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Dreams Can Come True: A Halachic Appraisal of Dreams (1)

In Parashas Vayeishev we begin to learn about the importance of dreams.

Yaakov Avinu, the Torah informs us, “kept the matter” of Yosef’s prophetic dreams, anticipating their future fulfillment. Ultimately, the dreams were realized when Yaakov and his sons were brought before Yosef, the Egyptian viceroy.

In the forthcoming parashah, Parashas Miketz, we find the dreams of Pharaoh and the dreams of his imprisoned ministers, also prophetic dreams that were fulfilled in their entirety. There are several additional dreams, scattered over Scripture, which indicate the prophetic potential of nocturnal visions.

The question we wish to address in this article is the halachic significance of dreams. How significant are dreams, and which halachic ramifications do they have?

Scriptural Visions

As noted above, a number of verses indicate the prophetic potential latent in dreams: Dreams of Yosef, of Pharaoh, of Nebuchadnezzar, and others, demonstrate the value of dreams.

Moreover, dreams are sometimes mentioned as a vehicle for actual revelations of Hashem. Yaakov’s great vision of the ladder, chronicled in Parashas Vayeitzei, is a paradigm of this type of dream. Hashem appeared to Yaakov in the course of the dream, promising him the Land and informing him of the Divine providence that will accompany him.

Indeed, the general nature of prophecy, with the exception of Moshe Rabbeinu, is expressed as a dream vision: “In a dream I shall speak to him” (Bamidbar 12:6). King Shlomo’s famed request for wisdom was made in a dream (Melachim 1, Chap. 3), and the torah mentions a number of non-Jews who were privy to Divine revelations by means of dreams, such as Avimelech (Bereishis 20:3) and Lavan (Bereishis 31:24).

Yet, by contrast with the generally substantial weight that Scripture gives to dreams, we also find verses warning of overreliance on dreams. In one place, the pasuk mentions “dreams that speak falsehood” (Zechariah 10:2).[1] In another place, the verse states that “For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are many vanities; but fear God” (Koheles 5:6).

However, these verses can be interpreted as referring to diviners who speak falsehoods, and to false dreams and visions as those referred to by Yirmiyahu (29:8). The verses do not demonstrate the general falsity of dreams.

“I Dreamed a Dream”

All dreamers know that not all dreams represent prophetic truth, or any level of truth for that matter. Far from it. The dreams we dream are influenced by actions and events of the previous day (as the Gemara mentions, Berachos 55b), by moods and dispositions, by how we feel and by what we ate, and by numerous other factors. Clearly, dreams as we know them are not necessarily Divine messages.

We therefore find Chazal (Berachos 55a) stating that “just as there is no produce without chaff, so there is no dream without nonsense.” The Gemara continues to explain (citing from Rav Yirmiyah) hat even if part of a dream is fulfilled, the dream is not fulfilled in its entirety. Proof of the point is brought from the dream of Yosef in Parashas Vayeishev: Although the majority of the dream came true, the dreamed presence of Yosef’s mother (the moon of the dream) was not fulfilled (she had already died at the time of the dream).

If even the prophetic dream of Yosef could not be free of falsehood, it goes without saying that our everyday dreams can hardly be relied on. Needless to add that the Freudian approach to dreams, whereby the dream carries some profound message concerning the dreamer’s inner person, is not found in writings of Chazal and later commentaries.

Yet, in spite of the suspicion with which we should approach dreams, Chazal do state that dreams are considered “one sixtieth of a prophecy” (Berachos 57b). There is something to them. Indeed, the Talmud dedicates the larger part of an entire chapter in Tractate Berachos (the final chapter) to issues of dream interpretation.

The general approach to dreams found in Chazal is therefore ambivalent. When Shmuel would dream a bad dream, he would awaken and state that “dreams speak falsehood.” But when he would dream a good dream, he would awaken and declare: “Do dreams speak falsehood? Does it not say: In a dream I will speak to him?”

The apparent contradiction between the two verses was resolved by Rava, who explained that there are in fact two distinct types of dream: one that comes through an angel, and one that comes though a demon. Rava does not offer any insight into how we can tell the difference between the two types of dreams. As we will see below, it is not necessarily easy to differentiate between them.

After this introduction, we come to our question: Is there halachic significance to dreams, and what might this significance be?

Money Found in a Dream

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 30a) issues the following halachic ruling:

If one felt distressed over some money which his father had left him, and the dispenser of dreams[2]appeared to him and named the sum, indicated the place, and specified its purpose, saying that it was [for the redemption] of maaser sheini[3]—such an incident once occurred, and they [the Rabbis on that occasion] said: Dreams have no importance for good or for ill.

