Jewish Magic and Superstition
by Joshua Trachtenberg, 
THE DREAM IN HUMAN AFFAIRS
THE TECHNIQUE OF INTERPRETATION
The Bible offers several classic examples of dream interpretation, symbolical in the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, allegorical in that of Nebuchadnezzar. In Talmudic times puns often provided the key, e.g., dreaming that something will occur in the month of Nisan means one will suffer no temptation (nissayon). If the dream could be brought into connection with some Biblical verse, that verse indicated its significance, e.g., to behold a camel (gamal) means that the dreamer’s death has been decreed in heaven, but he will be delivered from his fate, because Gen. 46:4, in which the words gam ‘aloh occur, contains the reassuring promise, “I will go down with thee into Egypt, and I will also surely bring thee up again.” During the Middle Ages these methods remained in use, but the most favored was to interpret by analogies, or by antitheses. Very often the association is obscure, though it no doubt derives from one of these methods or from an ancient, well-authenticated tradition. It is interesting to notice how frequently the interpretations of dreams in Christian sources correspond with the Jewish.15
The following excerpts from thirteenth-century Jewish works16 provide some idea of the manner of interpretation. From Eẓ Ḥayim:
“All liquids are of good omen, except wine, if the dreamer is an uncultured person; all fruits are auspicious, except the date, and all vegetables, except turnip-heads, but the root indicates wealth; . . . wheat signifies peace; barley, atonement for sins; laden vines, his wife will not miscarry; white grapes are a good omen; black grapes in season are good, but out of season they indicate he will soon be praying for mercy; . . . a white horse is a good omen; a red horse is bad, he will be hounded and pursued; a donkey, he may be confident of salvation; . . . if he dreams he has lost his property, an inheritance will soon come his way; . . . if he is on a roof he will achieve greatness; if he is descending, he will be humbled”; etc.
Eleazar of Worms offers these: if a man dreams he has a pain in one eye, a brother will fall ill; in both eyes, two brothers will be ill; if a tooth falls out, a son or some relative will die; if he sees a king, or a groom, or a wedding ceremony, or any celebration, he will soon be a mourner; dividing meat indicates a quarrel; fire in an oven signifies evil events; snow in summer, a fire; a vineyard, his wife is or will be pregnant; grapes, he will be blessed with a child; carrying a bird or a fish in his bosom means his wife will bear a child; if an unmarried person has this dream, he will soon be wedded; a group of people partaking of delicacies indicates they will all have cause to weep; an angel in the moon means war; a snake-bite indicates prosperity; and so on.
It will be more instructive, however, to examine the principles by which the interpreter made his decisions.17 It was first necessary to evaluate the credibility of the dream, which required a study of the stars, of the dreamer’s character, of the foods he had consumed before retiring, both in their planetary relationships and their potentiality for inducing spiritus in the body, and his thoughts on the preceding days. The day of the month and the week, the hour, the land in which the dream was beheld also help to determine the degree of reliance which is to be placed upon it. Similarly, if the dream images are clear and vivid and leave the dreamer moved or agitated, the dream is trustworthy. If the dream leaves little impression, it may be disregarded. One of the rules frequently advanced is that a dream which occurs in the early night, before the process of digestion has started, either has no significance or concerns the past; a dream which comes in the middle of the night, while the food is being digested, may or may not have importance; but most dreams that occur in the early morning, when the process of digestion has been completed, come true.
Similar criteria were employed to determine how long a period may elapse before the dream comes to pass. A man’s character, for instance, helps decide this, for the righteous person is forewarned long before an event is to occur so that he may have ample time to prepare for it, while the wicked are not given much warning. The general rule is that most dreams are speedily realized, usually on the same or the next day; occasionally realization of a dream may be delayed, but never longer than twenty-two years (this is based on a Talmudic remark) .
