From the perspective of Depth Psychology the symbols expressed within a dream reveal deep levels of the personality of the dreamer, the psyche expressing itself in imagery. The mysteries of human existence can be entered via the dream, providing an inner perspective unknown to consciousness. Jung saw the dream as a hidden portal to the innermost recesses of the soul, “the utterance of the unconscious.”
Something is unconscious because it has not yet been lived. Jung refers to the Collective Unconscious, a deeper level than the Personal Unconscious. Jung meant by this, an experience that is inherently human. The symbolism that occurs in the psyche of individuals represents patterns that pertain to mankind as a whole.
The unconscious contains the seed, the possibilities for future experience. A significant part of dreams then, according to Depth Psychology’s understanding, lies in the expression of yet unrealized experience.
This essay addresses the Jewish perspective on dreams as found in the Talmud and contrasts these findings with Depth Psychology’s approach to dreams and their significance.
According to the Jewish perspective a person is a partnership of body—made up of the dust of the earth, and soul—some particle of the Divine. As Aristotle claimed, everything has a natural affinity to its source; the body wants to return to the earth from whence it came, and eventually it will, and the soul yearns to return to God. The power of the soul keeps the body from returning to its source while the living body has enough force to contain the soul. At the moment the body loses its life force the soul escapes and is allowed the journey home.
There is an idea within the Talmud that all spiritual realities have a counterpart in the physical world so that we can experience a taste of them. Accordingly, Talmudic sages claim that “Sleep is one-sixtieth of death” and “Dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot, 57b). The body at rest abdicates control, while the soul separates a bit and roams free. Immediately upon awakening each morning the pious Jew recites the following prayer: “I am grateful to You, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion—abundant is Your graciousness” (Siddur, 1984 p. 2).
In dreams, according to the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, although the meeting of souls sometimes takes place among the living, more often the medium of the dream enables one to meet with the dead. Obviously not possible body to body, this can be possible soul to soul: the departed come back to speak, often to warn the living of pending catastrophe. Talmudic lore relates stories where rabbis, uncertain of a law, went to sleep. In their dreams a former sage appeared to them informing them where to search for the information, something they would not otherwise have known.
The Jewish tradition discusses the message, the meaning, and the method of dreams. A dream can include the concept of prophecy (Maimonides said there are twelve levels of prophecy). The Talmud says that not a thing transpires on earth without having first been announced in a dream. The message in the dream is delivered in its own particular code—its own language—which must be deciphered to be understood. Another statement in the Talmud declares: “Nothing happens to a man, good or ill, before he has beheld some intimation of it in a dream” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55a).
To determine the veracity of a particular dream one must examine the principles by which the interpreter made his decisions; for example, via a study of the stars, of the dreamer’s character, of the foods he had consumed before retiring, etc. Some rules from the Talmud instruct that if the dream images are clear and vivid and leave the dreamer moved or agitated, the dream is usually trustworthy. This suggests that if you can’t remember a dream, you can forget it. If it leaves little impression, it may be disregarded, but if it asks to be remembered, it wants to be remembered, and one should attend to it. Other guidelines propose that a dream that occurs in the early night, before the process of digestion has started, either has no significance or it may concern the past. A dream that occurs in the middle of the night, while food is being digested may or may not have importance. And most dreams that take place in the early morning, when the process of digestion has been completed, come true (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55b). This is so because then the body is less active at that time; one is more soul than body in that moment. (Talmudic authors recognize that any physical stimulus affects the dream—be it a full stomach, heat or cold.)
Talmudist Rabbi Yochanan said three kinds of dreams come true: an early morning dream, the dream which someone else has about one, and most powerful of all—the dream which is interpreted by another dream (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55b). If the symbolic material of one dream is decoded and made clearer in a second dream, this is an indicator that it is imperative that the dreamer understand the content so that he get the message. Some commentators also put into this category the dream that is repeated.
To assure that people won’t go mad if they accept all dreams as predictive, the Talmud states that each dream also contains within it some nonsense, and that “while a part of a dream may be fulfilled, the whole of it is never fulfilled” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55a).
Though we can be pretty certain that Freud did not study the Talmud, the Talmudic interpretation of symbolism is similar to that of Freud. The Talmud describes many dreams, covering many different categories; visions of places, activity, animals, fruits, etc., and reveals their significance (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55b-58a). Rab Hanan said: “There are three types of dreams which signify peace, namely, about a river, a bird, and a pot” (5Gb). In the dream wherein someone waters an olive tree with olive oil, the interpretation according to the Talmud is that this symbolizes incest (57a). While symbols not sexual in themselves are interpreted as having sexual meaning, symbols that are directly and blatantly sexual are interpreted by the Talmud as having a meaning that is not sexual. Talmudic sources relate that if someone dreams that he is having sexual intercourse with his mother, he can hope to acquire much wisdom, and a dream of having sexual relations with a married woman means he can be assured of his salvation (57a). The Talmudic interpretation is based on the idea that a symbol always stands for something else and, therefore, a symbol which in itself is sexual, must denote something other than its manifest meaning.
