Dreams: What Are They?
Dreams have at all times and among all peoples received much attention. In the youth of a nation, as in the youth of an individual, dreams are so vivid that they appear to be hardly distinguishable from reality. “In the primitive stages of human development, when all insight into the laws of nature and of the human mind was lacking, dream-images were taken to be actual realities” (Lehmann, “Aberglaube und Zauberei,” p. 414, Stuttgart, 1898). Dreams were not explained physiologically or psychologically, but were ascribed to intercourse with spirits or taken to be inspirations of the gods. As spirits and gods were supposed to be conversant with the things that are hidden, yet unborn, dreams were looked upon as their whisperings, having the value of divinations and predictions. Since the language of spirits and gods, however, is not like the speech of men, it became necessary that dreams should be interpreted, which was possible only to the “wise man” who had intercourse with spirits and gods. In this way the “science” of dreams and dream-interpretation came into existence.
It is sufficient for the comprehension of the Biblical and Talmudical stories summarized below to compare them with the oneiromancy and oneirocriticism of the ancient world, which are amply treated in Lehmann’s book, as well as in the various dictionaries of antiquities, such as Daremberg and Saglio’s “Dictionnaire des Antiquités Grecques et Romaines” (ii. 306-308) and Ennemoser’s “Gesch. der Magie” (pp. 132-141, Leipsic, 1844). Tylor, in “Primitive Culture” (i. 122, 303, 439; ii. 411), discusses the question from the ethnographic point of view.
The Bible attaches importance to dreams, as is shown by well-known instances in Genesis. But in conformity with its strict monotheism, it is always God who speaks through dreams, either to make known His will or to announce future events. It must be noted, furthermore, that the dreams recorded in the Bible are, almost without exception, intended for the benefit of the race in general and not for that of single individuals (Gen. xx. 3; xxviii. 12; xxxi. 10, 24; xxxvii. 5, 9; xl.; xli.; Judges vii. 13; I Kings iii. 5, 15; Dan. ii. and iv.). The two interpreters of dreams mentioned by name, Joseph and Daniel, expressly refer to the inspiration of God in their interpretations (Gen. xli. 16, 25; Dan. ii. 19). Daniel even has dreams and interpretations in a “vision of the night.” Dreams were also taken as divine revelations even if they referred only to the dreamer himself (compare Job xxxiii. 14
Dreams and Prophecy.
Job looks upon the disquieting dreams and the dreadful visions of sleep as terrors sent by God (vii. 14). The prophet also received his prophecies during sleep: in some cases God spoke with him; in others, God caused him to behold a vision (Dan. i. 17). Only Moses spoke with God face to face, without the intervention of dreams, visions, or riddles (Num. xii. 5 et seq.).
Prophets and dreamers are mentioned together because of the connection between prophecy and dreams (I Sam. xxviii. 6, 15; Deut. xiii. 2, 4; Jer. xxiii. 25-32, xxvii. 9, xxix. 8). “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel ii. 28). There is nothing to indicate how the dreams of the true prophets were distinguished from those of the false ones. The higher kind of prophet, however, beheld the vision while awake, either by day or by night (Zech. i. 8, iv. 1; Gen. xv. 12; I Sam. iii. 3, 4; II Sam. vii. 4 et seq.; Dillmann, “Handbuch der Alttestamentlichen Theologie,” pp. 476 et seq., Leipsic, 1895).
Interpretation of Dreams.
The interpretations of dreams in the Bible are not dependent upon astrology nor upon any other occult science, but are simple and ingenuous. The dreams are interpreted symbolically. Seven fat kine mean seven fat years, etc. The recurrence of the dream means that it will surely come to pass within a short time (Gen. xli. 32). The dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. ii. and iv.) are huger and more fantastic, and their interpretation, especially that of the second one, may be termed allegorical. Judges vii. 13 is also interpreted symbolically.
