Dreams are, according to the American Heritage Dictionary “a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that usually occur involuntarily in the mind during certain stages of sleep.”
Do dreams serve a purpose, and what? Who deserves meaningful dreams? Can people influence their dreams? Dreams in the ancient world helped determine financial, personal and national policy. Do modern dreams carry the same weight? How are dreams interpreted? What does one do when hearing a friend’s dream?
In Parashas Mikeitz we read of Pharaoh’s dream – a vision of wheat stalks and cows on the Nile riverbank. This dream, however nonsensical, led to major changes in the distribution of power in the ancient world. This week’s article will provide an overview of dreams and their meanings.
While people might see dreams as fruit of an overactive imagination, the Gemara teaches us that dreams are messages from higher worlds intended to arouse one to repent (Berachos 55a-b): “Rav Ḥisda said: A bad dream is worse than lashes, as it is stated: “G-d has so made it, that men should fear before Him” (Koheles 3:14). Raba bar bar Ḥana quoted Rabbi Yocḥanan: “That refers to a bad dream that causes man to fear.” A righteous person is shown bad dreams so he will be frightened and repent – then, the fear atones for his misdeeds and disaster is averted. An evil person, however, is shown wonderful visions to allow him enjoy pleasure in his dream instead of in reality.
This leaves us with a mixed message concerning dreams – are they true, but meant to arouse certain emotions and therefore never come to fruition, or are they indeed, a peek into the future?
True or False?
The Gemara (Berachos 54b) differentiates between three kinds of dreams:
- Most dreams are a recycling of the thoughts that occupied one’s mind during the day. These dreams have no meaning and do not foretell anything.
- False dreams delivered by a demon. This is expressed in the pasuk: “And the dreams speak falsely” (Zechariah 10:2). Although these dreams may well come true on occasion, there is no need to be concerned of them, as they are characteristically unprecise. Just like charmers, although they may well foretell the future, they are certainly not accurate and tend to lie. A ceremony called Hatovas Chalom (lit. “making a dream good”) is possible if a dream is very disturbing. This ceremony will be outlined further on.
Another way of averting evil decrees predicted by a dream is fasting, accompanied by repentance and disbursement of charity, as well as Torah study and prayer. This too, will be explained further on in this article.
- Dreams delivered by an angel, which are considered a form of prophesy (Berachos 57b). The Tashbetz (Part II, chapter 128) explains that the “angel” here does not refer to an angel per se, but to a person whose mind is pure and free of all negative thoughts, ate only light and healthy foods that do not cloud the mind and has the power of spiritual insight. This person can, at times, access true visions in his dreams. Similarly, the Abarbanel writes (beginning of Parashas Mikeitz) that the degree of truth in a dream depends on the brain of the person on the receiving end – his purity of thought, emotional balance, healthy body and nutrition.
Contemporary poskim (Mishna Brura, Sha’ar Hatziyun 220:1) write that negative dreams experienced after stressful incidents or even just a difficult day such as a fast day, can certainly be attributed to those incidents and don’t foretell anything.
Chikrei Lev (Choshen Mishpat part II, 118) following the Abarbanel and Tashbetz, rules that dreams today carry no meaning and one can ignore them completely. If this was true in the days of the Chikrei Lev (1741-1820) how much more relevant it is to us today, especially for the average person.
The Chazon Ish (Igros, volume II, chapter 149) rules that there are no true dreams today, neither delivered by a demon, nor delivered by an angel. One must be on a very lofty spiritual plane in order to merit such dreams. Therefore, there is no need to fast at all after experiencing a dream, and one who is still troubled by a dream should recite a specific prayer quoted in the Gemara (see further on in this article).
Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Chochma V’Daas, Bereshis 41:1) quotes the Chazon Ish as saying that nowadays, only spiritual or political leaders are showed meaningful dreams.
The Mishna Brura writes (220:4) that bad dreams concerning another person warrant fasting and prayer. In some instances, one is shown troubles that will befall another with the intention that he fast and pray on behalf of his friend. Had his friend’s prayers been necessary, he would have been shown the dream. Another reason is that perhaps the troubles predicted in the dream are destined for the dreamer while being camouflaged as trouble that will befall another, and the dream serves as a call for prayer to annul that calamity.
