Where do dreams come from?

Interpreting dreams in the Jewish style: from Joseph to Freud

Dreaming is an essential and also the most mysterious part of our lives. Just like the phenomenon of sleep itself.

Why is it that people and most animals go to sleep regularly, switching off from reality?

Is it just because every living organism needs rest?

But can’t you just rest by lying on the couch for several hours, without losing contact with the world around you?
And why is it that we are usually awake during the day and sleep at night, and even when we change this schedule by an effort of the will, and start to sleep for six to eight hours a day and work at night, we feel how abnormal this is, and may pay for it with serious mental disorders?

For at least two centuries, scientists have been searching for answers to these questions, and conducting fascinating experiments, but they have yet to come up with a convincing, all-embracing theory that explains the phenomenon of sleep and dreams. What’s more, despite all the achievements of technology, there is still no device that can “read” dreams, and we only know what people dream about from their own words.

At the same time, since the dawn of humanity, at all times and among all nations dreams have been given enormous mystical significance. By tacit agreement, people have come to believe that dreams contain hidden meanings, and interpreting them can help to predict the future, make the right choice etc.

Jews have been no exception here, and our everyday and sacred experience of many centuries in interpreting dreams has become the spiritual experience of all humanity.

In a prophetic dream in the Bible, God makes an eternal bond with the forefather of the Jewish people, Abraham. In a dream, the Creator promises His protection to Jacob, who flees from the anger of his brother, by revealing a vision of a Ladder to him, which angels descend and ascend, and through this ladder – if we believe the commentators – the entire subsequent history of humanity.

The vivid dreams of Jacob’s son, Joseph, initially brought him into conflict with his brothers and made them sell him into slavery in Egypt, but eventually they come true, again thanks to the dreams which Joseph interprets firstly for the servants of the pharaoh, and then for the ruler of Egypt himself.

Through dreams, the Almighty communicates with the great prophets in the Bible, and in a dream He promises the young King Solomon that he will make him the wisest of all people living on Earth…

In a later time, at the beginning of the “common era”, scholars of the Talmud also paid great attention to explaining the nature of dreams, and developed the main principles for interpreting them. This work was continued by subsequent generations. Many leading rabbis, who were simultaneously priests, judges, teachers and outstanding theologians, left behind thousands of works that not only contained interesting stories about dreams, but also attempts at developing a theory of interpreting them.

As a result, several classic Jewish dream books were written, which are familiar to many religious Jews.
But don’t rush to open these books and use them to interpret dreams – to start with you must learn about the Cabbalist theory of the nature of dreams and methods of interpreting them. Otherwise you will make many mistakes, and if we believe Jewish mystics, these mistakes may have a very significant and fateful influence on your life, and bring you evil instead of good.

Such is the nature of mysticism: when using it, you must observe “safety rules”, no less, or perhaps even more so, than with dynamite or a nuclear reactor.

So, why do we have dreams, from the standpoint of Judaism?

“The night was created for nothing but sleep,” the Talmud states, explaining that people need sleep for several reasons.
Firstly, in order to break up the process of the continuity of life. Just imagine what it would be like if we didn’t sleep at all! Our existence would turn into a single flow of events and impressions, and with the constant need to process them or make certain decisions, and in the end this would become an intolerable burden for our minds. Sleep breaks this chain, allowing us to start life each morning, if not anew, then with a “clean slate”, by sorting and “shelving” the information received during the day in our brains, examining and contemplating our perception of reality and plans for the future. This is stated in the 30th Psalm of David: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

But we also need sleep in order to rest and to restore our strength. This thought would be banal if Jewish scholars had also not asked the question about what sort of strength is restored – physical or spiritual? If it is only physical, then why is it not sufficient simply to sit or lie down while we are awake? Why can a person sleep for eight hours and wake up exhausted, or like Napoleon, sleep for 5-10 minutes and then get up full of strength and energy?
The key word in this case is “energy”. According to the Cabbala, just as our body constantly needs physical nourishment in the form of water and food, our soul requires constant energetic nourishment from its Source, i.e. the Creator of the Universe. Without this, normal existence of a person is impossible – this is why the torture of sleep deprivation is one of the most terrible and brutal of all.

This can easily be explained by using the example of modern electronics: just as you have to charge a mobile phone from time to time, you regularly need a charge of higher, spiritual energy. And just as you cannot use a mobile phone while it is being charged, at least not to its full capacity, during sleep people also lack freedom of movement and the connection with surrounding reality which they have when they are wake, when they are disconnected from the Higher Source.

The book of Zohar, which forms the basis of the Cabbala and was written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai (RASHBI) in the 2nd century AD, expresses this precisely: “When a person goes to bed, their soul rises up, and various (spiritual) beings communicate with them, and tell them secrets of the world, and also report on various matters. And some of these messages are lies, but some of them are true.”

The great Cabbalist, Rabbi Moshe-Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746) claimed in his books that a person’s soul consists of five levels, or if you like, shells. The first of them is “nefesh”. Animals also have this level; it controls the activity of our physical body and brain. Then comes “ruakh”, which controls our intellectual activity. It is followed by “neshama” (which determines our spiritual world), “khaya” (which continues to exist after a person’s physical death) and “yekhida” (literally “single” – a kind of genetic code of our personality, which makes it unique).

During sleep, Luzzato wrote, the lower level of “nefesh” remains in the person’s body, and so all the vital processes continue in it. But the other parts of the soul, which are connected with the body by an invisible channel, start their journey through spiritual worlds, where there are different concepts of time and space than in our material world. This is why during sleep people can live a whole life in a few minutes, and sometimes receive information about what is happening to people that are dear to them, living hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away.

Based on this explanation, in Jewish sources we find two statements that seem at first glance to be contradictory, but which are in fact closely connected.

On the one hand, the scholars of the Talmud believed that “a person who never has dreams is a bad person,” and should be avoided. On the other hand, the great Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) said that “the holier a person is, the more he moves away from sleep,” i.e. he needs less and less time for sleep.

The idea of the Talmud is clear: if sleep is a manifestation of spiritual activity, a lack of dreams is a sign that a person lacks spirituality, that he is excessively worldly, and that for some reason (probably because of sins committed against other people) he has been cut off from the Divine Source.

This person should indeed be avoided: he is probably a person for whom the end justifies the means; who puts rational considerations and his own personal interests above morality, which are frequently irrational.

Rabbi Nachman’s idea is that the more a person aspires towards holiness, the more he is occupied with spiritual thoughts, and the closer he gets to God. And so he has less need to disconnect from this world to charge his spiritual energy – for he can connect to the Source directly.

According to Jewish traditions, King David had this ability – in the second half of his life, he barely slept, only dozing several times at night, for a few minutes. He did not suffer from terrible insomnia, as you may think, as when he woke up David was full of energy and would play the harp or write another psalm inspired by God.

In relation to this story, another question involuntarily arises: how much time does a person really need for normal sleep?

The Talmud has a clear answer: not more than a third of a day, i.e. no more than 8 hours.

A person who sleeps for longer than this harms their physical and spiritual health.

Sleeping during the day, the wise men of the Talmud believed, is harmful, as it is unnatural, and frequently caused by gluttony.

And now that we have learned about the opinion of Jewish mysticism about the nature of sleep, if only very superficially, it’s time to discuss what our dreams are like, and what they mean.
(To be continued)

Peter Lukimson

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