As to the actual process of interpretation, there is no substitute for a knowledge of the dream language, Almoli writes, but there is one rule that must constantly be kept in mind, namely, that the same symbol may have different connotations for different men. As an example he cites the case of a man who dreamed that his horse was able to negotiate a turbulent stream only with great effort. If the dreamer is a scholar, then the horse signifies wisdom, and the dream indicates that his learning will carry him successfully through some very difficult situations; if he is not a scholar, the horse means strength, and the dream implies that he will be engaged in a physical struggle from which he will emerge victorious. Quick-wittedness has always been the fortune-teller’s most precious endowment.
The gold that the fates pour into a man’s lap serves only to whet his greed. The effort to induce divinatory dreams succeeded upon the realization that dreams could be put to such a use. Saul tried, and failed. If countless others failed too, inevitably there were some who could claim success, and “nothing succeeds like success,” especially in the field of magic. In Talmudic and Geonic times the techniques of asking a “dream question” were familiar to everyone. During the Middle Ages this proved a popular form of divination, though it hardly met with the approval of the religious authorities.
Sefer Ḥasidim contains the statement, “If a man decides, I will put a ‘dream question’ to find out which good wife I shall take, he will never be successful,” yet the same work tells of a pious Jew who asked the prince of dreams “who will sit beside him in Paradise? And they showed him a young man in a distant land.” An interesting anecdote concerns a man who inquired how long he would live and received the reply in French, mil ans, which he interpreted literally, but his life was ended at eighty, for mil in Hebrew transliteration equals eighty. One of the questions put by Jacob Halevi of Marvège was whether it is proper “to invoke, by means of the 42-letter name of God, the angels who are appointed over learning and wealth and victory and favor,” and the reply came, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, and He Himself will provide all your needs.” As we have seen, Jacob Halevi solved many ritual and legal problems in this way, and the fourteenth-century R. Jacob b. Moses Mölln (Maharil), or his father, resorted to the same device to resolve at least one ritual question.18
In consonance with the prevailing conception of the origin of dreams, two agencies were mainly invoked to serve divinatory purposes: the dead, and the spirits generally or the genius of dreams in particular. As we have noted, one way of ensuring a nocturnal visit from the beyond was to make a dying man take an oath that after his death he would return and answer any questions put to him. Or two friends might make a mutual vow that the first to die would come back in a dream to paint for the other a picture of the next world. Such practices were common among Christians as well as among Jews, as this verse from Hans Vintler’s Blumen der Tugend (1411) discloses:19
So send denn ettliche
wenn sy sechend ain liche
so raunent sy dem totten zu
und sprechend ‘kum morgen fru
und sag mir, wie es dir dort gee.’
Another course was to stretch oneself on the grave of a pious man and beseech him to answer one’s questions in a dream. There is a story of a young student who adopted this procedure to learn whether certain ascetic practices he wished to adopt would be considered sinful or meritorious in heaven; that night the deceased came to him and carried him off to Paradise where he beheld the rewards that would be showered on him for his piety.20
The dead, however, were not always willing to obey the summons of the living, and in such a case force could be applied. This required the services of a professional sorcerer. A woman who was on bad terms with her son died without leaving a will disclosing the hiding place of her money. The son employed a sorceress to wring her secret from her. The woman “performed her sorceries with a knife” and then went to sleep, whereupon a demon appeared to her in a dream with the knife piercing his heart. She refused to be moved by his entreaties and extract the blade until he produced the information she sought. He returned with the mother and forced her to reveal her secret. The son got the money, but a few nights later his mother came to him in a dream and apprised him of the price he would have to pay: “In proportion to the suffering you brought upon me by your vile act will reverses and torments be heaped upon you.”21
On the other hand, angels and spirits could be invoked to appear in dreams by the usual methods. Jacob Halevi who, it is reported, induced his divinatory dreams by putting himself in a trance, used a simple request: “Oh, supreme king, great, mighty and revered God, guardian of the covenant and fount of grace for Thy followers, preserve Thy covenant and Thy grace for us, and command Thy holy angels who are appointed over the replies to ‘dream questions’ to give a true and a proper answer, unqualified and specific, to the question which I shall ask before Thy glory,” etc.