Trash or Treasure?
What determines if a dream is real or not? The Shulchan Aruch offers several opinions for which dreams one is permitted to fast on Shabbos (Orech Chayim 288:5):
- A bad dream that recurred three times. (Although three times is a sign, one who is troubled during the day from a bad dream will, presumably, dream that dream again on the following night because of ruminative day thoughts.)
- The Tur (Orech Chayim 568 quoting Rav Amram, Rav Klonimus and the Ra’avia) writes that today nobody knows how to interpret dreams, and no one can determine if a dream is positive or negative. Even the dreams mentioned in Chazal as bad or good cannot be understood as such because even a slight difference can reverse the meaning. Therefore, fasting on Shabbos for a distressing dream is unjustified.
- Specific dreams recognized as bad which warrant fasting: dreaming of a Sefer Torah or tefillin being burned; being on Yom Kippur during the time of the Neila prayer; seeing the the walls of his house collapsing or his teeth falling out.
These are the only dreams considered today as predictors of troubles. Any difference or variation can change the entire meaning.
The Shulchan Aruch agrees that a dream of fallen walls us indeed a bad dream, but the Magen Avraham (9) and Mishna Brura (17) differ on the matter, quoting from Midrash Raba: a man dreamt that the walls of his house fell and was told it meant that his wife would give birth to a baby boy, and so it was. Therefore, even a dream about a wall can be interpreted positively and does not warrant fasting.
The Shulchan Aruch rules that all dreams mentioned in the Gemara (Berachos 55a-57b) as bad necessitate fasting, even on Shabbos. But the Mishna Brura argues (20) that this is true only for dreams indicating he or his relatives are in life-threatening danger which would warrant desecration of Shabbos. For a dream mentioned in the Gemara as indicative of an impending financial loss, one may not fast on Shabbos.
The Mishna Brura (220:1) writes that in any case, for a dream that causes significant distress, even if it lacks known negative content, one should do a Hatavas Chalom. Emotional distress can itself be indicative of the content.
The Gemara (Berachos 55a-57b) mentions a list of specific objects or actions that carry positive tidings if appear in dreams. Here we will quote a sampling of these objects or actions:
Seeing a pumpkin is a sign that one is making his best effort to be a G-d fearing individual.
Eating meat of an ox is a sign one will become wealthy.
Seeing Yishamel son of Avraham is a sign his prayers will be heard.
Seeing a camel indicates that an evil decree has been averted.
Answering “Amen yehi Shemi Raba” in a dream is a sign of being a “ben Olam Haba” [Lit. “Son of the Next World”], i.e. worthy of eternal life
Is it possible to influence dreams? The Magen Avraham (220:1) quotes the Gemara (Shabbos 30b) as telling us that yes, it is possible. Going to sleep with a happy attitude, with joy of mitzva performance is the prerequisite for being shown a positive dream. Maintaining a healthy attitude and positive behavior ensure happy dreams that will, hopefully, come true.
Below is a partial list of the dreams mentioned in the Gemara as conveying negative connotations:
Dreaming of fasting; being bitten or kicked by an ox; killing a snake; weapons, tools, uprooted radishes, unripe dates, an owl, a bat or a light blue color.
Although the Gemara records interpretations of dreams, the Magen Avraham (10) and Mishna Brura (21) explain that some are inapplicable today because they depend upon the spoken language. For example, the Gemara (Berachos 56b) writes that dreaming of a cat where it is called shunra is a good dream indicating that something good will happen for which praise [shira] to Hashem will be offered. However, where a cat is called shinra the dream is a bad one because it means that a change [shinuy] will occur. Indeed, dream interpretation is a tricky profession. Tosefos explains that this profession could not be learned in any academy — it is an innate ability of uncanny intuition and perception which is available only to people with specific birth-conditions.
The Gemara tells of a dream interpreter, Bar Hadaya, who was used by both Abaye and Rava. Both experienced the same dreams but were offered different interpretations – Abaye was given a positive interpretation while Rava – a negative one. The reason for the difference was payment — Abaye would pay for the interpretation while Rava would not. However, for both the interpretations of the dreams came true just as the interpreter predicted.
