Dream Techniques in Jewish Mysticism

In many cultures, dreams have been conceived of as channels of communication with other, spiritual realms, and this is the case also of Jewish mysticism. On the one hand, divine emissaries were described as invading the human consciousness during dreams in order to announce important messages; on the other, someone could induce dreams by resorting to a variety of oneirogenic[*] techniques. We will bring here several examples of such techniques, out of an enormous body of literature, which demonstrate that Kabbalists were involved in various nocturnal forms of experiences, an aspect of Kabbalah which still awaits analysis by scholars.

One particularly neglected realm in the study of Kabbalah is a literary genre dealing with dream-recipes: the so-called she'elot halom, i.e. questions formulated before someone went to sleep, questions whose answers were expected to arrive in dreams. In many cases, these answers took the form of a biblical verse, which was somehow related to the question; in order to understand the answer one had to interpret the verse in the light of the content of the question. In other words, the literary form of the dream demanded an interpretation. The oneirogenic practice of she'elat halom is recurrent in many kabbalistic manuscripts. We bring here two examples.

An early 14th cent. Kabbalist, R. Isaac ben Samuel of Acre, relates as follows:[1] "I, the youth Isaac of Acre, was sleeping in my bed, and at the end of the third guard a wondrous dream question had been revealed to me, in a true vision as if in a state of wakefulness, and this is [the verse] 'Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.' 'Perfect shalt thou be with the Lord thy God'..." R. Isaac beholds all sorts of combinations of words and their numerical equivalents which hint at the divine name YBQ, and "thinks about the letters of the Tetragrammaton as they are pronounced...in a conceptual, thoughtful, intellectual rumination, not in a way that arrives from heart to the throat..."[2]

The Kabbalist thus learns, in the dream itself, the technique for attaining answers to "dream questions." He is to pronounce the letters of the divine name found in the biblical verses whose words should be permutated. This pronunciation, however, is prohibited by Jewish law and would invalidate the very possibility to resort to the verse. The solution offered, still in the dream, is to combine each of the letters of the Tetragrammaton with the other letters, in such a way which preserves the original verse, without actually pronouncing the letters of the divine name in their original form and order. R. Isaac's solution (not a new one, as it is similar to a 13th-century technique used by Abraham Abulafia) reflects, in my opinion, his theological and legal problems emerging from his great interest in ecstatic Kabbalah where the combination of letters of letters of divine names is quintessential; Abraham Abulafia, the founder of ecstatic Kabbalah, indeed called his Kabbalistic system, inter alia, the Kabbalah of the divine names.

Another example of the oneirogenic practice of she'elat halom stems from one of the most famous Kabbalists, Rabbi Hayyim Vital, who recommends that: "you shall go to bed to sleep, pray 'Let it be Your Will,' and use one of the pronunciations of the [divine] names written in front of you, and direct your thought to which of the mystical spheres it is related. Then mention your question either to discover issues related to a dream and future things, or to achieve whatever thing you wish, and afterwards ask [the question]."[3]

Elsewhere this Kabbalist resorts to a technique of color visualization in order to attain an answer to his question, which reaches him in a state similar to a dream: "Visualize that above the firmament of 'Aravot' there is a very great white curtain, upon which the Tetragrammaton is inscribed in [color] white as snow, in Assyrian writing in a certain color... and the great letters are inscribed there, each one large as a mountain or a hill. And you should imagine in your thought that you ask your question from those combinations of letters written there, and they will answer your question, or they will dwell their spirit in your mouth, or you will be drowsy and they will answer you, like in a dream."[4]

Another dream-inducing technique elaborated upon in Jewish mystical texts is mystical weeping: that is, the effort to acquire, as the direct result of self-induced weeping, some paranormal consciousness or vision with information therein about some secret. We find several examples in the apocalyptic literature, where praying, weeping and fasting are used to induce the Word of God in a dream.[5]

The connection between weeping and paranormal perceptions taking place in dreams is also evident in a midrashic story:[6]

One of the students of R. Simeon bar Yohai had forgotten what he learned. In tears he went to the cemetery. Because of his great weeping, he [R. Simeon] came to him in a dream and told him: 'When you wail, throw three bundles, and I shall come.' The student went to a dream interpreter and told him what had happened. The latter said to him: 'Repeat your chapter [that is, whatever you learn] three times, and it will come back to you.' The student did so, and so indeed it happened.

