Everyone has dreamed at one time or another and all who have dreamed are curious about the meaning of the dreams. After many years of research, scientists are still not sure if dreams have the great significance that Freud claimed, little significance or no significance at all. What does Judaism believe?
In the Torah, dreams play a very prominent role in many major stories. Jacob has a symbolic dream about angels and ladders in which the promise to Abraham and Isaac about the land and the future Jewish people is affirmed. Joseph’s numerous dreams predict his future as leader, draw the wrath of his brothers and father upon him, and earn him a nickname as “the dreamer,” which changes the course of Jewish history as the dreams cause the brothers to eventually sell Joseph which, in turn, eventually leads the Jewish people to enter the Egyptian Diaspora and slavery. In Egypt, Joseph develops the ability to accurately interpret dreams that eventually frees him from jail and casts him as second only to the king. There are other dreams by non-Jews such as Avimelech and Bilaam in which G-d appears to each. All these dreams affected the events in the Torah. And yet, the Talmud does not make it clear if all dreams have significance. Though the Torah dreams certainly portend the future or change the course of Jewish history, it is not apparent how Judaism views the dreams of the common man.
There are many Talmudic sources showing how all types of dreams have specific meanings. An entire chapter of a Talmudic tractate is filled with discussions on how to interpret each detail of every dream. For example, it states that three specific types of dreams which will actually occur in reality. Other statements point to the significance of dreams. When it says that dreams are one sixtieth of prophecy, it certainly means that dreams are to be taken seriously. Part of the Shema prayer that a Jew recites before retiring at night, contains a blessing asking G-d to protect him or her from bad dreams. On each Jewish festival, during the Priestly blessing, there is a custom to say a prayer that asks G-d to fulfill all the dreams that a person is unaware of, if they are good, and to convert bad dreams to good dreams. Clearly, these and many other sources indicate that the rabbis as well as the Torah attached significance to dreams, both in their Talmudic statements and the prayers they composed.
On the other hand, there are clear, unambiguous statements in the Talmud stating that dreams are totally worthless and not to be taken seriously, indicating that there was absolutely no significance attached to anyone’s dream in the time of the Talmud as well as today.
A third set of sources gives some significance to dreams, but modifies their importance and impact. One statement says that not all the good in dreams are fulfilled totally but that not all bad dreams are fulfilled totally either. Rashi, basing himself on this statement and other Talmudic statements, writes that every dream has some nonsense in it.
Therefore, all three types of sources exist simultaneously: all dreams have significance, parts of dreams have significance and no dream has significance. How are these major contradictions resolved? Which is the authentic Jewish approach? Samuel in the Talmud raised this very question. He cites the contradiction about the significance of dreams from two verses. A verse in Zechariah states that dreams have no significance. And yet, G-d says that He speaks to man (in prophecy) through dreams: how can both be correct, asks Samuel? His answer is somehow not satisfying to us, when he says that those dreams that come from an angel have significance and those that come from a demon have no significance. This obviously does not help resolve the issue. Even if we knew what a Shed (demon) was and how it affected dreams, we still would have no clue telling us the cause of each dream. Which dreams are demon caused and which are angel caused? Thus, we have not resolved the issue. How are we to know which dreams have significance and which are meaningless?
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and three grandchildren.
This essay is reprinted from the book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” published by Urim, or the upcoming books, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to Man” or “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d” to be published in the future. This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).