Eventually, Rava learned of the difference in treatment and began paying for the services. From then on, his interpretations turned for the better.
One day Rava came to Bar Hadaya and said: “The Egyptian hallel [hallel that celebrates the Exodus] was read to me in a dream.” He said to him: “Miracles will be performed for you.” Bar Hadaya was about to travel with Rava on a ship, but suddenly changed his mind, ‘Why am I going with a person for whom miracles will be performed, lest the miracle will be that the ship will sink and he alone will be saved?’ As Bar Hadaya disembarked a book fell from him. Rava found it, opened it and read: “All dreams follow the mouth [i.e. follow the interpretation].” He said to Bar Hadaya, “Scoundrel! It was dependent on you, and you caused me so much suffering. I forgive you for everything except for the death of my wife, the daughter of Rav Ḥisda, which you predicted. May it be Your will that this man be delivered into the hands of a kingdom that has no compassion.” Bar Haddaya decided to go into exile, as exile atones for transgressions, but there he died a violent death at the hands of the Romans.
Bar Hadaya, the dream interpreter, knew the secret of interpreting dreams – they follow the interpretation alluded to them. Finding a positive interpretation to a dream is the key. Therefore, if ever hearing one tell over a negative dream, one should be careful to interpret it in a positive light. For example, a dream of dying can be explained as predicting extensive Torah study, as we find in the Gemara (Berachos 63b): “Reish Lakish said: From where is it derived that matters of Torah are only retained by one who kills himself over it? As it is stated: ‘This is the Torah: When one dies in a tent’.”
The Aruch Hashulchan, however, writes (Orech Chayim 220:1) that dreams are better off not retold and not interpreted, because we are told in the Gemara (Berachos 55a): “Rav Ḥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” As long as it is not interpreted it cannot be fulfilled; the interpretation of a dream creates its meaning.
Death after Death
As a practicing rabbi, I am often approached with questions regarding dreams. One of the most common dreams involves a deceased relative (usually a parent or grandparent) saying that he or she is hungry or dying. While it may have been caused by thinking of the departed during the day, Rabbi Yechezkeil Levenstein zatzal writes that it could be an indication that the deceased is asking his relatives for nourishment – mitzvos, tzedakah and Torah study, which sustain the soul in the Next World. In his recurring death the deceased is asking his relatives to send him some of those life-sustaining “gifts”.
So, what can be done after dreaming a bad dream? As mentioned earlier in this article, bad dreams can be “corrected” in several ways.
Birkas Kohanim [the Priestly Blessing]
The Gemara (Berachos 55b) writes that one who is disturbed by a dream should recite the following prayer while the Kohanim raise their hands in blessing during the Shacharis prayers:
Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours, I dreamed a dream and I do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamed of myself, whether my friends have dreamed of me or whether I have dreamed of others, if the dreams are good, strengthen them and reinforce them like the dreams of Yosef. And if the dreams require healing, heal them like the bitter waters of Mara by Moshe Rabeinu, and like Miriam from her leprosy, and like Chizkiya from his illness, and like the bitter waters of Yericho by Elisha. And just as You transformed the curse of Bilam the wicked into a blessing, so transform all of my dreams for me for the best.
Conclusion of the prayer should be along with the Kohanim, so the congregation responds Amen both to the blessing of the priests and to his individual request.
The text of this prayer is printed in many siddurim and quoted in the Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chayim 130:1). Saying this prayer can be time consuming, especially since it should not be recited when the Kohanim are pronouncing the words of the blessing, only when they sing or when the chazzan recites the words before they pronounce them. In order to allow the congregation to recite this prayer, many congregations insert in this spot a long, wordless melody, to be sung by the Kohanim before pronouncing the final word of the blessing. This is the accepted practice on holidays. However, where this is not the custom, or in Eretz Yisroel where the Kohanim recite the priestly blessing every day but without the melody, one should, perhaps, pray with a small minyan and ask the Kohanim to sing before the beginning of the services.
Another option mentioned in the Rama is to recite the prayer while the chazan recites the final blessing of Sim Shalom, ending along with the chazan so the final Amen will end his own prayer as well.
