Dream Interpretation – 1

Jewish Magic and Superstition
by Joshua Trachtenberg, [1939]


IN THE long pre-Freudian centuries, before the mystery of the dream was reduced to all too human terms, when men still listened for the voice of God in the still of the night, dreams played a greater rôle in shaping ideas and actions and careers than it is easy for us today to believe. If we have come to look upon these nocturnal visions as the products of experience, we have simply reversed the older, though not yet altogether discarded, view which made of them initiators of experience. The supernatural world communicated with man through the dream, and spoke words of counsel and command which he felt impelled to heed. Galen, in 148 C.E., at the age of seventeen, turned to the study of medicine because of a dream; in 1244 Ludwig IX took up the cross for a like compelling reason. How many such instances might be adduced to indicate the vital decisions that turned upon such a motive!

The dream was not less potent an incentive in Jewish life; for instance, at about the time of Ludwig’s venture, Moses of Coucy wrote, “At the beginning of the sixth millennium [1240 C.E.] there came to me the command in a dream vision, ‘Arise, compose a book of religious instruction in two parts!'” which was the genesis of his Semag. Two centuries later, a certain Gershon b. Hiskiya, who was in prison in France, was led by a dream to write a book on medicine. Two centuries later again a dream prompted the composition of Menasseh b. Israel’s Nishmat Ḥayim.1

Even legal and ritual problems of some moment were decided at the instance of “the master of dreams.” The very day on which the Tosafist, Efraim b. Isaac of Regensburg, permitted the consumption of sturgeon as a kosher fish he was obliged to reverse himself because in a dream “they” had made clear to him that he was in error. R. Meir of Rothenburg admitted that a dream had caused him to change his opinion in a matter affecting wages, despite contrary precedents, the rulings of his French colleagues, and his own previous decisions. In fact, there lived in the thirteenth century a man, Jacob Halevi of Marvège, who gathered in a volume a series of responsa which had been handed down to him in dreams, relative to such ritual issues as shaving the beard and cutting the hair, how and when tefillin should be worn, when certain blessings should be recited, whether milk foods may be eaten after meat, ritual slaughter, etc.—matters that can seem trivial only to those who are insensitive to the demands which an ardent piety makes upon devout people. He did not limit himself to these questions; sometimes his queries were in a lighter vein.

It is reported that he once asked “the master of dreams” whether Jesus and Mary are hinted at in the Bible, and received the reply that the words “the foreign gods of the land” (Deut. 31:16) are mathematically equivalent to those two names. [Horus and Isis. Heru and Auset.] It is a pity that he didn’t convey to us the reply to his question as to how soon the Messianic era may be expected. Others, too, merited heavenly edification. In the same century an anonymous writer asserted that dreams had cleared up many difficulties in Maimonides’ Guide for quite a few puzzled students, and Isaac b. Moses of Vienna, who was very much concerned about the correct spelling of the name “Akiba” had that too straightened out for him by the obliging “master of dreams.” Heaven was more co-operative in those days than it is today.2

The dream thus constituted a very real factor in medieval life—even the line that separated physical reality from the more tenuous spirit world which was supposed to rule dreamland was not too precisely and permanently drawn. In Havre, in 1637, the city court declared a child legitimate when the mother swore that her husband, missing for four years, had embraced her in a dream. To such fantastic lengths Jewish belief did not go. Yet a vow or a decree of excommunication pronounced in a dream was held to be real and binding, even more so than one uttered during waking hours, for the latter could be voided before a court of three men, while the former required a full congregation of ten, the idea being that since the deity had somehow been involved in the dream action, only a minyan, over which the Shechinah presided, had the power to release the dreamer.3

But the greatest force that the dream exerted was as a prognostication of, and guide to, the future. In this conviction the leaders of Church and Synagogue were at one; Thomas Aquinas found himself in the company of the rabbis of the Talmud and the Middle Ages. “Dreams are a sixtieth part of prophecy” ran an old adage; the mathematics may have been correct once upon a time, but since the gift of prophecy had been withdrawn from the world, the proportion must be raised considerably to do justice to the medieval view. It was in dreams that the supernatural world communicated directly with the natural; its knowledge of the future could most readily be transmitted to men through this medium. “Not a thing transpires on earth,” wrote one authority on the subject, “without having first been announced in a dream.” Another wrote, “Nothing happens to a man, good or ill, before he has beheld some intimation of it in a dream.”