The correlation between weeping and visiting a grave seems to hint at a practice intended to induce a vision. This was, to be sure, part of a larger context in which graveyards were sites where one might receive a vision. Falling asleep weeping, which is mentioned here, also seems part of the sequence: visiting a cemetery, weeping, falling asleep weeping, revelatory dream.

The weeping technique for attaining "wisdom" is powerfully expounded by R. Abraham ha-Levi Berukhim, one of Isaac Luria's[**] disciples. In one of his programs, after specifying "silence" as the first condition, he names "the second condition: in all your prayers, and in every hours of study, in a place which one finds difficult, in which you cannot understand and comprehend the propaedeutic sciences or some secret, stir yourself to bitter weeping until your eyes shed tears, and the more you can weep-do so. And increase your weeping, as the gates of tears were not closed and the supernal gates will be opened to you.[7]

For Luria and Berukhim, weeping is an aid to overcoming intellectual difficulties and receiving secrets. Akin to the story of R. Abraham Berukhim is the autobiographical confession of his friend, R. Hayyim Vital:[8] "In 1566, on the Sabbath eve, the eight of Tevet, I said Kiddush and sat down to eat; and my eyes were shedding tears, and I was signing and grieving since... I was bound by witchcraft...and I likewise wept for [my] neglect of Torah during the last two years...and because of my worry I did not eat at all, and I lay down on my bed on my face, weeping, and I fell asleep out of much weeping, and I dreamed a wondrous dream."

We see also among the early Hasidim and in the practice of their opponents, the Mitnaggedim, weeping was employed as a component of mystical technique, and is alluded to in mystical literature and commentary as late as the second half of the 19th century.

These dream recipes (dream questions, color visualization, mystical weeping), as well as other mystical techniques, are formative for the nature of Jewish mysticism. They assume that the mystic can take initiative in order to establish contact with other realms, and that he can induce certain experiences by resorting to these techniques. Thus, Jewish mysticism should be described as an activistic spirituality, one that assumes that it is within the power of the mystic to ensure the emergence of articulated experiences.

[*] oneirology is the science or subject of dreams, or of their interpretation (óneiros, Greek for dream)    [back]
[**] Isaac Luria (1534-1572), Kabbalist and one of the most influential figures in the history of Jewish spirituality; born in Jerusalem, brought up in Egypt, he settled in Safed where he laid the foundation for "Lurianism"; known also by the name Ari (lion) which is an acrostic of his Hebrew names.    [back]

[1] From an, as yet unpublished, Kabbalistic manuscript. [back]
[2] Sefer Ozar Hayyim, MS Moscow-Guensburg 775,fol. 100b-101a. [back]
[3] Ketavim Hadashim l'Rabbenu Hayyim Vital (Jerusalem 1988), p. 8. [back]
[4] Ibid., p. 7.    [back]
[5] Enoch, in II Enoch; Ezra, in IV Ezra; Baruch and Jeremiah, in the Apocalypse of Baruch. [back]
[6] Kohelet (Eccelsiastes) Rabbah 10:10 [back]
[7] MS Oxford 1706, fol. 494b. [back]
[8] Sefer Ha-Hezyonot (Book of Visions), ed. A.Z. Aeshcoli (Jerusalem 1954), p. 42. [back]

Prof. Moshe Idel is Max Cooper Prof. of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Prof. Idel was born in Romania and has been living in Israel since 1963. He has authored: Author of Kabbalah: New Perspectives; Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic; Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical traditions; The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia.



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