It is interesting that sometimes the answer came that in heaven itself there was a division of opinion, which, by a strange coincidence, usually corresponded with a like division among the rabbis here on earth; and sometimes the first reply that Jacob received was unsatisfactory, so that he had to repeat his question two and three times, insisting upon a clearer response. Certain Biblical selections were also useful toward this end. Ps. 23 and 42, each recited seven times with its “names,” were guaranteed to produce dream replies. If one writes Deut. 29:28 and its “names” on his hand and sleeps with that hand under his head the angel of dreams will favor him.22
Direct invocation of angels was also resorted to, with the usual preliminary rites of ritual cleansing and fasting. One simple invocation runs as follows:
“‘I conjure you, Duma, prince of dreams, in the name of the Almighty God, that you come to me this night and answer my question. And when you wish to indicate good or evil, show me for evil: priests and churches, wells, cisterns, caves and graves; but for a favorable sign show me: schools, synagogues, open books and scholars studying them; and let me not forget the apparition.’ Then go to sleep. But speak to no man concerning this. It should be done only on Sunday night, and only in urgent matters. Do not make sport of this!”
Sefer Raziel has a much longer charm, heavily weighted with angel names, which concludes with a series of Biblical quotations. The same work contains other prescriptions for a “dream question”; one advises writing a name upon “ruled parchment” and placing it under one’s head after reciting a spell; another, “tested and tried,” suggests washing the hands thoroughly and anointing the left hand with “water of lilies,” after which an invocation is to be written on it, then, “sleep on your right side, and you will see and be astounded!”
Still another prescribes a more complicated procedure: secure two white doves and slaughter them with a two-edged copper knife, one edge for each dove, extract their viscera, knead them together with three shekels of wine, some fine frankincense and some pure honey into a thick paste, and cut it into small cakes; on the three days preceding the new moon, before sunrise, perform the prescribed purificatory rites, put on a white garment but no shoes, and burn some of these cakes on the hearth, while reciting the names of the angels who are in charge of the new month; on the third day let the house fill with smoke, lie down on the floor, recite the angel names and then sleep.
“And the angels will appear and tell and reveal everything you may ask, in a clear vision, not in parables. You need have no fear.”23
NEUTRALIZING OMINOUS DREAMS
Since unfavorable as well as favorable dreams come true, and the event therefore came to be regarded as the consequence of the dream, it was believed that if one could somehow nullify the dream itself in advance its effects would be obviated. Thus, in the prayers to be recited at night before retiring there is a specific request to “save us from evil dreams,” while some writers make it a point to note that some of the Biblical verses included in these prayers, such as Cant. 3:7-8, and Nu. 6:24.-26, “have the property of counteracting evil dreams” (the first because it speaks of “threescore mighty men” gathered about a bed, the second because it contains sixty letters—and a dream is “one sixtieth part of prophecy”), and that Ps. 128, also part of these prayers, contains references to vines and olives, which, according to the Talmud, are favorable dream symbols. Indeed there arose toward the end of the medieval period the custom of boldly announcing before going to bed, in the manner of “to whom it may concern,” “I hereby proclaim that whatever unpropitious dream I may have this night, I shall not tomorrow observe the customary fast,” which declaration, we are assured, “is a preventive of evil dreams, but, God forbid! should one nevertheless behold such a dream, he must on no account fast, or the angels of dreams will be very much provoked.”24
Once the dream has been experienced, however, other means must be adopted to forestall its consequences. As in the case of an illness, a dream may be sold and its effect transferred to the purchaser. An instance of such a transaction is recounted in Sefer Ḥasidim, with perhaps a sly dig at the interpreter who had no faith in his own interpretation; a certain Gentile who had dreamt he was riding a red horse was overwhelmed with despair when the interpreter told him this presaged his imminent death. The interpreter offered to purchase the dream “for the price of a drink,” a proposal which his client accepted with alacrity. The next day the interpreter was dead—though the narrator does not consider that the drink rather than the dream may have been responsible for his sudden demise. Again we learn that a literal acting out of the dream may destroy its symbolic significance.
