The efficacy of dreams is the subject of varying opinions among our sages. One opinion suggests that the outcome of a dream is contingent on the choice of biblical verse recited upon waking (B. Brachot 56b). The Talmud provides examples of this principle including a river, a bird, a pot, grapes, a mountain, a shofar, a dog, a shaven head, a well of water.
The final item on this list is a kaneh, a reed or stalk. The sages tell us that upon waking from a vision of a kaneh, the following biblical verse should be recited without delay: "[Even] a cracked reed he will not break" (Isaiah 42:3). In this verse the prophet Isaiah describes how the messianic king will be so gentle that he will not break even a cracked reed. This verse should be recited before another reed related verse is said: "Behold, you have relied upon the support of this cracked reed" (Isaiah 36:6). Here the same prophet castigates King Hezekiah for his reliance upon an alliance with Egypt - the so-called support of a cracked reed - and the verse continues: "If a person leans upon it, it will enter his hand and pierce it."
This approach is an extension of the opinion stated twice in the Talmud that if someone awakens and a biblical verse "falls into his mouth," this is truly a fraction of prophecy (B. Brachot 55b; 57b). Thus the recitation of the appropriate verse that mentions a reed is paramount to how the dream will materialize.
The Talmud proceeds to present a different approach to a dream of reeds where the outcome of the dream is not conditional on the biblical verse recited immediately upon waking: A reed seen in a dream is an positive omen for wisdom, as it is written "acquire wisdom" (Proverbs 4:5) and the Hebrew word for acquire is keneih, the same letters - kuf, nun, heh - that form the Hebrew word for reed, kaneh.
From here the Talmud continues to one who sees more than one reed in a dream. Such a vision is a premonition for understanding. This too is based on a phonological connection, as the verse says: And from all your acquisitions - implying the plural - acquire understanding (Proverbs 4:7).
The Talmud here doesn't mention probably the most famous dream that featured a kaneh: Pharaoh's second dream (see Genesis 41). On that fateful night Pharaoh dreamt that seven thin cows devoured seven plump cows and then showed no outward signs of their hearty meal. Pharaoh awoke with a start but then returned to sleep and had a second vision. In this second dream he saw seven heads of grain on one kaneh, with every kernel well-formed and plump. Without warning, seven other heads appeared on the stalk, but these heads were shriveled and withered by the east wind. The thin heads proceeded to swallow up the seven plump, well-rounded heads of grain. The vision was vivid and only when he woke did Pharaoh realize that he had been dreaming.
Pharaoh turned to his magicians but they could not offer a meaningful interpretation that satisfied him. Following the butler's suggestion, Joseph was drawn from the prison pit, cleaned up and presented before Pharaoh. Upon hearing the dreams Joseph explained: The seven healthy heads of grain, just like the seven fat cows of the first dream, indicate seven years of plenty. The seven gaunt, ugly cows of the first dream and the seven withered heads of grain on the same stalk in the second vision warn of seven lean years of hunger.
Joseph continued to explain the sequence of approaching events: The coming seven years will be years of prosperity throughout the land of Egypt. The following seven years will be so harsh that all the affluence of the first seven years will be forgotten; the memory of the good years will be erased.
At this point, Joseph had completed his appointed task; the dreams had been successfully interpreted. Surprisingly, Joseph continued, offering advice to the ruler of Egypt: "Now, Pharaoh should find an intelligent and wise person, and appoint him over all of the land of Egypt." Joseph continued with details of this nationwide program that would save Egypt from total destruction.
Where did Joseph get the right - or rather the audacity - to offer advice to the ruler of mighty Egypt, urging him to implement a national seven-year program of collection and storage? Only yesterday he was languishing in an Egyptian prison with little hope for salvation. When his hour arrived, perhaps he should have prudently kept to his appointed task of interpreting Pharaoh's dreams, rather than taking the risk of proffering advice on Egyptian national policy.
One hassidic master, Rabbi Shalom Rokeah of Belz (1779-1855), explained Joseph's conduct by referencing our talmudic passage about seeing a kaneh in dream. In Pharaoh's second dream, as we recall, he saw a kaneh with seven heads of grain. Joseph understood that the stalk divinely forecast something connected to wisdom. The multiple heads on the stalk may have also indicated understanding. Thus the suggested appointment of an understanding and wise person to oversee the collection and storing of surplus grain during the seven years of plenty was an intrinsic part of the dream interpretation, and not gratuitous advice from a jailbird to a sovereign of a powerful nation.
Joseph further was conscious how the interpretation that he would utter could affect the outcome of the dream. He did not want the qualities of understanding and wisdom to be bestowed on Pharaoh. He therefore boldly suggested appointing another person, an understanding and wise leader; Joseph himself was to be that person.
Our sages indicate that dreams may have hidden layers of meaning. An object seen in a dream may be phonetically connected to concealed significance. Moreover, what we say when trying to understand the vision may have a decisive influence on the outcome of the dream.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.