Jung believes that the symbols chosen by the dream are highly significant to the dreamer. Jung, along with Freud, believed that much of the content of the psyche is repressed and suppressed material. He sees the psyche as autonomous, having its own purpose and function and teaches us that we must look to our own inner world—perhaps to that Divine essence that is within us to guide us and to help us find meaning in our lives. Jung saw dreams as a true, objective statement of what is taking place in the psyche—what is necessary for the individual to know.
A manuscript (Shoshan Yesod Olam, The Rose, Foundation of the Universe) compiled around 1550 by Rabbi Joseph Tirshom contains a collection of over two thousand magical formulas for the practice of Kabbalah. An interesting practice described in this work (and likely others of its genre) involves induced dreams. This is usually referred to as a “Dream Request,” where one poses a question and attempts to induce an answer to appear in a dream. Aesclepius practiced Dream Incubation In the fifth century B.C. This practice is also alluded to in the Talmud. Kaplan (1982) considers the significance of this practice and asserts that although some methods for inducing dreams are purely magical, that is, mysterious and unaccountable, others are clearer in expressing the relationship that exists between prophecy, enlightenment, and dreams.
Actually the Talmudic view of dreams is divided. The differing perspectives are that dreams are totally meaningless, or the nearly opposite attitude that even “normal” dreams contain sufficient prophecy to make them relevant and meaningful. A midway stance recognizes both the potential truth in dreams and the fact that they also contain incidental material. Each view has as its base a statement in the Talmud that would seem to substantiate it (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55b-58a).
These (Talmudic) views possess cogent psychological opinions of dreams, as opposed to the more metaphysical claims that dreams are voices of disembodied souls, spirits and ghosts, or messages from God. Dreams in the Talmud are seen as expressive of our reason, morality and unconscious wisdom, and at the same time, of our irrational strivings. This eclectic view seems to take in both Freud’s view, that dreams are expressions of the irrational, asocial nature of man, and Jung’s, which claims that dreams are revelations of unconscious wisdom, transcending the individual (Fromm, 1951, p.109).
This unequivocal statement is found in the Talmud: “A dream that is not interpreted is like a letter that is unread” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55a). This clearly indicates that dreams are useful messages and furthermore qualifies that a dream must not only be read but must also be interpreted for deeper meanings. This would seem to indicate that there is something about dream content that must be worked through in order to derive its full import.
Rabbi Elazar says: “Every dream is in accord with its interpretation as Rabbi Elazar says …we learn this from Genesis (41:13) and just as he interpreted it, so it was (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55b). That is, the meaning of a dream, or the interpretation of a dream, varies with the interpreter. The Talmud, case in point, gives an account of one rabbi who told his dream before twenty-four different interpreters in different cities; each interpretation he received was unique and yet surprisingly, each was fulfilled (55b). This might be an indication that the many interpreters were not acquainted with the dreamer, as the relation between a person’s character, his life associations and his dream plays a pivotal role in dream analysis (Fromm, 1951, p.142).
The Talmud (Bereshit Rabbah, 68) relates the following story:
A man came to Rabbi Jose ben Halafta and said: “I was told in a dream to go to Cappadocia and secure there my father’s savings.”
“Did your father ever go to Cappadocia?”
“Nay,” answered the man.
“Then count twenty rafters in your house,” said Rabbi Jose.
“But there are no twenty rafters,” the man answered.
“Then count from the top to the bottom, and after that, count from the bottom to the top. When you reach twenty, remove the rafter, and there you will find the money.”
This proved to be correct. How did the Rabbi know? He read the words in its Greek meaning: Kappa is twenty, and Dokia is rafters (Newman, 1945, pp.98-99).
Thus far we see evidence of a Talmudic belief that dreams can have some relevance, some relation to reality if interpreted correctly. Does the Talmud attribute to dreams only this role of a carrier of unconscious messages, albeit in disguised form, or does it also recognize the possibility that dreams may sometimes satisfy another psychic need such as wish-fulfillment?
The answer might lie in the following maxim. Rabbi Huna says, “To a good person, bad dreams are shown, and to a bad person, good dreams” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot, 55b). This might be an early postulate of the idea of wish-fulfillment through dreams. Perhaps it is the “shadow” side of a person that is expressed in dreams; the “good” person dreams about actions and feelings that he, in waking life, unconsciously represses, while the “bad” person fantasizes about that which his purer “higher” self would rather he do or feel.
