“For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come” -Hamlet
Every night of our lives, we enter the dream state. Sometimes we are very aware of our dreams upon waking, sometimes not at all. I often wonder about the theological implications of our unconscious thoughts that occur while we dream. How are we to interpret these ideas and how can those interpretations help us to grow to become who we need to be?
We’ll frame this issue around Rebbeinu Bachya’s explanation of three types of dreams: those caused by indigestion, those caused by daytime thoughts, and those whose source is the soul (Commentary on Genesis 41:1). Dreams, therefore, come from body, mind, and soul.
Bachya’s first notion that dreams come from the body accords with one of the main theories of neuroscience today, that dreams are merely the random firing of neurons, carrying with them little to no meaning at all. One Talmudic passage similarly reduces the value of our dreams explaining that “dreams neither add nor detract” (Gittin 52a). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains what happens when neither the mind or soul are controlling one’s own thoughts: "Freedom of will is bound, fettered; body and mind obey unusual laws; as in the womb, all the germs for the future of the organism are there and swim about in unformed confusion because the soul, that spark of independent individuality is missing, thoughts and the germs of ideas weave together in confusion, they join one to the other by the laws of affinity and chance contact because the conscious human intelligence does not hold the guiding reins” (Commentary, Genesis 20:3). Our first view of dreams tells us that they may be nonsense, not meaningful, and full of chaotic contradictory information.
The second notion that dreams might come from the mind lines up with the Freudian view that our dreams reveal a significant amount about our unconscious thoughts revolving around our childhood experiences, desires, fears, and “wish fulfilment.” Freud explained that much of the repressed forces in our unconscious activity represent a desire to return to the knowing state of the womb. This is similar to the Jewish notion that a fetus is fully knowledgeable of the Torah until birth when it is forgotten. Rabbi Hirsch explains how one can take a rational psychological approach to dreams. “A perfectly rational person can explain a dream quite exactly without wishing in any way to insist that it need necessarily come true. The meaning should not be read into it from outside but must come out from the dream itself. Such an interpretation of a dream is a deep psychological task,” (Commentary, Genesis 40:5). For Carl Jung, we can access not only our personal unconscious realm, but also the collective. When we discuss dreams as a psychological phenomenon, we can make the case for how psychotherapy can help one reach religious and spiritual clarity and development.
However, more than seeing the body or mind as the origin of dreams, Jewish thinkers have embraced the approach that dreams originate in the soul and have spiritual significance for us. Dreams are actually embraced as one of the primary ways that God communicates with humans (Deuteronomy 12:6). Whereas Moshe’s prophecy came in his waking hours, all other prophecy would be transmitted in a dream state. This is not merely reserved for prophets. As the Talmud explains: “A dream is one-sixtieth part of prophecy” (Berachot 57b). Dreams can contain some deep truths hidden within other thoughts. “While part of a dream may be fulfilled, the whole is never fulfilled (Berachot 55a).” Rabbi Solomon Almoli elaborates: “Just as there is no dream without empty matters, so there is no dream without truthful matters, and if we have not found a reason for them, it is because we have not understood the dream.” Whether they are on the level of prophecy or not, our dreams have spiritual meaning!
How do we learn to discover this spiritual meaning? Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto is skeptical of how much we can uncover on our own: “God manipulates man’s natural power to dream, and uses it as a means to transmit a prophetic vision. This does not mean, however, that a dream and a prophetic vision are in the same category. God’s wisdom merely deemed that a dream could be an adequate vehicle for prophecy. When our Sages teach us that ‘a dream is a sixtieth prophecy,’ they do not mean that the two are the same. What they are teaching us is that both contain information that man could not attain with his powers of reason alone” (Derech Hashem, 239). For Luzzatto, We will need more tools than reason to make sense of the complexity of our dreams.
The Zohar is very direct about the power and significance of a dream for us today: “In early times, prophesy rested on people, and they were able to see the glory above. When prophecy ceased, they made use of the voice from heaven. Now that prophecy and the voice from heaven have ceased, people must make use of the dream,” (Zohar, Genesis 238a). The dreams have inherent significance that we must learn to uncover.
The Chassidim have engaged the power of dreams very deeply. The great Baal HaTanya, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady, explained that “dreams are higher than rational thought. They come from a higher, prelinear reality.” We will need more sophisticated tools to access that sphere of reality and to bring it down.
Perhaps the most profound lesson can be learned from the rabbinic teaching that “all dreams follow the mouth” (Berachot 56a). The meaning of dreams is based upon how we choose to interpret them. In post-modern parlance, dreams are not revealing what is necessarily true; rather, we choose and will the truth of the dreams through our interpretations of them.