When a person who is married dreams he is carrying a bird in his bosom, this signifies the birth of a child, but if the bird flies away it portends disaster. To save himself he should fast and distribute charity among the poor, the customary procedure, but he should also place a fowl in his bosom, a cock if the dreamer is a man, a hen for a woman, and then permit it to fly off. Now that the dream has been scrupulously enacted, the apprehensive dreamer may breathe easily again.
Still a third method is to recite, immediately upon waking, a Biblical verse suggested by the dream, which contains a promise of good. If one dreams of a well, he should say, “And there Isaac’s servants digged a well” (Gen. 26:25); of a river, “Behold I will extend peace to her like a river” (Is. 66:12); of a bird, “As birds flying so will the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem” (Is. 31:5); of a dog, “Against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog whet his tongue” (Ex. 11:7); of a mountain, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings” (Is. 52:7); of a shofar, “In that day a great shofar shall be blown” (Is. 27:13); of a bullock, “His firstling bullock, majesty is his” (Deut. 33:17); of a lion, “The lion hath roared, who will not fear?” (Amos 3:8); of shaving, “Joseph shaved himself and changed his raiment and came in unto Pharaoh” (Gen. 41:14); and so on.25
The most widely used methods of counteracting the effect of a bad dream, the “dream fast” and the rite of “turning a dream to good,” were instituted in Talmudic times. These, coupled with the usual expiatory acts of prayer, charity and repentance, were held to be effective devices, and were observed not alone by the common people but also by some of the outstanding rabbis of the Middle Ages, such as Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg and Israel Isserlein. Indeed they came to be regarded as the inevitable sequel of every bad dream, and of every dream whose significance was in doubt, so that their observance became almost automatic, though their true purpose was never lost sight of. They are observed by some pious Jews even in this day. A third device, the “release” from an obligation incurred in a dream, such as a vow or an excommunication, has already been described.
The Talmudic basis of the Ta‘anit Ḥalom, the “dream fast,” is the following passage: “Rab said, ‘Fasting is as effective against evil dreams as fire against shavings;’ R. Ḥisda added, ‘One must fast on the same day on which the dream occurred;’ and R. Joseph added, ‘Even on the Sabbath.'” These dicta raised three issues, concerning the first and second of which there was fairly general agreement. Fasting, the accepted rite of penitence and expiation, was believed to carry great weight with the heavenly council. The dream constitutes not a final and irrevocable judgment, but rather a warning of impending doom, which may be postponed and perhaps altogether negated by pious deeds and a righteous life, of which the fast was the first instalment.
“It seems to me,” wrote Almoli, “that this fast is to be regarded practically as an obligation upon the dreamer, and not as a voluntary act which he need not observe if he so pleases.” We may judge how important it was considered by the fact that even on those occasions when fasts were forbidden an exception was made in favor of the Ta‘anit Ḥalom. During the month of Nisan, for instance, when even the Jahrzeit fast in commemoration of the death of a father or mother was not permitted, this “dream fast” was the only one allowed. And not only the dreamer felt bound to observe this fast, but if his dream seemed to carry an ominous message for a second party, that person too observed it.28
The requirement that the fast must follow the dream on the same day was explained on the ground that the adverse decree might be intended for immediate execution; or, as one writer put it, each day has its own angels who are charged with carrying out the heavenly decisions. A delay of even one day may make the fast ineffective. Any other voluntary fast but the Ta‘anit Ḥalom may be postponed.27
The only difficulty was with regard to the observance of this fast on the Sabbath and on holidays. Some medieval rabbis felt that R. Joseph had gone too far in his endorsement of what was essentially a superstitious practice, though it had introduced a religious element into the belief concerning dreams. They did not state their objection, originally voiced by R. Kalonymos (in the twelfth century) and often repeated, in so many words, but got around the Talmudist’s opinion with the qualification that “nowadays one should not observe the Ta‘anit Ḥalom on the Sabbath, because we are no longer expert in the interpretation of dreams.” The subterfuge was no more successful than if they had roundly denounced the institution or expressly forbidden it on the Sabbath without apologies. As it was they left a convenient breach through which the more superstitious could clamber.
