Dreaming in the Classroom

The dream master

Joseph is referred to derisively and hatefully by his brothers (Genesis 37:18) as "the master dreamer," and indeed, his life is full of dream stories. While living with his father, Joseph has two dreams which depict him as superior to his family, dreams which reinforce his brothers' hatred for him. During his imprisonment in Egypt, Joseph correctly deciphers the dreams of the chief of the guard and the chief cup bearer. The chief of the guard, who remembers Joseph's precise interpretation, brings about Joseph's release from prison and his ultimate fateful test: solving Pharaoh's dreams. In the verses before us [in Parashat Miketz], Joseph wisely deciphers Pharaoh's dreams. Thus, the dreams he dreamt in his father's house led to his being sold into slavery, and the dreams he solved for the chief of the guard and later for Pharaoh promoted him to the title of deputy to the king.

Using Joseph's stories, let us examine some ways of understanding the meaning of dreams.
  • How does Joseph understand the symbols in a dream? What do the fat cows represent? What is the meaning of the lean cows? What is the meaning of the full ears-of-corn? The thin and scorched ears? Why do the thin ears swallow the full? Why does Pharaoh dream two dreams?

  • Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream as a system of symbols which determine the future. Study Joseph's dreams carefully (Genesis 36:5-10). How do his father and brothers interpret his dreams? Do Jacob and his sons employ the same technique Joseph uses in this parasha? What might this teach us about the role of dreams in the Joseph stories?

  • The assorted dreams in the Joseph stories are distinct from other biblical dreams. Let's compare:

    But God came to Avimelekh in a dream of the night and said to him:
    Here, you must die because of the woman you have taken,
    for she is a wedded wife! (Genesis 20:3)
    But God came to Lavan the Aramean in a dream of the night
    and said to him:
    Be on your watch
    lest you speak to Yaakov, be it good or ill! (Genesis 31:24)

What do the dreams from the Joseph stories have in common with the dreams of Avimelekh and Lavan? How are they different?

What do you think?
  • Try to recall one of your own dreams. Did you think about the dream later? Did you find it meaningful? What technique did you use to interpret the dream? Was it similar to the technique described regarding Joseph's dream? Are you familiar with other ways of interpreting dreams?

  • Joseph understands dream material as symbols which refer to the future. Why, according to this system, does the future appear symbolically, instead of being stated explicitly and unequivocally? What are the advantages and disadvantages of discovering the future through symbols?

  • How do you feel about dreaming dreams that reveal your future to you? Would you prefer symbolic or explicit dreams?

The Talmudic literature also deals extensively with the topic of dreams and dream interpretation.

Rabbi Hiyya Bar Aba said: One who sees wheat in a dream, is seeing peace and well-being, as it is said: "He endows your realm with well-being, and satisfies you with choice wheat" (Psalms 147:14) [1]
  • What does wheat symbolize according to Rabbi Hiyya Bar Aba? How did he arrive at this interpretation?

  • In the Joseph stories and in the above Talmudic source, it is assumed that dreams contain symbols which, correctly interpreted, will solve the dream's riddle. Yet the technique for dream interpretation used by the rabbis in the Talmud is somewhat different than that in the Joseph stories. How so?

Despite the different methods for interpreting dreams in the Joseph stories and in this passage from the Talmud (Berakhot), both share the belief that a dream has a meaning related to the future. Yet there are other Jewish sources which take a different point of view, which doubt the credibility of dream interpretation, and which even question the basic presumption that dreams have any meaning at all. For example:

Samuel, upon having a bad dream, would say:
"For the teraphim spoke delusion,
The augurs predicted falsely;
And dreamers speak lies
And console with illusions.
That is why (My People) have strayed like a flock,
They suffer for lack of a shepherd."
And when he dreamt a good dream, he would say
"For the teraphim spoke delusion... [the same verse]" (Zechariah 10:2)

Rabbi Birayim, who heard from an old man... Rabbi Bena'ah, said: There were twenty-four dream-readers in Jerusalem, and once I had a dream and went to all of them. Each one offered a different interpretation, and they all came true for me, upholding what is said: "All dreams follow the mouth..." Rabbi Elazar said: From whence do we know that all dreams follow the mouth? As it is said: "And thus it was: As he interpreted to us, so it was — I was restored to my position, and he was hanged (Genesis 41:13).

Rabbi Samuel Bar Nahman said: One should show a person only the thoughts of that person's own heart. [2]

  • How does Samuel use the verse from Zechariah? What, in your opinion, does Samuel want to say by using the same verse twice [for both good and bad dreams]?

  • How do you understand Rabbi Bena'ah's story? What is meant by the statement "and they all came true?" What does this teach us about the significance of dreams and the role of the solution? How would you interpret the statement: "All dreams follow the mouth"?

  • All dreams follow the mouth." — How does the Talmud prove this claim? Do you think that Joseph and his family, the chief of the guard and Pharaoh would agree with the assertion that "all dreams follow the mouth"?

  • What, in your opinion, does Rabbi Samuel Bar Nahmani mean by his statement? How might one interpret the expression "thoughts of that person's own heart?" What is the source of dreams, according to this statement?

  • In the sources we have seen, a number of ways for understanding the role of dreams and for dream interpretation are proposed. Return to the sources and make a list of the approaches. Which approach do you accept? Do the sources offer approaches that you reject? Why?


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 57a [back]
[2]Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 55b [back]


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