Dreams play an important role in our lives. Dreams are necessary in order for one to have a restful and refreshing period of sleep. Most times we do not recall our dreams when we finally awake; however, there are times when the dream stays with us even during our waking hours. This is especially true if the dream was frightening or troubling in nature - a nightmare.
Dreams are also sometimes prescient, almost prophetic; Lincoln dreamt of his own assassination shortly before it occurred. Dreams are also the method of communication with those who have already departed this earth. In short, dreams are natural events that many times take on supernatural qualities. The wish given to someone going to sleep - "sweet dreams" - is not an idle blessing.
Judaism takes dreams very seriously. In the Bible, we read of the dreams of the great people of Israel, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and many of the prophets. Judaism is of the opinion that all prophecy, except for the prophecy of Moses, was transmitted to the prophet when the prophet was in a dream-like, almost catatonic trance. Maimonides goes so far as to state that the events of King Saul and the witch of Ein-Dor, where the spirit of the prophet Samuel was raised from the dead, was actually a dream of King Saul that the Bible relates to us in a factual manner.
Thus it is understandable that Jewish tradition and especially the Talmud would have much to say about dreams and their effect upon us. References to dreams and their import are scattered throughout the pages of the Talmud, and there is an entire chapter in Masechet Berachot that is almost exclusively dedicated to the subject of dreams and their interpretation.
The basic rule that the Talmud posits regarding dreams is that they are subject to fulfillment according to the interpretation that is granted to them. Thus a seemingly bad or frightening dream can be interpreted positively and if so done, no ill effects from that dream will ever actually occur.
There is a ceremony in Jewish tradition called hatavat halom - literally meaning making the dream a good one. If one unfortunately dreamt a nightmare at night, one should see his or her rabbi or a rabbinic court and ask that the dream be interpreted positively. There is a formula to be recited by the dreamer and the court or rabbi who facilitates this transition from the dream being a frightening nightmare to a positive portent. Everything depends upon the interpretation.
And this is not only true of dreams. The rabbis are in fact teaching us that in all of life's events, the interpretation of events, what one actually makes of them, is key to future achievements and/or failures.
The Talmud presents another antidote to the effect of nightmares upon people - a day of fasting. This taanit halom - fasting because of a dream - is deemed to be such a powerful weapon against the depression caused by nightmares that one is allowed to fast even on Shabbat, a day when no fasting is usually allowed (unless Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat). An additional fast day is imposed on that person as penance for having fasted on Shabbat, but nonetheless the fasting on Shabbat because of a disturbing dream is allowed due to the intense psychological pressure and depression that a bad dream can cause to a person.
The Talmud, as can be seen, took dreams quite seriously. Nevertheless the sages stated that even a semi-prophetic dream contains within it fanciful visions which are inaccurate. Just as grain cannot be without chaff, so too dreams cannot be without inaccuracies and a touch of nonsense. How to separate the chaff from the grain, the nonsense from the message, lies in the dream's interpretation.
The psalmist teaches us that when the restoration of Zion is complete and the exiles of Israel have returned home to the Land of Israel, we shall be as "dreamers." Jews dreamt of living in the Land of Israel for millennia. The dream has somehow become a reality in our time for millions of Jews. But apparently, this dream also has a touch of nonsense, of chaff associated with it. Perfection has not been achieved here and many problems, foreseen and unforeseen, surround us. Yet again, this dream of Zion is also subject to our interpretation of it, and to our fasting and sense of sacrifice and tenacity. The dream of the ages now has some reality to it. What we make of this reality will signify what that dream really foretold.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).