Jews and Dreams

2 Apr

Having been absent from this blog for quite a while, I’m grateful to Ira Barouch for this guest post. My getting online at the end of Passover with a post inspired by a Chanukah workshop may seem out wildly out of sync, and I do apologize to Ira for my slowness (I’m still distracted by preparing for my upcoming move).

On the other hand, the timing has continuity: Around Chanukah, as Ira notes, the Jewish cycle of reading the Torah in small sections lands on the story of Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharoah—a biblical event that facilitates the survival of Abraham’s descendents during widespread famine by bringing them to Egypt. Passover celebrates the Jews’ subsequent exodus from Egypt, the beginning of 40 years of miraculous survival in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.

Jews and Dreams

by Ira Barouch

For thousands of years the Jewish people have been fascinated by the notion of extracting valuable messages from dreams. Jewish culture has been in the forefront of the study and practice of dream interpretation, beginning with the ancient biblical prophesies of Jacob and his son Joseph in Genesis, to the “mysticism” of the medieval era’s berekhat (tractates, or sections of the Talmud), to the sexually charged instinctual wishes of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory that boldly ushered in the 20th century, and continuing all the way up to the trendy contemporary “Kabbalah” practices popularized by Madonna and other celebrities.

On a Saturday in early December my wife, Helen, and I attended a Chanukah retreat in White Plains, sponsored by Westchester Jewish Community Services. In addition to workshops that practiced mindful meditation, chanting, and yoga, the program included two fascinating presentations that illuminated the long Jewish tradition of dream interpretation. As a psychoanalyst, I was intrigued.

“Pharoah’s Dream,” digital pop art giclee print by Israeli artist Mike Darnell


Rabbi Molly Karp, religious school principal at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, CT, led a workshop entitled “Spirit Dreams: The Joseph Cycle,” referring to the section of the Torah traditionally studied around Chanukah. Our group, which included a few other local rabbis, sat around a large table and took turns reading and discussing portions of this ancient text. The narrative follows the spiritual development of Joseph through his uncannily insightful interpretations of his own and others’ dreams. The cycle features the two universally recognized dreams that so troubled the Egyptian Pharaoh, in which he envisioned “seven fat calves followed by seven lean calves.” Joseph had gained a reputation as a keen interpreter of dreams while falsely imprisoned in an Egyptian dungeon, and when he was summoned to interpret the Pharoah’s two dreams, he immediately understood them as a divine prophecy from God and warned that seven abundant years would be followed by seven extremely lean years.

The Pharaoh, quite impressed with the young Jew, then appointed Joseph to organize a massive storage operation during the abundant years, which prevented a disastrous famine during the lean years that would have eventually devastated the entire land of Egypt. For Rabbi Karp, this specific section of the Torah represents the struggle that the Jewish people have had throughout history, living within a larger, often unfriendly, culture. (Freud was similarly aware of this factor, in regard to its role in the European scientific community’s reluctance to accept his psychoanalytic theory.) To survive and thrive in the context of an unfriendly larger culture (a condition that is, of course, shared by many groups), it’s extremely helpful to have the ability to focus attention carefully, and to understand that one’s life contains many messages, and the ones that you’re able to recognize from your sleep are often more valuable than the ones you receive while awake.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, co-founder of Kohenet: The Jewish Priestess Institute, continued the narrative of this Jewish tradition into the Talmudic era by referencing its “Dream Texts,” which include this lovely proverb: “A dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been read.” In these mystical texts, dreams are understood as the soul actually journeying to paradise in order to discover hidden truths, then returning to the body having been “enlightened.” Rabbi Hammer sees in this ancestral tradition a similarity to modern psychotherapy, with the difference being that in psychotherapy the journey into the unconscious leads to self-understanding, whereas in traditional Jewish dream interpretation the goal is both self-understanding and divine understanding. She explained that, during the heyday of Jewish mysticism, a lively dream consultation trade developed in Jerusalem, and women were among the primary practitioners, some earning a nice living at it. Last year Rabbi Hammer taught a course in Jewish dreamwork to rabbinical students; it featured “dream circles” in which group members offered interpretations of each other’s dreams. This practice was so rewarding that the group has chosen to continue to meet periodically to share their dreams outside the classroom.

The Chanukah retreat was a wondrous day for all who attended. I left with a renewed appreciation for a cultural tradition that spans thousands of years. Every night we are all, in a way, like the exiled Jacob, exhaustedly pulling up a rock to raise his head from the cold ground in a strange land, uncertain of what tomorrow may bring. We may not necessarily dream of a ladder that reaches up to the divine, but it is as valuable today as it has always been to remember: “When you need guidance, seek out a dream!”

Ira Barouch ( is a licensed psychoanalyst practicing in the New York City area who has led dream-sharing groups for artists and others in creative fields.

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