How seriously this dictum was taken we may judge from an anecdote: a man dreamed that he would marry a certain woman, but when he sought to fulfill his destiny, she refused him. Now he was in a dilemma; if he married someone else, which he was quite ready to do, it would be tantamount to dooming his wife to an untimely death, for his dream must undoubtedly come true. Though “the sage” whom he approached with his problem quoted Talmud to refute Talmud: “dreams neither raise nor lower,” that is, “disregard them and follow your own inclination,” it was no easy matter to convince him that he need not wait until his dream-mate changed her mind. Instances of this sort could be cited in great number. And the reports of dreams that came true are legion.

After relating one such true dream which R. Israel Isserlein had, his biographer wrote, “And I know many more dreams of his that came to pass.” There are still many people who can testify in a like vein concerning themselves or their friends. Solomon Almoli, in his Pitron Ḥalomot (“The Interpretation of Dreams”), proved logically that this was no superstition. Jews and Gentiles agree, he wrote, that portents occur during waking hours; there can be no doubting that they come from God, for they show themselves in time to be veracious intimations of the future. Nor can one for a moment question God’s power to introduce them into our dreams. Indeed they can the more readily appear at night because “then our physical energies are weakened and the mental strengthened.” After this compelling argument it was hardly necessary to adduce, as he did, “proofs” from Gentile literature and from Jewish, as well as on rational and sensational grounds.’


Not all dreams were of supernatural origin nor possessed equal significance. Corresponding to a variety of causes, various types of dreams commanded respect in differing degrees.

It was recognized that many, if not most, dreams are produced by physical stimuli. Heavy, rich foods “cause a vapor to rise into the brain” which during the night disposes itself in fantastic images. Physical needs and desires, or sensations, such as heat and cold, experienced during sleep, similarly affect the mind, so that one’s dreams bear a close relation to one’s physical state. Menasseh b. Israel wrote, “When one is overheated at night he may dream that he is warming himself before a fire, or enjoying a hot bath; if he is cold, he dreams of ice and sleet and snow.” Such dreams are unworthy of attention, they “speak folly” and are “vain and idle conceits.”5

Another common source of dreams are man’s thoughts during the day. “When a man concentrates on certain ideas for a long time, the power of thought to conjure up definite images remains active at night.” Dreams that can be traced back to such a cause are no more credible than the first category. But another sort of dream, produced by “the vigor of the soul” (ḥozek hanefesh), merits consideration on the part of the dreamer, for it is a “prophecy in miniature.” Menaḥem Ẓiyuni described the process thus:

“The imaginative faculty refashions at night the perceptions which have been impressed upon one’s fancy during the day; during sleep when the senses are idle, this faculty overpowers him so that the vision seems as real as though he were beholding it in actuality. Such a dream is reliable in proportion to the vividness of his powers of analogy; it comes to him without his having thought of its subject matter at all, which, in fact, is often quite unconventional. These dreams constitute the ‘miniature prophecy’ of which the rabbis said that it is bestowed particularly upon imbeciles and infants, because they are not graced with intelligence and their apperceptive powers are undeveloped. Therefore what the imagination makes of sense perceptions during waking hours is clearly visioned while asleep, for it conceives of things that are true and that come to pass.”6

The psychology of dreams as expounded by Ẓiyuni has a modern ring; it was not his own, however, for he confessed that he had cribbed it [theft] from non-Jewish “theologians.” Apparently the unexpressed theory behind this dissertation is one we have met before, namely, that the soul, untrammelled by the physical universe and left to its own resources, possesses the power to apprehend the future.

What is probably the most primitive and universal theory is also met with in Jewish dream-lore. While the body is asleep, the spirit, or soul, leaves its corporeal prison and wanders over the face of the earth, reporting back its experiences to the sleepless mind. When one dreams of meeting a friend who is far distant, it is the souls of the two, annihilating space, which have made contact. Some men, of a higher spiritual capacity, behold these visions clearly and well defined; for most men they are confused and obscure. We dream of the dead because their immortal souls are still capable of haunting the earth and meeting ours.

“But animals have no soul, therefore a man cannot dream of an animal that has died or has been slaughtered.”

