Why the Rabbis Taught Dream Manipulation
When I was little, I was fascinated by the priestly blessing that is recited in many synagogues across the globe on main Jewish holidays and by Sephardic Jews everyday during morning prayers. The priests gather in front of the ark, place their prayer shawls over their heads, extend their hands and chant a blessing for the people in unison. And they do all of this in socks!
They remove their shoes, an act akin to Moses’s shoe removal when he touched holy ground, as a way to relinquish worldliness and ascend to more transcendent ground. Most people bow their heads when the priests recite the blessing and do not look up at the priests. Some err and turn their backs away from the cohanim, which many rabbis regard as an act of disrespect when receiving a blessing. This all seemed magical to me when I was little, and it still feels magical now.
Tucked into many traditional prayerbooks during this blessing is a personal prayer for dream interpretation that begins: “Master of the Universe, I am Yours and my dreams are Yours. I dreamed a dream and do not know what it is…” We ask in the prayer that God transform all of our dreams for the best. This prayer is from the Talmud and should be uttered, according to the sages, in between during pauses in the priestly blessing if one had a dream that defied interpretation. Others regard this prayer as an interruption of the blessing; some have the custom to recite it when the prayer leader recites the final blessing of the Amida prayer in synagogue.
Almost 2,000 years before Sigmund Freud’s disquisition on the nature of dreams as subconscious desires, the rabbis understood the power and danger of dreams. They reflect the subterranean tensions and wishes that lie within, as the brain mysteriously processes incidents during the days past or anticipates joys and anxieties in days coming. Dreams that are not interpreted, Rabbi Hisda said, are like unopened letters. We know that feeling of a closed envelope whose contents elude us, frustrating us with its closure and undiscovered meanings.
What’s a dreamer to do? The Talmud advises that “one who sees a dream from which his soul is distraught should go and have it interpreted before three.” Take your disturbing dream and “out” it by bringing it into the open. Once you tell your dream team, they should say to you “It is good, and let it be good. May God make it good.” This hardly seems like dream interpretation. It’s more like dream manipulation. They are not telling you what it means. They are twisting it to offer a gentle outcome. Why?
Elsewhere in chapter nine of Tractate Brakhot, where dreams are discussed, we find the story of a rabbi who had a dream and took it to the 24 dream interpreters who lived in Jerusalem at the time. Each one interpreted his dream differently, yet each was also right. To which the Talmud responds, “All dreams follow the mouth.” Because all commentary is interpretation, translating dreams into meaning is ultimately subjective but, at the same time, necessary because an uninterpreted dream lodges within us; without an interpretation that can make it palatable and safe, it shadows us with cloudy premonitions of danger and harm. And in that way, such dreams diminish our free will, limiting us because of the fears we attach to them.
Finding a new and positive way to interpret what is happening within us subconsciously allows us to shape outcomes in reality. A dream is often an existential wake-up call that requires our attention and that can help us unlock a closed door to ourselves. We pray for understanding—in front of wise people—for the wisdom to transform mystery into a happier reality.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of “In the Narrow Places” (OU Press/Maggid); “Inspired Jewish Leadership,” a National Jewish Book Award finalist; “Spiritual Boredom“; and “Confronting Scandal.”