—In Rabbinical Literature:
Jewish tradition furnishes abundant material relating to dreams, the Babylonian Talmud—which originated (200-500) in the home of the Chaldeans, the magicians of the ancient world—being especially rich in them. Berakot (55-58) is a veritable storehouse of dream-interpretations. The following selections will present the views of Palestinian and Babylonian Jews during the first five centuries of the common era.
The fact that the most famous teachers frequently discuss dreams and enunciate doctrines regarding them, shows the strong hold dreams had upon the minds even of the intellectual leaders of Judaism. Belief in dreams was the rule; doubt concerning them, the exception.
Johanan ben Zakkai dreamed that his sister’s sons would lose 700 denarii in that year. He therefore pressed them to give alms frequently, so that they might lose that sum gradually in a noble way (B. B. 10a). A man felt some compunction regarding the money left him by his father, which he suspected to be tithe-money. The dispenser of dreams () appeared to him, and named the place, the sum, and the uses to which the money was to be put. The scholars held that in such cases dreams could not be taken seriously, and declared the money to be secular (Tosef., Ma’aser Sheni, v. 9; Sanh. 30a). In a similar story it was the father instead of the dispenser of dreams who appeared to the son (Yer. Ma’aser Sheni 55b). Although God had turned His face from Israel, He yet spoke in dreams to individuals (Ḥag. 5b). In conformity with this view, dreams have been regarded as suggestions from Heaven. The patriarch Gamaliel II.’s qualms of conscience were allayed in a dream (Ber. 28a). In the same way the opposing scholars were enjoined to make their peace with the patriarch Simon ben Gamaliel (Hor. 13b).
Meïr had no confidence in a certain innkeeper with an ill-omened name; but two of his colleagues made light of his suspicions; whereupon Meïr was warned against the man in a dream (Yoma 83b). Hints through Biblical passages were given in dreams (Yeb. 93b; Soṭah 31a; etc.). Ḥanina had a dream in which Rab was hanged on a tree; he interpreted this to mean that Rab would be his successor, and therefore treated him as an implacable enemy (Yoma 87b). When R. Naḥma spoke irreverently of Saul, terrifying angels appeared to him in a dream (ib. 22b). For a similar reason King Manasseh appeared to R. Ashi in a dream (Sanh. 102b). When Raba forced rain to come, his father appeared in a dream and scolded him (Ta’an. 24b). One whom R. Judah had honored in death came to thank him in a dream (Shab. 152b). Even an idolappeared in a dream, at a time when there was drought (‘Ab. Zarah 55b). Raba prayed that he might receive in a dream the answer to a difficult question (Men. 67a). This actually happened in the case of R. Johanan (Men. 84b, passim). Many teachers of the Law desired to see famous authorities of past ages in their dreams, and had their wishes granted (Eccl. R. ix. 10). If any one was put under ban in a dream, ten persons had to absolve him (Ned. 8a); but if a pagan wished to embrace Judaism because he had been advised in a dream to do so, he was not accepted (Yeb. 24b).
Good and Evil Dreams.
A distinction was made between good and evil dreams. He who goes to bed in a cheerful frame of mind “is shown” a good dream (Shab. 30b), which may come to pass within twenty-two years (Ber. 55b). Good persons do not have good dreams, nor have bad ones evil dreams (ib.). As evil dreams naturally caused anxiety, people prayed not to be disturbed by them (Ber. 60b). The most common and efficient preventive of evil dreams was fasting (), still practised by many persons (Shab. 11a). It is not always clear what constitutes a good or an evil dream.