In spite of the dream being (at least partially) true—the amount of money and its location were verified as being accurate—there was still no requirement for the inheritor to be concerned lest the money was maaser sheini, and he could use the money as he pleased.

The Rambam (Zechiah U-Matanah 10:7) cites this halachah, explaining further that even if a dream reveals that the money belongs to somebody else, there is no need to take any notice.[4] A similar halachah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 255:9), indicating the halachic insignificance of dreams, which “have no importance for good or for ill.”

Distinction between Prohibitions and Monetary Law

A difference source in the Talmud indicates that dreams are a halachic force to be reckoned with.

The Gemara (Nedarim 8a) states that somebody who sees himself being excommunicated in a dream must seek redress for his excommunication: “Someone who is excommunicated in his dream, requires ten people to release him from his excommunication.” This halachah is cited by the Rambam (Talmud Torah 7:12), who adds that somebody who does not find ten people to release him can rely on a group of three.

The question is therefore raised: If “dreams have no importance for good or for ill,” why does a person need to be concerned for his nocturnal excommunication?

Perhaps the earliest source that addresses this question is the Tashbatz (Rabbi Shimon b. Tzemach Duan, of the fifteenth century, Vol. 2, no. 128), who bases his resolution on the distinction between two categories of dreams. One type of dream, as mentioned by the Gemara (mentioned above), derives from an angel, and this dream is true. Another type of dream derives from a demon, and such as dream is false.

We cannot know which dream derives from an angel, and which from a demon, leading to a situation of doubt: Is the dream (at least partially) true or not? On account of the doubt, a dreamer must act according to the Talmudic principle whereby a distinction is made between monetary matters and other halachic issues. For monetary matters, a doubt has not effect, and the money is left with the person in holding, as it was before the dream. For matters of prohibitions, however, we must be concerned lest the dream speaks truth, and act with stringency.

Thus, the money that a dream helped to found can be kept by the finder, who is in holding of the money after inheriting it from his father. However, somebody who dreams of his excommunication, which is a matter of prohibition (he is prohibited from taking a haircut, from washing, and so on), must seek—out of doubt—to redress his condition.[5]

Distinction between Prohibition and Danger

Shut Shivas Tzion (Rabbi Shmuel Landau, son of the Noda Biyhuda, no. 52) offers a different resolution to the contradiction mentioned above.

After mentioning the approach of the Tashbatz (as cited above), he continues to introduce a different distinction between types of dreams, citing from Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel. According to Abarbanel, most dreams derive from physical causes, such as food we eat and the condition of our bodies, and these dreams have no meaning and import. However, some dreams are unrelated to physical factors, and these are true dreams that must be treated as instructions from Heaven.

Shut Shiva Tzion continues to explain that because the vast majority of dreams belong to the former category, only a small minority belonging to the latter group, it follows that for all regular matters of halachah, including monetary law and regular prohibitions, we are not concerned for revelations of dreams. The general principle is that we follow the rov, the majority: Because the majority of dreams are false and nonsensical, there is no need to follow their instruction.

However, with regard to matters of sakanah, questions of human danger, we must be concerned even for a slight chance, in line with the Talmudic dictum: Danger is more severe than prohibition (see Chulin 10a). Thus, concerning Divine excommunication, which is a question of danger for the person who was placed into excommunication, one cannot ignore the dream, and must seek release from the possible excommunication.

Seeing a Prohibition in a Dream

The halachic distinction between a question of prohibition and a matter of physical is important when a person dreams of something.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Shut Tzitz Eliezer Vol. 20, no. 32) was approached by somebody who saw in his dream that he had performed sexual relations with his wife while she was a niddah. He beheld the vision on the same night that he had actually cohabited with his wife, and although his wife had subsequently ensured that she was not a niddah, he remained shaken up, and asked Rabbi Waldenberg if he required some form of tikkun.

Rabbi Waldenberg’s response was that “dreams have no importance for good or for ill,” and that there was therefore no need for any action on the part of the dreamer.

However, Rabbi David Oppenheim (Shut Nishal Le-David Vol. 3, no. 18), who was asked a similar question, offers a very different response. After mentioning that “dreams have no importance for good or for ill,” and citing the relevant sources, Rabbi Oppenheim continues to cite a plethora of sources indicating the great concern of the Sages and authorities for dreams.

