I Have Dreamed a Dream…
Howard Avruhm Addison
Sovereign of the Universe, I am Yours as are my dreams. I have dreamed a dream and know not what it is. Whether I have dreamed of myself, or my companions have dreamed of me, or I have dreamed of others—if they be good dreams, confirm and reinforce them like the dreams of Joseph; if they require remedy, heal them, as the waters of Marah were healed by our teacher, Moses, as Miriam was healed of her leprosy, Naaman of his leprosy, Hezekiah of his sickness, and the waters of Jericho by Elisha. As You turned the curse of the wicked Balaam into a blessing, so turn all my dreams into something good for me.1
Truth be told, I was twenty-one before I ever witnessed the kohanim (priests) ascend the bimah to ritually bless the congregation. Raised in a community where those of priestly descent didn’t dukhen,2 I recall being totally intrigued. However, I also remember looking at the Birnbaum prayerbook,3 which instructed us to murmur the above-cited prayer, and wondering: how is this meant to work? Was the experience of standing completely enfolded in tallitot or otherwise shielding our eyes as the light of the Divine Presence, or ha-sh’khinah, purportedly streamed through the outstretched priests’ fingers meant to induce a dream-like state? But even if that were so, then what was this ceremony’s connection to my personal dreams? How was it possibly going to advance the good ones and transform the bad? And, most basic of all: whatever does the “healing of dreams” mean, anyway?
More than four decades have passed since my initial encounter with this curious prayer. As I’ve grown more interested in dreams, I find myself being drawn back to its words, and the customs and interpretations that surround it. Yet, I can’t help but wonder: what wisdom and healing power might still inhere in this ancient entreaty? On an even broader level, what relevance might our tradition’s views of dreams and dreaming hold for us who live in this modern, psycho-scientific age? And what does any of this have to do with Birkat Kohanim?
Judaism and Dreams: On Being of Two Minds
Arguably, the word that best summarizes Judaism’s orientation toward dreams was chosen by Monford Harris as the title for the penultimate chapter of his Studies in Jewish Dream Interpretation:4 “ambivalence.” Depending on who is doing the counting, dreams are mentioned as many as thirty-three times in the Hebrew Bible, with nine such instances occurring in Genesis alone. However, the various texts of Scripture are hardly unequivocal in their judgment of dreams or their value. The prophet Joel, speaking in God’s name, declared: “And it will come about after this, that I will pour out My spirit on all humankind and your sons and daughters will prophesy; your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions” (2:28). Conversely, Kohelet warns: “For through the multitude of dreams and vanities, there are many words; but one should revere [only] God” (5:6). Deuteronomy seems divided against itself over the reliability of dreamers and visions, dithering over how to determine if their communications are of God or derived from presumption or malevolent forces—to the extent of wondering whether even the fulfillment of their messages is a mark of validity.6
The classical texts of Rabbinic Judaism also speak with a split voice. Rabbi Meir, a second-century sage from the Land of Israel, found dreams inconsequential, stating that “dreams neither help nor harm,”7 while the third-century Babylonian teacher, Rav Judah, said in the name of (his teacher) Rav: “There are three things for which one should pray: good rulers, good years, and good dreams…as it is written, ‘You make me dream and thereby cause me to live.’”8 The Talmud’s compendium on dream interpretation9 first indicates that a pertinent interpretation need be specific to the dreamer and his or her dream, and then offers what seems to be an authoritative list of dream images and their meanings!
Post-talmudic Judaism’s valuation of dreams waxes and wanes. Classic mystical texts—including the twelfth-century German Sefer Ḥasidim (“The Book of the Pious”), as well as Sefer Ha-zohar (“The Book of Splendor”), which first appeared in thirteenth-century Spain—contain ample references to dreams. During that same era in France, Rabbi Jacob of Marvège employed dream questions to decide some matters of Jewish law, as recounted in his She’eilot U-t’shuvot Min Ha-shamayim (“Inquiries and Responsa from Heaven”).10 In sixteenth-century Italy, Rabbi Solomon Almoli composed a dream manual entitled Pitron Ha-ḥalomot (literally, “The Interpretation of Dreams”). However, many authorities then and later most likely shared Maimonides’ perspective that dreams are solely products of the imagination.11
Our modern period reflects a similar dichotomy. The literature of Hasidism, beginning with the lessons taught by its founding teacher, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), is replete with tales of visions and dreams. Monford Harris describes both Iraqi and American Yiddish dream texts written in the early twentieth century.12 Students of the late North African kabbalist Madame Colette Aboulker-Muscat (1909–2003), including Catherine Shainberg of New York, continue to teach and/or practice versions of Jewish dream interpretation that they learned from her in Jerusalem.13 However, most contemporary rabbis, and the vast majority of modern Jewry (save some in the Hasidic and Sephardic communities), reflect a modern scientific bias that prefers Western therapeutic modes to traditional forms of counsel that are deemed “old worldly,” unreliable, and outmoded. In disproportionate numbers, today’s Jews will discuss their dreams with psychotherapists—while the possibility of addressing them in Jewish contexts has been largely foreclosed.
