Some rishonim discuss other specific events that were governed by dreams, as in the following story: Some people were building a wooden coffin for a meis, and someone wanted to take a piece of leftover wood and make a harp out of it. This individual was warned by the others not to do so, but he disregarded them. The meis for whom the coffin was made came in a dream and warned him that if he persisted in making the harp, he would be punished. He ignored this admonition and made the harp. He then had another dream, in which the meis told him that if he does not break the harp, he will be in danger. This was also ignored, and the man got sick. When he became very ill, his son took the harp and broke it on the grave of that particular meis, leaving the pieces on top of the grave. After this, his father recovered (Sefer Chassidim #727).
So far, we see that dreams can foretell the truth, at least in part, and can also be used to encourage someone to do teshuvah. On the other hand, we have statements in the Gemara implying that dreams can be ignored. Is there a dispute in the Gemara as to whether dreams should be interpreted or not? The Gemara’s presentation does not imply this.
Rather, the Gemara and its commentaries suggest that there are different types of dreams, some of which are simply a reflection of what one experienced during the previous day, and others that are, indeed, prophetic or potentially prophetic.
I had a dream
As I mentioned above, the Gemara has many discussions about dreams, and also provides advice on how to counteract the harm foretold by disturbing ones. The Gemara teaches that if someone had a dream that disturbed him in a major way, he should perform the procedure called hatovas chalom in the presence of three people. The hatovah is performed by asking three friends to recite together a series of statements and pesukim. The Mishnah Berurah (220:3) comments that it is a mitzvah to be one of these three people, as they give confidence to the discouraged person to move on in life. The Gemara presents the structure of hatovas chalom: It should include three verses of Tanach that mention “reversal” (meaning that they will “reverse,” or annul, the message of the dream), three that mention redemption, and three that mention peace. The Gemara proceeds to enumerate which pesukim to use (Brachos 55b). (The text of hatovas chalom is printed in many siddurim.)
The Pri Megadim and the Mishnah Berurah (220:1) comment that the criterion for hatovas chalom is not the nature of the dream but the extent to which the dreamer finds it disturbing. By the way, hatovas chalom may be performed even on Shabbos (Elyah Rabbah; Mishnah Berurah).
We should note that if the dreamer had been fasting the previous day, heard bad news or anything similar, and then had a troubling dream, he should not be concerned about the dream and no hatovas chalom is necessary (Shaar Hatziyun ad locum).
Duchening and Dreams
A second suggestion mentioned in the Gemara regarding dreams is that someone who had a dream that requires interpretation and does not know whether the dream bodes well should recite a prayer at the time of duchening (Brachos 55b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 130:1). Some authorities prefer that one not recite this prayer while the kohanim are actually reciting the words of the duchening (see Rema, Orach Chayim 128:45; Mishnah Berurah 130:3). For this reason, Ashkenazic practice is that when the kohanim duchen on Yom Tov, they chant a tune prior to the completion of the brocha to give people the opportunity to recite the prayer. This prayer can be recited not only when one is uncertain of the interpretation of the dream, but even when one knows that the dream bodes ill (Mishnah Berurah 130:4).
In chutz la’aretz, where the practice among Ashkenazim is that bircas kohanim is recited only on Yom Tov, the minhag is that everyone recites this tefilah during the duchening on Yom Tov, as it is likely that every person had such a dream since the previous Yom Tov (Mishnah Berurah 130:1).
But since Ashkenazim in chutz la’aretz duchen only on Yomim Tovim, this suggestion does not provide an immediate solution for someone whose bad dream did not schedule itself on the night of Yom Tov. At this point, let us examine one of our opening questions: “I had a bad dream. Should I fast, go to the nearest Sefardi shul and pray while the kohanim are duchening, or perform the hatovas chalom ceremony?”
The basis of the question is that the person is an Ashkenazi in chutz la’aretz, and he does not want to wait until Yom Tov to ameliorate his dream. Thus, he is asking whether he should find a Sefardic shul where the kohanim duchen daily (even in chutz la’aretz) and say his tefillah there. I refer our reader who has this question to his rav or posek for halachic guidance.
A third suggestion to blunt the potential damage of a disturbing dream is to fast on the day that one wakes up with the dream (Shabbos 11a). This procedure is called taanis chalom. This fast is effective in nullifying any negative outcome foretold by the dream, but only when one fasts the day immediately following the dream. Note that there is no obligation to observe this fast – it is simply a suggestion to countermand whatever bad consequence was warned about in the dream (Mishnah Berurah 220:7).
The Gemara reports that this fast may be observed even on Shabbos, although an individual who does so is then required to fast another day (sometime in the future) for having compromised the sanctity of Shabbos by fasting. Thus, although the taanis chalom, itself, is effective to protect against harm, it is still considered a violation of the sanctity of Shabbos.
We can now address the second of our opening questions: “I was told that if someone fasts for a bad dream, he is supposed to fast again. Why?”
Someone here misunderstood the law. The halacha of fasting a second time is only for someone who fasted a taanis chalom on Shabbos, and now we know the reason for the second fast.
In our day
In our day, one should not be overly concerned about dreams, both with regard to fasting and with regard to reciting hatovas chalom. This is because, as we mentioned earlier, most dreams are either a product of things that a person thinks about during the day or are due to overeating or another experience (Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chayim 220:1, 4). Additionally, one who suffered from some pain or anguish and then had a bad dream need not be concerned, as the dream resulted from his anguish (Sha’ar Hatziyun 220:1).
One of the talmidim of the great mekubal, Rav Yaakov Hillel, told me the following: “Rav Yaakov Hillel told us many times not to pay attention to dreams. He explained that the statements of Chazal explaining the messages of dreams are significant only when they are messages from Above. Our thoughts are polluted by the media, technology, and extremely unnatural stimuli that bombard us all day. Our dreams reflect what we saw or heard during our waking hours. They might even be triggered by an ad or a newspaper headline we saw in passing. Rav Hillel tells people who come to him with disturbing dreams not to pay attention to or be bothered by them.”
One might ask: If this is so, why do we still recite the prayer while the kohanim duchen? There are several ways to resolve this question, but explaining them properly is beyond the scope of this article.
A dream is the first step of any new venture. We see a vision for our lives, our families, our community and the world we live in. We dream about how the world can be improved, and of the contribution that we can make.
In this context, I want to share an anecdote told about the Ponevizher Rov standing over the vacant hill and fields that today are the center of the city of Bnei Brak. Upon hearing the Rov’s visions of the future that would be there, someone turned to him and said, “The Rov is dreaming.” The Rov responded, “I may be dreaming, but I am certainly not sleeping!”