Obviously Jews were still dream experts, so far as the masses were concerned. Maharil wisely wrote, “It is better that a man fast on the Sabbath because of a dream, than that his heart be troubled; he’ll derive more pleasure from the fast than from his food.” Others tried to soften the objection to the Sabbath fast by offering minor concessions. R. Meir permitted it if the same dream had been repeated three nights in succession, while some harked back to a tradition associated with the name of Hai Gaon, who had allowed it after three particularly ominous dreams, namely, if one beheld a Torah scroll burning, or the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service, or his teeth or the beams of his house falling. The list was, as may be expected, extended; dreaming of any part of the Yom Kippur service, of reading in the Torah, of getting married, of being kissed by a deceased person, equally warranted a fast on any occasion. But Isaiah Horowitz, the sixteenth-century Polish mystic, who himself “usually advised people not to fast on the Sabbath,” admitted, “I have known many people to make light of these restrictions, and fast on the Sabbath whenever their spirits were depressed by a dream.”28
To appreciate the full moment of this dream fast we must further consider that it entailed a second day’s fast immediately after, to atone for the desecration of the holyday—two days of fasting in succession! This duplicate fast was scrupulously kept. True, sometimes permission was granted to infirm or sick people to postpone it, if a double fast might prove too arduous for them. But otherwise there were no slackers. And to bring home more sharply the high regard in which this remedy for ill-omened dreams was held by the people, they did not refrain from observing it even on Rosh Hashanah, if necessary, when a Ta‘anit Ḥalom on the first day of the holyday entailed not only fasting on the next day also, but on both days of Rosh Hashanah in every succeeding year! (If, however, occasion for fasting arose on the second day, then only that day’s fast was repeated annually.) Nor did they hesitate to keep this fast on the eve of Yom Kippur, the most trying day in the Jewish calendar. It required great faith, indeed, to produce such stanch devotion!29
When the fast was completed, the final remedy was resorted to, the Hatavat Ḥalom, the rite of transforming an ominous dream into a favorable one. As recorded in the Talmud, it was performed as follows: The dreamer gathered three friends and said to them, “I have beheld a good dream!” and they responded, “Verily, it is good, and may it be good, and may God make it good.” This was repeated seven times (but, following the precedent attributed to the twelfth-century rabbi Isaac b. Samuel the Elder, the number of repetitions was reduced to three, “the usual number of times an incantation is recited,” as later writers explained) . Then the dreamer recited three verses in which the word “to overturn” appears (Ps. 30:12, Jer. 31:12, Deut. 23:6), three verses containing the word “redeem” (Ps. 55:19, Is. 35:10, I Sam. 14:45), and three which speak of “peace” (Is. 57:19, I Chr. 12:18, I Sam. 25:6) .
This prescription was followed in the Middle Ages, and was extended to include Hab. 3:2, Ps. 121, Nu. 6:22-27, Ps. 16: 11, concluding with the words of Ecc. 9:7, “Go thy way, eat thy bread in peace.” To avoid the slightest unlucky intimation, moreover, the order of these last words was altered, for their initials spell the word avel, “mourner.” If the purport of the dream had been forgotten, the Talmud provided a prayer which was warranted to ensure that no harm would befall the dreamer.30 Thus fortified he could throw off the oppressive weight of his dream and “eat his bread in peace”—until another night visited another evil vision upon him.