One critical element in the story of Joseph is the prophetic nature of dreams. Three pairs of dreams are turning points in the narrative:
• Joseph’s dreams inflame his brothers’ jealousy and lead to Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt.
• The courtiers’ dreams, which Joseph interprets in prison, are fulfilled according to Joseph’s words so that the chief cupbearer is made aware of Joseph’s abilities.
• Therefore, when Pharaoh has his dreams, the cupbearer’s story leads to Joseph’s freedom and his appointment as viceroy of Egypt.
This makes perfect sense; in the ancient world, people believed in the power of dreams as omens, as divine communications that could reveal the future. Today, of course, we understand dreams as the product of a subconscious liberated by sleep that reveal things that have happened to us, stresses in our lives, anxieties about the future.
But before we start feeling superior to those ancients — Jews and others — who believed in the predictive power of dreams, we should take a closer look. The Torah itself hints that the vast majority of dreams are not prophetic. Joseph says to Pharaoh, “As for Pharaoh having had the same dream twice, it means that the matter has been determined by God and that God will soon carry it out.” In other words, it is this dream, unusual in its detail, clarity, and repetition, that contains a message from God. But this case is unusual. As the Talmud puts it, there cannot be a dream without some nonsense.
The rabbis were keen students of human nature, and while they didn’t use our scientific terminology, there is very little that we know about how human beings tick that they didn’t know as well.
In the talmudic tractate Berachot, there is a long discussion about the meaning and interpretation of dreams; here’s some of what the sages have to say:
• A Roman caesar asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananyah: You Jews say you are great sages. Tell me, then: What will I see in my dream? Rabbi Yehoshua said: You will see the Persians come upon you, enslave you, despoil you, and make you graze unclean animals with a gold crook. Caesar thought of Rabbi Yehoshua’s prediction all day and saw it that night.
• Rabbi Bana’ah said: In Jerusalem, there were 24 interpreters of dreams. Once I dreamed a dream and went to all of them, and not one agreed with the other in the interpretation of my dream.
So given their skepticism, what advice do the rabbis give to a person who has a disturbing dream and fears it might come true? They don’t offer the insights quoted above; they don’t say, “Don’t worry, dreams don’t come true.” Rather, they instituted the ta’anit halom, the dream fast. If a person has a bad dream, he is to fast the following day, and the dream will not come true. Moreover, a person could undertake this fast on Shabbat, when fasting is normally prohibited.
Taken together, the rabbis taught that our dreams don’t predict the future; rather, they reflect our thoughts and experiences. However, if you are upset about a bad dream, the Halacha provides a remedy. After all, it would be heartless to dismiss the dreamer’s fear and anxiety when there was a simple solution to calm his distress.
You see, Judaism is not only a religion of reason; it is also a religion of emotion, of feelings, of the heart. After all, no human being can or should try to exist without both a heart and a brain.