Reports of the dead appearing in dreams are numerous. The teacher and father-in-law of Eliezer b. Nathan, R. Eliakim b. Joseph, visited him one night to correct a misconception which had led to an erroneous ritual decision; R. Meir of Rothenburg once helped an earnest student, who had never met him in life, to unravel a badly snarled Talmudic passage; Rashi disclosed to his grandson Samuel the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton; according to the popular legend, on the third night after he had been tortured to death, R. Amnon of Mainz appeared in a dream to his teacher, R. Kalonymos b. Meshullam, and dictated the solemn Unetanneh Tokef hymn which he had composed while writhing in pain. These are a few of the more notable visitations. Visions of the lot that deceased ancestors are enjoying, whether in Paradise or Gehinnom, disclosures of hidden treasure, exhortations to repay debts contracted by the visitant, such is the burden of most dreams about the dead.7

Those dreams, then, that derive from natural causes, physical or mental, are not the stuff out of which the shape of time to come can be pre-constructed. Dreams that result from the peregrinations of the soul may or may not be thus useful, depending upon the presence of the one factor that stamps them as truly portentous, the supernatural. All really significant dreams come ultimately from God. (In practice, of course, the definition worked the other way around—those dreams which the expert branded as significant were ipso facto God-born.)

[…] Most of the medieval writers who discussed the subject, however, inclined toward the view that God-sent visions are transmitted through the intermediacy of angels. Sometimes we read of an angel especially appointed over this department, “the master” or “dispenser of dreams,” sometimes it is the memuneh, man’s deputy angel, who molds his sleeping thoughts to apprise him of the will of God. At times this angel does nothing more than direct the drama of man’s waking thoughts on the stage of his dream, and “since not all thoughts are true, not all dreams are true.” But when the angel introduces his own plot onto the stage, the vision assuredly has some peculiar and significant meaning.9

There is still a further possibility—the dream may be the work of a demon. As Sefer Ḥasidim says,

“When a man suddenly beholds in his sleep a woman with whom he has never had relations, and whom he may not even have consciously desired, such a dream is caused by a demon or spirit. . . . The demon does not actually penetrate his thoughts but whispers into the depths of his aural cavity,”

The demons seem to be responsible mainly for dreams of passion, though there are cases in which it is impossible to determine whether an evil spirit or an angel is to be held accountable.10


The cardinal feature of portentous dreams, as we have observed, is obscurity. Graphically,

“What is shown a man in a dream is as though he were to find himself in the midst of a strange people whose tongue he doesn’t understand, so that they can only suggest things to each other in sign language, as one does with a deaf person.”

And just as today it requires a trained psychoanalyst to decode the dream cipher, so in the past the dream was taken to an expert to be read aright. The basic principle had been laid down in the Talmud: “All dreams follow their interpretation,” that is, as the dream is interpreted, so will it come to pass.

Indeed the Talmud went a step further to the logical corollary of this principle: “An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter,” having neither good nor evil implication, as though it had never been experienced. The rabbis sought to give recognition in these statements to the psychological impact of a favorable or unfavorable prediction, and were subtly implying that it might be best not to seek the meaning of a dream. But, in Talmudic times and later, these words were taken literally. The wise followed the better counsel, and refrained from courting trouble—”One should not relate his dream to any man, and especially not his wife,” Sefer Ḥasidim advised, for so long as it was his own secret its effect upon his career remained nil. Those who could contain their curiosity, however, were few. The Gemara tells a tale of one man who got several different interpretations of his dream—and all came true. But Maḥzor Vitry specified that the first interpretation is binding on the dream, and this became the generally accepted rule.11

The author of a widely read dream book, Solomon Almoli, refused to accept the Talmudic view, for, he argued, it would destroy the whole science of dream interpretation. If it were so, one need either not bother about dreams altogether, or secure only favorable interpretations. It is impossible that God’s will, disclosed in a dream, can be nullified by such naïve methods. We may ascribe this denial of the traditional view to professional jealousy, but in effect the tradition did no harm to the interpreter’s business.

There was some difference of opinion as to the qualifications of the dream expert. Some maintained that his skill must be innate—his star must have determined at his birth that this should be his forte. This was the reply that Jacob Halevi of Marvège received when he put the question to “the dispenser of dreams.” But Almoli would have none of this. If it were a matter of fate, he wrote, some people would be infallible interpreters, and there were none such. Skill in this field is the result only of intensive training. Some interpreters rely upon dream books and can decipher particular dreams, but the true expert is one who has high intelligence, and an understanding of the principles of the science. He must know how to evaluate the circumstances and environment of the dreamer, and to differentiate the fine shades of meaning of dream symbolism, to reject the inconsequential elements of the dream and to single out those that are significant. Amateurs can only blunder upon the true meanings. A typical professional point of view!