For example, I believe that nightmares are gifts from God enabling us to access a painful situation without really having to experience the pain of the experience. This helps us to cultivate empathy if we choose to consider our self-improvement after our bad dreams. In fact, Rabbi Zeira taught, “if a man goes seven days without a dream, he is called evil,” and Rabbi Huna taught that “a good man is not shown a good dream, and a bad man is not shown a bad dream” (Berachot 55b). Perhaps this comes to teach us that, on some level, we need the human vulnerability of bad dreams to remain humble, sensitive, and empathetic. We must actively choose to use our dreams as a vehicle for deepening our spiritual and ethical sensitivities.
The alternative to gaining control of our interpretations is to make a dreamland a meaningless playground where we may experiment with possible life scenarios in ways that we may not have the opportunity or courage to do so in our regular lives. It is morally important to avoid these mental experiments since they distort our realities rather than enhance them. Others suggest that dreams may provide an important outlet to help one avoid mishaps in life. Plato’s Republic explains “The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life.” But Jewish tradition asks us to seek purity of mind and action and we must choose to gain more knowledge and empowerment of our psychological and spiritual lives.
There is a lot at stake if we don’t invest in interpreting our dreams. The Zohar reminds us that we must invest time and effort in thinking about our dreams: “A person must remember a dream that is good so that it not be forgotten. Then it will be realized. On the other hand, inasmuch as one forgets a dream, the dream is forgotten. A dream that is un-interpreted is like a letter unread. Since one does not remember it, it is as if one does not know its interpretation. For this reason, if one does not remember a dream and is not conscious of it, it will not be realized,” (Zohar, Genesis 199b). To avoid losing important growth opportunities, we must actively choose to employ all resources we are given in life to become better and our dreams are important tools in the process.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook teaches us of the spiritual importance of this dream interpretation process: “The dream is the conception of one’s direction which sent from heaven for the purpose of activating one’s energies lying dormant in the soul. The Sages’ words that the dream follows the interpretation were not to be taken literally, as the interpreter’s function is merely to remind the dreamer of what he already knows…Dreams serve as a boost from G-d helping to develop the quality of the soul of man. The dream indicates that there is a hidden quality in the soul of the dreamer. Through the dream alone, the soul-quality lacks the strength to bring about the event hinted at; through the meaning reinforced by the interpreter, the vision is perfected and grows strong in the soul, where it is ready to bring about the event befitting it….By recalling a dream one strengthens that vision and the quality inside one’s soul can become strong enough to be actualized” (Midbar Shur 222-6, 231-2). As a religious activity, we must listen to our dreams and share them appropriately to learn from them and spiritually actualize their intended potential.
Rav Kook goes on to explain the spiritual work we must do upon rising from sleep. “Sleep and the general nature of night that brings it about, work in man two opposite effects: Man’s spiritual self rises higher. His imagination is liberated from the pen of the sense. He can visualize that which he cannot during his waking hours. But the body has lost its connection with the spirit. It operates on its own, going about its functions in the dark. Both of these phenomena produce results: Pure lights from the soul’s ascent, and clumps of impurity from the darkness in which the body was enveloped. Every morning, we turn to two tasks: To purify the body, and to fasten the additional lights of the soul. And once again, there commences the work of achieving a harmony of two extremes” (Orot HaKodesh I, 230). This is our work: to unite the body and soul in this spiritual endeavor.
Before sleep we recite the traditional prayers, hoping our dreams should be for the good. “May my ideas, bad dreams, and bad notions not confound me.” Upon rising, we recite the traditional prayer, “Modeh Ani,” thanking God for returning our souls to us. Many also recite a special liturgy during Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing recited on festivals. These prayers each night, morning, and holiday provide us with special opportunities to pause and reflect on our spiritual state and to regain connection with our soul. These are opportunities not to escape but embrace the spiritual toil accompanying our transitions from the conscious to the unconscious realms and back. Here we can become more connected with the latent workings of our body, minds, and souls. By gaining awareness through reflection, meditation, therapy, spiritual writing, and dream interpretation, we gain the empowerment to take more responsibility for our complete existence by uncovering the gems hidden in our souls.
God has given us a great treasure by giving us sleep filled with dreams. As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats said “In dreams begins responsibility.” To embrace the profundity and spiritual insight of dreams is to embrace a very significant part of Jewish tradition and spiritual life.
Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.
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