Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Dreams and Prophecies - Berakhot 57

Sometimes the rabbinic world makes sense to us, and sometimes it seems absolutely foreign. Today’s Talmud page begins by describing the good predictions of dreaming one is praying or wearing tefillin (prayer boxes) or reciting the Shema. And right next to it, we learn that a dream of sexual intercourse with one’s mother predicts understanding, with a betrothed maiden predicts Torah knowledge, and with one’s sister predicts wisdom. Dreaming of intercourse with a married woman may be a sign of a place in the world to come – provided, of course, one does not know her or think of her before bed! In all of these cases, the basis for interpretation is connection with a Biblical verse – “say to wisdom, you are my sister” (Proverbs 7:4). After all, “obtaining wisdom” would not be the first interpretation of a dream of sibling incest that would otherwise come to mind.

At other times, the symbolism at work in rabbinic dream interpretation is more clear. Dreaming that one is naked in Israel means one is bare of pious deeds while being naked in Babylon is a sign of being sinless. Or consider the Talmud’s interpretation of seeing King David, King Solomon, or King Ahab – David (“author” of Psalms) hopes for piety, Solomon (“author” of Proverbs) for wisdom, and Ahab (an idolatrous king who persecuted the prophet Elijah) means one should fear punishment. And the same three-part structure division holds for dreaming of certain Biblical books, or rabbinic sages, or later disciples. Some signs are generally good – like animals or fruits or colors (each with exceptions: a saddled elephant or monkey, an unripe date, or blue). And on and on until we finally return to the subject of blessings – blessings one should recite in the morning upon dreaming of particular images or texts.

The challenge for us, we must remember, is that we no longer see dreams as prophecies – according to today’s page, “sleep is one-sixtieth of death, and a dream is one-sixtieth of prophecy.” For the Talmud’s rabbis, who demonstrably understood and controlled far less about life and death than we do today, many things could be a siman [sign] of what was to come. Sometimes they could well have been based on observation – for some illnesses, sneezing, sweating, sleeping or dreaming can be a good sign of imminent recovery, as the Talmud claims they are. But their justification is based on Biblical quotation, and today they are less useful to predict the future than a good diagnosis or a course of antibiotics.

Rabbi Adam Chalom