One who finished the prayer early while the Kohanim are still singing, or the chazzan has yet to finish Sim Shalom, should recite the Adir Bamarom prayer
Majestic One on high, Who dwells in power, You are peace and Your name is peace. May it be Your will that You bestow upon us peace.
and the final Amen will end his prayer as well.
Can one who did not dream a bad dream recite the above-mentioned prayer? The Mishna Brura (Orech Chayim 130:1) rules that one must not lie to Hashem and therefore, should not recite the prayer. On holidays, however, it is permitted, minus the words “I dreamed a dream”. According to Shulchan Aruch Hagraz (130) everybody should say this prayer when the Kohanim give their blessing on the holidays, as presumably everybody dreamt a bad dream that they forgot between holidays.
Hatavat Chalom (lit. “Making a Dream Good”)
Another way to transform a possible bad decree implied by a dream is to perform a ceremony called Hatavat Chalom on the day following the dream (Shulchan Aruch 220:1). This is a ceremony performed before three friends and is mentioned in the Gemara (Berachos 55b):
One who sees a dream from which causes him to be distraught, should better it before three. He should bring three people and say to them: I saw a good dream. And they should say to him: It is good, and let it be good, may God make it good. May they decree upon you from heaven seven times that it will be good, and it will be good. Afterwards they recite three psukim of transformation from bad to good, three psukim of redemption, and three psukim which mention peace.
These psukim are recited responsively with the dreamer and his friends, along with various prayers printed in the siddur. The Mishna Brura (220:3) writes that it is a mitzva to be counted among those who perform this ceremony and it is permitted to perform even on Shabbos.
After experiencing a distressing dream, another way of “bettering” it is by fasting. The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chayim 220:2) rules that fasting has the power to cancel evil decrees predicted in dreams as easily as fire catches linen. The Rama adds that it is specifically when one fasts on the day he dreamt. The Magen Avraham and the Mishna Brura add that a fast is analogous to offering a sacrifice for a sin – just as a sacrifice is effective only when accompanied by repentance, so, too fasting for a dream is only effective if accompanied by repentance. This, according to the Sefer Chasisdim, is the purpose of the dream.
The Magen Avraham and Mishna Brura add, though, that this fast is non-compulsory, and one who does not want to fast is not obligated to do so. He can rely upon the Gemara’s ruling (Berachos 55a): “Shmuel, when he would see a bad dream, would say: ‘And the dreams speak falsely’ (Zechariah 10:2).
A weak person, such as a pregnant or nursing mother, should not fast (Mishna Brura). Instead, they should donate the cost of feeding one person for one day to charity.
The Magen Avraham (Orech Chayim 288:7) and Mishna Brura (15; 19) rule that fasting after a dream on Shabbos is permitted only when the distress from the dream is greater than the pain of fasting, and for whom fasting will serve as a calming mechanism. One for whom fasting is more painful than the distress caused by the dream, or one who is not distressed by his dream should not fast on Shabbos.
The Magen Avraham and Mishna Brura (ibid) add that even regarding the three dreams mentioned as negative ones the Shela would usually rule (Shabbos, Ner Mitzva) that the dreamer should accept upon himself to fast two days during the week instead of on Shabbos. Since he refrained from fasting on the day of the dream in honor of Shabbos, he is considered to have accepted upon himself a fast and considered to have fasted on the day of the dream.
Most dreams are a result of daytime thoughts and bear no meaning. A meaningful dream comes to one whose mind is clear and at peace, emotions are balanced, and body — healthy. Nowadays, many say that our dreams do not have any meaning.
Some dreams can be conveyed by a demon, and although they may come true, there is no reason to fear them. This form of dream is uncommon today, and the Chazon Ish instructed people not to fast for bad dreams at all, especially not on Shabbos.
One who is, nevertheless, distressed by a dream, should recite the prayer mentioned in the Gemara during Birkas Kohanim or Sim Shalom. Another possibility is conducting the ceremony of Hatavas Chalom together with three friends.
Telling a dream is not recommended. This is to ensure it will not be interpreted negatively.
Upon hearing a friend’s dream, one should interpret it in a positive manner.