A number of sources he mentions refer to a case, cited by the Tashbatz (Rabbi Shimon b. Tzadok, of the Thirteenth Century, no. 352), who writes as follows: “Rabbeinu Efraim once partook of a certain fish, which he deemed to be kosher. The same night, he Rabbeinu Efraim saw in his dream an elderly man, with longer hair and beard and with a shining countenance, who offered him to eat from a boxful of insects. Rabbeinu Efraim was taken aback, exclaiming: But they are insects! He told him: These are permitted just as the insects you ate today. Upon awakening, Rabbeinu Efraim knew that Eliyahu had visited him, and from that day and on, he refrained from eating them” (see also Raavan 26; Sefer Chasidim 444; Hagahos Ashri, Zvodah Zarah 2:41).

After citing this, and other sources, Rabbi Oppenheim concludes that we must return to the aforementioned distinction between monetary matters and other prohibitions. Therefore, somebody who dreams of cohabiting with his wife while she is prohibited, must be concerned for the matter, and make amends.

Halachic Rulings and Factual Revelations

We have thus far mentioned two possible distinctions with regard to the halachic approach to dreams, one that differentiates between matters of monetary law and regular prohibitions, and another that distinguishes between matters of prohibition and matters of physical danger.

The might be room to suggest a third distinction. In two places, the Shach (Choshen Mishpat 333:25; 336:2) cites from risohnim who supported their halachic positions with revelations of dreams. In both places, the Shach defers the rulings adding that “dreams have no importance for good or for ill, in this matter.” The word bazeh (in this matter) suggests that in matters of halachic ruling, we do not follow the revelations of dreams.

It is noteworthy that the three occurrences of the Talmudic statement whereby “dreams have no importance for good or for ill” (Sanhedrin 30a; Gittin 52a; Horios 13b) are all found in respect of a concrete halachic ruling. It is therefore possible that Chazal’s disqualification of dreams is limited to strictly halachic issues. Concerning matters of halachic ruling the Sages refuse to accept even the direction of a bas kol (a Heavenly voice; see Bava Metzia 59), and it stands to reason that a dream is no more authoritative than a voice from Heaven.

However, concerning matters that are not strictly halachic rulings, such as tidings for the future (for instance somebody who was excommunicated in his dream, which bodes ill for the future), or a general revelation of some general factual matter (which might include defining a species of fish as kosher—a purely factual question, though it has halachic ramifications[6]), one should be concerned for dreams, lest they convey a true message.

Of this message Chazal state that a dream is one sixtieth of prophecy, and Chazal add (Chagigah 5b) that even in times when Hashem hides His countenance from us, he continues to reveal Himself by the medium of dreams.

In the light of this suggestion, we can possibly explain the two approaches of the Gemara in Horios concerning heeding the instruction of the dream. The dream, which was dreamed by both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nasan, instructed the two tanaim to apologize to Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel for the offense they had caused. Rabbi Nasan followed the directive, whereas Rabbi Meir refused to do so, claiming that “dreams have no importance for good or for ill.”

It is thus possible that Rabbi Nasan was the directive as ‘good advice,’ rather than as a halachic ruling, and therefore decided that it was prudent to follow it. Rabbi Meir, however, saw the dream as a halachic ruling in the question of who owed who an apology, and therefore deemed it outside the ‘jurisdiction’ of dreams.

We will please G-d complete the halachic discussion of dreams in next week’s article.

[1] Note, however, that the simple interpretation of the words is that the diviners “speak dreams that are false,” and see also below.

[2] Or “the Master of Dreams,” representing a personification of the dream.

[3] The “Second Tithe.” Maaser sheini can be redeemed onto money, which is then taken to Jerusalem, and used to purchase food which must be consumed therein.

[4] Some authorities dispute this ruling with regard to a dream that indicates the owner of the money. See Perishah, Choshen Mishpat 255:14, and see also Shut Divrei Yatziv, Yoreh De’ah 122, sec. 3.

[5] Based on this interpretation, the question of rabbinic prohibitions will arise: Does one have to be stringent even for rabbinic prohibitions, where one is usually lenient in cases of doubt? Likewise, there is room to investigate the application of other general principles for the resolution of doubts.

[6] This is not similar to the case in Sanhedrin concerning who the money belongs to. Though dependant on factual clarification, the question of who the money belongs is a concrete halachic question that requires resolution. The question of the fish, however, is a general factual question of whether the fish possesses fins and scales, and although the question has specific ramifications, it is possible that this will not be considered a halachic ruling beyond the ‘jurisdiction’ of dreams.

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