In the Hebrew language clues to the meaning of the word is hidden within the word itself. The word for ‘dream’ in Hebrew, is chalom—whereas chalam means to heal, cure or strengthen, and ahlam means hidden or unactualized. There is also a close similarity between chalom (dream) and chalon, the Hebrew word for ‘window’, as if the words are telling us that there is a connection in their meanings as well and implying that the dream is a window to the soul.
Dreams are taken seriously within Judaic lore and law. In Jewish law if one has an ominous, dangerous, tragic, or evil dream one is obligated to fast in order to ward off the prophetic dimension of the dream. So strongly is this felt that most commentators of Jewish law state that one should observe such a (dream)fast even on the holy day of Sabbath when there is usually much feasting and rejoicing. The rationale for this is as follows: knowing that he is doing something about the problem, a person’s heart will be lighter even than were he festively celebrating the Sabbath.
Additionally, Judaism contains rituals in regard to dreams, their meaning, and their outcome. During the Priestly Blessing (recited on the Three Festivals a year and also on Yom Kippur), while the priest is bestowing his blessing upon the people, they in turn are quietly saying a prayer constructed under intricate Kabbalistic laws, requesting that their dreams turn out for the good. In case the dreams were bad, they plead with God that those too should turn out to be for the good (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55b; Siddur, p. 697).
The Keriyas Shema al Hamitah, the night-time prayer said just before going to sleep (Siddur, p.289), contains a hope and a prayer for good dreams and an entreaty to God that He return the soul to the body in the morrow. The belief is that God is guarding the soul during the darkness of sleep—sleep, which is related to death, as you’ll recall. Thus the request: to be returned in a state of vigorous and sparkling light (Siddur, p. 289).
Additionally the Modeh Ani prayer (mentioned earlier in this paper) is recited immediately upon awakening, after which the practicing Jew is to do a ritualistic washing of his hands, similar to that which is done when he returns from a cemetery. The reason for this is, as mentioned earlier, in Judaism sleep is considered to be one sixtieth part of death. Even as the body has been allowed to refresh itself during sleep, the soul has been given an opportunity to refresh itself via its spiritual excursion.
Erich Fromm regards dreams as symbolic expressions of the soul’s experience. In his book Psychoanalysis and Religion he writes that religion, in its teachings and its rituals, speaks in symbolic language. He describes symbolic language as inner experience of thought and feeling expressed as sensory experience—a language that we “speak…if only when we are asleep….The language of dreams is not different from that which is employed in myths and religious thinking” (Fromm, 1950, p. lll).
Depth Psychology, as we know, also places a high value on dreams. Accordingly, in dreams one experiences the continuity of the soul as one gets submerged in his or her inner world; a dialogue is created in confrontation with the unconscious. A subsequent dream may be a continuation of a previous one, but is also a reaction, an answer to the work done by consciousness. That is, the dream sequence is not just a continuous series, but between interpretation and the understanding of the conscious ego and the material offered by the unconscious, there is an interchange of questions and responses. In this way the life process is complete by uniting the life of night and day. The ego no longer feels lost and dependent, delivered up to an overpowering and mysterious world of the soul, but rather is interwoven in a continuum. Besides the day’s remnants and images of friends and family, personified components of the personality appear in dreams: split off and repressed parts, former stages of the ego and attitudes, undeveloped tendencies, and the still infantile germs of development yet to come.
With a further understanding of the psyche-soma connection it becomes clearer how knowledge of the body can be transmitted through a dream. Correctly utilizing this information can allow for healing to take place as one makes the necessary changes in his or her life (Rossi, 19S5).
Thus, with some knowledge of the richness and the meaningfulness of concepts in the Talmud and regarding the nature and the mechanics of dreams, their message, and their value, we learn that what the Jewish tradition teaches has some things in common with Depth Psychology’s approach and also demonstrates some interesting differences.
Babylonian Talmud: Berachot. (Hebrew-English Edition) (1984). R.D.I. Epstein (Eds). London: The Soncino Press.
Freud, S. (1913). The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: The MC Millan Company.
Fromm, E. (1950). Psychanalysis and Religion. New York: Yale University Press.
Johnson, R. (1986) Inner Work: Using Dreams & Active Imagination for Personal Growth. New York: Harper and Row. Jung, C.G. (1989). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
Kaplan, A. (1982). Meditation and Kabbalah. Maine: Samuel Weiser Inc.
Newman, L.J. (1945). The Talmudic Anthology. New York. Behrman House, Inc.
Rossi, E.L. (1985). Dreams and the Growth of Personality. (2nd edition.) New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Siddur Kol Yaakov/The Complete Artscroll Siddur. (1984). New York: Mesorah Publication.
The Torah: A New Translation (1962). Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.
Susan Vorhand earned her Ph.D. in Depth Psychology at Pacifica. She lectures, leads workshops and facilitates support groups with an emphasis on Soul-Centered therapy. She has published numerous essays, articles and short stories and is the author of the book The Mosaic Within: An Alchemy of Healing Self and Soul.