A skilful interpretation consisted in an ingenious answer, that often explained two similar dreams in entirely opposite ways. A man came to R. Jose ben Ḥalafta, saying: “I was told in a dream to go to Ḳapudḳia [Cappadocia), where I should find the money of my deceased father.” Jose explained the dream as follows: “Count ten beams in your house, and in the tenth you will find the treasure, for ‘Kapudkia’ means [= “beam”] and [= “decuria,” “ten”]” (for a similar analysis of the same name see Krauss, “Lehnwörter,” ii. 459a). The same famous teacher of the Law interpreted a dream of an olive-wreath to mean that the dreamer would advance in the world; while he said to another man who had had a like dream, that he would be beaten. When the latter asked him why his interpretations differed, Jose replied: “The other man saw the olives growing, whereas you saw them after they had been picked”, the latter idea being expressed in Hebrew by the words meaning “to beat down” (Yer. Ma’aser Sheni 55b). Such interpretations are generally based on folk-etymology, a striking example of which is given in Blau’s “Altjüdisches Zauberwesen” (p. 166). The personality of the dreamer was also considered, so that the same dream (for instance, of drinking wine) might mean success in the case of a scholar, and misfortune in the case of an unlettered person (ib.).
Interpreters of Dreams.
The dreamer as a rule was unable to interpret his own dream (Yoma 28b). Hence the need of interpreters, who were numerous, and asked payment for their skill. The good-will of the interpreter was sought by presents, for it was believed that all dreams came true according to the interpretation (Yer. Ma’aser Sheni 57c; compare Bacher in “Rev. Et. Juives,” xxvii. 141). Even teachers of the Law demanded a fee for interpreting a dream. They were consulted also by pagans, just as Jews consulted pagan “Chaldeans.” Raba and Abaye, two Babylonian leaders of schools in the first half of the fourth century, laid their dreams before a Chaldean of the name of Bar Hedia, whose avarice and lying were denounced. “Whoever gave him a fee got a favorable answer, and whoever gave no fee got an unfavorable one” (Ber. 56a). He was held up to ridicule, and yet in spite of it was taken seriously.
Rules Concerning Dreams.
Ḥisda, a Babylonian of the third century, laid down the following rules: Every dream, excepting those which occur during fasting, means something. A dream not interpreted is like a letter unread. Neither good nor evil dreams come true entirely. An evil dream is better than a good one, since it leads to repentance; the former is annulled by the pain it causes, and the latter by the joy (Ber. 55a). Similar views are expressed by other Babylonian amoraim. An evil dream can be turned away, according to R. Johanan, by saying to three persons: “I have had a good dream”; they replying: “Yes, it is good; let it be good; may God change it to good,” etc. The evil dream can also be annulled by means of certain Bible verses. The prayer for good dreams, which the congregation still pronounces after the first and second blessings of the priest, is recommended as early as the Talmud (Ber. 55b). In addition to learned interpretations—for instance, on the meanings of Biblical passages occurring in dreams—there are also those of a folk-lore character; e.g., a red horse is an ill omen and a white horse a good omen (Sanh. 93a). A ט, the initial letter of (“good”), is a good omen (B. Ḳ.). The diversity of dreams made the profession of interpreter remunerative. The fee paid for an interpretation was generally one denarius. There were twenty-four interpreters in Jerusalem, each one of whom would, of course, interpret a dream differently from the others.
Belief in dreams was criticized as early as Ecclesiastes, in which it is declared to be vanity (ch. v.). In view of the general and implicit belief in dreams obtaining in the ancient world, Sirach’s disbelief in them is proof of his advanced thought. He expresses his views as follows (xxxi. [xxxiv.] 1-8, R. V.):
Vain and false hopes are for a man void of understanding; and dreams give wings to fools.
As one that catcheth at a shadow, and followeth after the wind, so is he that setteth his mind on dreams.
The vision of dreams is as this thing against that, the likeness of a face over against a face.
Of an unclean thing what shall be cleansed? And of that which is false what shall be true?
Divinations and soothsayings and dreams are vain; and the heart fancieth, as a woman’s in travail.
If they be not sent from the Most High in thy visitation, give not thy heart unto them.
For dreams have led many astray; and they have failed by putting their hope in them.
Without lying shall the Law be accomplished; and wisdom is perfection to a faithful mouth.