Along with their reputed skill as magicians, Jews owned a high reputation as dream interpreters and were sought out by Christians for this purpose. Because of the tradition that “dreams follow the interpretation” it was feared that the Jewish expert might be held responsible in heaven if he translated the dream of his Christian client in terms of Christian worship—he might be the cause of his client’s “sin” in pursuing Christian practices. For instance, if he told a priest that his dream signified that he was destined to become a bishop, the priest would apply himself more assiduously than ever to his clerical duties. But the ready rejoinder was to the effect that the Christian would continue in his error regardless of the dream, so the interpreter was really not accountable. “Even though the expert refuses to interpret the dream,” it will come true, it was admitted, with the reservation, however, that if a Jew’s dream points to some evil act the interpreter should not disclose it, for “one who tells a Jew that his dream signifies that he will sin is to be regarded as causing him to sin.”12

The general public was acquainted with the professional methods through a host of dream books, many of them attributed to Joseph or Daniel. These books, popular among Christians, Jews, and Mohammedans, had much in common, and were in essence versions in different tongues of a common fund of tradition. One such book, already mentioned, the Pitron Ḥalomot of Solomon b. Jacob Almoli, first published in Salonica about 1515 (under the title Mefasher Ḥalmin), republished in Constantinople in 1518 and 1551, in Cracow in 1576, and many times after, was the outstanding Jewish work on the subject. Almoli was a Turkish Jew, who flourished at the beginning of the sixteenth century; he collated all the older Jewish material, and made extensive use of the non-Jewish, admitting his indebtedness to the Gemara, to Hai Gaon, to works ascribed to Rashi, Joseph, Daniel, as well as to translations from non-Jewish sources. Among those he quoted were Ibn Sinna, Ibn Roshd, Aristotle and Plato.

Though his book was written toward the end of the period it represents the information current throughout the earlier centuries. Some of the passages on dreams in the German-Jewish literature, in Eleazar of Worms’s Ḥochmat HaNefesh, for example, or in the manuscript work Eẓ Ḥayim, by Jacob b. Judah Hazan of London, both thirteenth-century writers, display a close affinity with Almoli’s later compilation. We have no such extended work from Northern Europe, but there can be no doubt that German Jews were acquainted with most of the subject matter which Almoli presented. His book became very popular and in 1694 was translated into Yiddish, in which form it still has a wide circulation among the Jewish masses.13

Since this work contains the only systematic organization of the material, it may not be amiss to summarize it here. It is divided into three parts, the first dealing with the classification of dreams and the general principles of interpretation, the second constituting a full glossary of dream symbols, the third devoted to an elucidation of the methods of counteracting the effects of ominous dreams.

Part I comprises eight “gates”: 1. defining the dream and its various types; 2. whether or not to rely on dreams; 3. distinguishing between reliable and unreliable dreams; 4. describing the customary and the extraordinary elements of dreams; 5. three basic principles which the interpreter must follow; 6. the interpretation must take into account the client’s profession or trade, and his circumstances; 7. whether or not the interpretation is the determining factor in the effect of a dream, containing a “great investigation” into this subject; 8. the time when dreams may be expected to materialize.

Part II contains five “gates”: 1. divided into five sections, on the symbolism of inanimate matter; 2. five sections, on flora; 3. six sections, on fauna; 4. four sections, on humans; 5. three sections, on “higher beings,” such as “the planets and stars, thunder, and books”!

A perusal of Part II leaves one wondering what natural phenomena Almoli could possibly have neglected; he was careful to include all the derivatives, such as objects made of wood and metals, etc., wine and oil, eggs and honey and cheese and milk, cooked dishes, clothing.

Part III, consisting of three “gates,” discusses the “dream-fast” and the ritual devices of “turning a dream to good” and “releasing” one from the effects of a dream.

Almoli covered the field thoroughly; his erudition explains his scorn of those who would rely on the stars, or on a hastily digested smattering of data to qualify as experts.14

Part 2


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