In the Bible
The biblical view of dreams agrees substantially with that held by almost all ancient peoples. Dreams are visions of things actually transpiring on an ultramundane plane, where persons are not bound to bodies or events to specific moments and places. This plane is indistinguishable from that of the gods (or God), and dreams are therefore considered to be divine communications (Gen. 20:3, 6; 31:10–11). What is thus revealed may subsequently be actualized in historical fact. Accordingly, dreams are regarded as presages or omens. They are best understood by visionaries, i.e., by prophets, mantics, and ecstatics, who, in their suprasensory states, are in rapport with the "divine dimension," and it is to such persons that God vouchsafes dreams when He wishes to communicate with mankind (cf. Num. 12:6). In the Bible, "dreamer," "prophet," and "magician" are related terms (cf. Jer. 23:28; 27:9; 29:8; see *Divination). The final interpretation of dreams rests with God (Gen. 40:8).
Dreams are usually symbolic, and their interpretation (known as oneiromancy) revolves around the unraveling of their images. Dreambooks, in which such images are codified, feature in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature. Biblical examples of such symbolic dreams are those of Joseph (Gen. 37:5ff.), of Pharaoh's butler and baker (ibid. 40:1ff.), and of Pharaoh himself (ibid. 41:1, 5); in Judges (7:13ff.) a man's dream that a cake of barley rolls onto the Midianite camp and bowls it over is taken to portend the imminent discomfiture
Dreams that occur in sacred places are considered to be revelations from the resident deity. People in search of divine direction resort to such shrines and sleep on the premises. This widespread practice, called incubation, is attested for the ancient Near East by a Sumerian inscription of Gudea of Lagash and a Hittite text of King Mursilis II of Hatti. The only clear instance in the Bible is the story of Jacob at Beer-Sheba (Gen. 46:1ff.), though some scholars claim that the narratives of the infant Samuel at Shiloh and of Jacob at Beth-El fall within the same category. It is necessary, however, to distinguish between incubation, which involves a purposeful visit to a shrine, and more general revelation through dreams, such as is described, for example, in I Kings 3:5–15 (Solomon at Gibeon). In sundry passages (e.g., Jer. 23:25; Zech. 10:2), the Bible speaks of false dreams. There appear to be two criteria for this designation, as there are also for false prophecy: a dream may be deemed false either because it is not subsequently realized, or because it never occurred at all. In the future Golden Age, says the prophet Joel (3:1), the gift of prophetic dreaming will be bestowed on all men, young and old alike. In the Greco-Roman age, apocalyptic visions were thought to be vouchsafed in dreams. Literary works inspired by this idea are the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypses of Ezra and Baruch. There is evidence of a pious protest against oneiromancy; both Ben Sira (31:1ff.) and the Letter of Aristeas (213–216) denounce belief in dreams.
[Theodor H. Gaster]
In the Talmud
Diametrically opposed views on dreams were expressed by the sages. Jonathan stated that "a man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts" (Ber. 55b). This statement is similar to Freud's views that certain thoughts which during the day are suppressed to the unconscious, reappear in a dream, where they find gratification. It is told of Meir and Nathan that after behaving unbecomingly toward Simeon b. Gamaliel the nasi, "they were told in their dreams to go and pacify him. Nathan went, but Meir did not, saying, 'Dreams are of no consequence'" (Hor. 13b; see also Git. 52a). The extent to which the sages did not set store by dreams is attested by Hanan's statement that "even if the genius of dreams informs a man that on the morrow he will die, he should not desist from prayer, since it is said (Eccles. 5:6): 'For through the multitude of dreams and vanities there are also many words; but fear thou God'" (Ber. 10b). There were sages who believed in dreams, however, and regarded them as being in the nature of prophecy; Ḥanina b. Isaac declared that "a dream is a variety of prophecy" (Gen. R. 17:5), and R. Joseph said, "If one was placed under a ban in a dream, ten persons are necessary for lifting the ban" (Ned. 8a). Some fasted on account of a bad dream, the *fast being known as ta'anit ḥalom ("dream-fast"). Thus Rav asserted: "Fasting is as potent against a dream as fire is against tow. Ḥisda said: Provided it is on the same day. R. Joseph added: Even on the Sabbath" (Shab. 11a).
The Talmud contains a prayer which originated in the last generation of the amoraim and which, said during the priestly benediction, reads as follows: "Sovereign of the Universe, I am Thine and my dreams are Thine. I have dreamt a dream and do not know what it is. Whether I have dreamt about myself, or my companions have dreamt about me, or I have dreamt about others, if they are good dreams, confirm and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph, and if they require a remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were healed by Moses our teacher, and as Miriam was healed of her leprosy and Hezekiah of his sickness, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. As Thou didst turn the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into something beneficial for me" (Ber. 55b). The Talmud records that there were 24 professional interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem (ibid.), an indication of how deep-rooted a belief in dreams was among the masses. (Extensive material on dreams and their interpretation is given in Ber. 55a–57b.) A third view, midway between these two extremes, regarded dreams as composed alike of truth and of incidental features. This was stated by Johanan in the name of Simeon b. Yoḥai: "Just as there can be no grain without straw, so can there be no dream without meaningless matter." A similar view was expressed by Berechiah, "While part of a dream may be fulfilled, the whole of it is never fulfilled," and by Ḥisda: "Neither a good dream nor a bad one is wholly fulfilled" (Ber. 55a). Some sages distinguished between one dream that lacks all substance and another that is fulfilled. This was the view of Johanan, who declared that "three dreams are fulfilled: an early morning dream, a dream which a friend has about one, and a dream which is interpreted within a dream" (Ber. 55b).
In Medieval Thought
Interest in dreams continued through the Middle Ages to modern times, especially among the kabbalists and Ḥasidim. The Zohar discusses the problem of the admixture of truth and falsehood in dreams, and distinguishes between the dreams of the wicked, which derive from the forces of impurity, and the dreams of the righteous, which contain the visions, images, and prophecies seen by the soul in the higher worlds. Nevertheless, even the dreams of the righteous are infected by the false notions of the sitra aḥra. The angel in charge of the dreams of the righteous is Gabriel. These dreams, while they are not as great as prophecy, are close to prophecy (Tishby, Mishnat ha-Zohar, 2 (1961), 136–43). Maimonides developed a conception of dreams, based on his psychology and epistemology, as an integral part of philosophical anthropology, which totally rejects all supernatural categories. The religious significance of Maimonides' conception lies in his identification of dreams and prophecy in terms of their essence, and their distinction in terms of their content (Guide of the Perplexed, 2:36–38; cf. Shemonah Perakim, 1; Yad, Yesodei ha-Torah 7:2). Maimonides attributes no cognitive significance to dreams in
A. Lowinger, Der Traum in der juedischen Literatur (1908); A. Kristianpoller, Traum und Traumdeutung (Monumenta Talmudica, 4, 1923); J. St. Lincoln, Dream in Primitive Culture (1935); E.L. Ehrlich, in: BZAW, 73 (1953), 1–170; H.L. Oppenheim, Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (1956); Jacob of Marvège, She'elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim, ed. by R. Margoliouth (1957), introduction, 3–20; S. Lieberman, Yevanit ve-Yavnut be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1962), 204–9; M. Harris, in: PAAJR, 31 (1963), 51–80.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.