The criticism of R. Simon ben Yoḥai (c. 150), however, shows a certain belief in the meaning of dreams; he says: “As there is no grain without chaff, so there is no dream without vain things.” But his contemporary R. Meïr says, “Dreams do not help nor harm” (Hor. 13b). It is noteworthy that Philo wrote five books on dreams (Schürer, “Gesch.” 3d ed., iii. 510, note 61). In view of these facts the psychologicinterpretations of dreams by the wise rabbi Joshua ben Ḥananya (c. 100) are worthy of note. As Nebuchadnezzar once asked the Chaldeans, so a Roman emperor (probably Hadrian) asked Joshua what he (Hadrian) was going to dream. Joshua answered: “You shall dream that the Persians will vanquish and ill-treat you.” Reflecting on this the whole day, the emperor dreamed accordingly (Ber. 56a). Samuel (d. 257) gave a similar and equally efective answer to the Persian king. Notwithstanding these exceptions, it may be said that the Jews of antiquity held almost the same views regarding dreams as did other ancient peoples.
- Hamburger, R. B. T. ii. 996-998;
- Winer, B. R. 3d ed., ii. 632-633;
- Ennemoser, Gesch. der Magie, pp. 112-141;
- Lehmann, Aberglaube und Zauberei, Stuttgart, 1898.
—In Jewish Folk-Lore:
Uncultured Jews share with, and in most cases derive from, their neighbors most of their superstitions relating to dreams. The general principle seems to be that dreams go by contraries. Thus, if you dream of death, it is a sign that you will live. This belief is common to English, Dutch, and Russian Jews. On the other hand, there is a saying that a sixtieth part of every dream is true, since a dream is that part of prophecy (Ber. 57b). But not all dreams follow the rule of contraries; thus, if a Russian Jew dreams that a dog attempts to bite him, it is regarded as a sign that his enemies wish to harm him. It is generally thought that the dead pay visits to the living in dreams; this is current among the German peasantry (Grimm, list of superstitions at the end of “Teutonic Mythology,” No. 633). To dream that a dead person brings fruit with him is regarded as a sign that he is in paradise. It would also appear that Jewish popular thought regards the dream-world as in direct communication with heaven, for the familiar dream-experience of a sudden fall is regarded as a sign that the soul has been suddenly ejected from heaven. On the other hand, it is considered unlucky to accept in a dream a present from one dead. This is found as early as the thirteenth century in the “Ẓawwa’ah” of Judah Ḥasid, § 13. If an unpropitious or in other ways “bad” dream occurs to a pious Jew, he will fast the next day. It is therefore considered an evil omen to have a bad dream on Yom Kippur, when fasting is obligatory, and the dreamer can not ward off the ill effects of his dream by a special fast for that purpose. Hence the curious recipe for preventing bad dreams found among the Jews of Minsk, who say, “Got is a har, Der holem is a nar; Wos vet mir zich haintige nacht holemen, Wel ich morgen nit fasten” (God is master, The dream is a fool; Whatever I may dream to-night, I will not fast to-morrow). The assumption is that the ruler of dreams, finding that he can not force the dreamer to fast, will not take the trouble to send him a bad dream. Dreams are supposed to result in the way they are interpreted, and accordingly it is unwise to tell your dream to a fool; he might interpret it in an unfavorable way.
The Jews of eastern Europe have still their special dream-book, a Yiddish translation of Almoli’s “Pitron Ḥalomot,” an edition of which was published as late as 1902 in Brooklyn, New York. This classifies dreams in accordance with their subjects—as animals, plants, angels, or the dead; or milk, cheese, butter, etc. A few examples will suffice to indicate the character of the work. If you dream that an ox gores you, you will live long; that you see demons, you will earn a great deal of money; that you drink milk, you will fall ill, but rapidly recover. These puerilities are probably derived from medieval dream books of the Mohammedans, since Solomon ben Jacob Almoli lived in Constantinople.