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.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Long Life, Secret Knowledge and Dreams - Berakhot 55

Today’s Talmud page begins with a discussion of how to prolong one’s life: drawing out a prayer, a meal or a visit to a privy. For the last, one is told not to overly strain oneself in a privy, 10 ways avoided hemorrhoids, and we read of one rabbi’s habit of testing himself in each of the 24 privies between his house and the Beit ha-Midrash (house of study). In these rabbinic discussions of what may prolong one’s days or for what one should pray, we can hear both rabbinic priorities and admirable values for our own times: do not refuse a gift of honor (their examples: saying grace after a meal or reading from the Torah) or assume an air of authority. One hopes for a good king, a good year, and a good dream. And in a nice little detail, Rabbi Isaac interprets from the Biblical example of Bezalel (Exodus 31) that “one should not appoint a leader over a Community without first consulting it.”

What was Bezalel’s qualification? According to the Talmud, it was his wisdom and secret knowledge – he was able to combine the letters of creation, just as medieval and modern Jewish mystics try to use the Hebrew Aleph-Bet to unlock secrets in the tradition of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Most of the secret knowledge explored on today’s page, however concerns the interpretation of dreams – as Rabbi Hisda said, “a dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.” The human fascination with dreams did not skip Talmudic rabbis, though they often read them as prophetic signs of the future while we read them as insights into our past.

This crucial difference notwithstanding, we find fascinating insights: “a bad dream is worse than scourging” “there is no dream without some nonsense” “while part of a dream may be fulfilled, the whole is never fulfilled” “the one whose dream saddens him should have it interpreted before three [fellows]”. Some rabbis play both sides: Samuel called his bad dreams false and his good dreams true. Rabbi Bana’ah went to 24 dream interpreters in Jerusalem, and each gave him a different interpretation that came true. His lesson: dreams follow “the mouth” [i.e. interpretation], just as in the Joseph story: “And it happened that just as he explained it to us, so it was.” (Genesis 41:13). Rabbi Jonathan provides the most Freudian insight of all: “A man is shown in a dream only what is suggested by his own thoughts”

The Talmud’s rabbis were not psychologists, nor were they prophets. And Freud did not begin interpreting dreams because he read page Berakhot 55. Rather, they are both part of the human fascination with dreams and secret knowledge. If we can learn one more thing about the world, or about our future, or about ourselves, who can resist?

Rabbi Adam Chalom