When We Sleep: The Process of Dreaming
For more than a century, great advances have been made in our understanding of dreams. Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, marked a breakthrough in the study of how the unconscious manifests itself through our dreams. Freud’s theory of dreams as wish fulfillment,14 Carl Jung’s insight into the compensatory and complementary roles dreams play in the integrative growth of the self,15 and Fritz Perls’s observation that each character in a dream represents projected aspects of the dreamer,16 have all furthered our understanding and interpreting of dreams. Advances in neuroscience have even made it possible to locate which parts of the brain go “off line” and which continue to function when we sleep, which helps explain the associative, nonlinear, symbolic, and even surreal quality of our dreams.17
If we are to understand the primary intent underlying the “Sovereign of the Universe” prayer (found at the beginning of this essay) and its connection to Birkat Kohanim, we will need a sense of the cultural setting in which it arose—a setting far different from our own. In the introductory lines of Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests, Frances Flannery-Dailey reminds us:
Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern peoples regarded dreams quite differently than do those of us in Post-Freudian, modern society. Whereas we tend to view dreams as unreal, interior phenomena, ancient peoples believed that some dreams were genuine visits from the deity or their divine representatives….Modern dreamers tend to hold that the value of dreams lies in their ability to yield information about the dreamers’ past or present psychology; ancient peoples believed that dreams impart knowledge of the future or knowledge of events apart from the interior life of the dreamer.18
Today, most of us use the words “I had a dream” to connote the inner physical and psychological processes that occur while we are asleep. The ancients, who viewed dreams as visitations from other dimensions, would “see,” be “met,” or be “visited” by their dreams.19 “Pleasant” or “evil” dreams were understood to reflect the dreamer’s psychological status. “Message” dreams, which directly conveyed God’s word (like Jacob’s ladder dream20), and “symbol” dreams (akin to Joseph’s dreams and those he interpreted for Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker, and later for Pharaoh himself21) were of far greater import. These had ramifications for the health and fortunes of both individuals and nations.
The understanding of dreams put forward in the literature of Rabbinic Judaism is based, in part, on the belief that the spirit of prophecy had departed from Israel during the early Second Temple period.22 While some sages claimed that what one sees in dreams is only suggested by the dreamer’s own thoughts,23 others maintained that even during this post-prophetic era, when we lack bona fide prophets to clearly speak God’s word, God still communicates with us through dreams.24 As the talmudic master Rabba said, “Though the blessed Holy One declared, ‘I will surely hide My face on that day,’ God also said, ‘I shall speak with him in a dream.’”25 Sleep may be considered an incomplete or sixtieth part of death, but dreams are a sixtieth part of prophecy.26
Perhaps the most quoted talmudic dictum about dreams is attributed to the Babylonian sage Rav Ḥisda (d. 320 C.E.): “A dream left uninterpreted is like a letter left unread.”27 This statement implies that, like their predecessors in the ancient Near East, there were many sages who considered dreams to be visitations from another dimension. They relate tales of individuals visited by departed biblical figures, who may symbolize a certain value or even impart a message.28 Twice the Talmud refers to a dispenser of supernatural information called the “master of the dream” (ba·al ha-ḥalom), a variant of the title “master of dreams,” which Joseph’s brothers pejoratively applied to him.29 Harris ascribes little importance to this figure,30 who is rarely mentioned in Jewish lore and whose messages the Talmud twice tells the dreamer to ignore, even though the ba·al ha-ḥalom appeared in the dream. It is interesting to note that in another rabbinic text, the instructions of the ba·al ha-ḥalom led to the freeing of a female Jewish captive by her Greek captor,31 and that the Zohar later identifies the archangel Gabriel as the ba·al ha-ḥalom.32
While the sixteenth-century dream interpreter Solomon Almoli basically maintained the sages’ view that dreams are visitations from heaven,33 the Zohar sets forth a complementary understanding according to which the soul actually leaves the body during the dreaming process and ascends to heaven, where it learns of future events and receives warnings of various sorts:
For when one sleeps, the soul leaves and soars aloft. God then reveals to the soul…future events or things that correspond to one’s own thoughts, so as to serve as a warning. For no revelation comes when the body is in full vigor [i.e., awake and moving]34 but an angel communicates things to the soul, and the soul transmits them; dreams, then, originate on high when souls leave the bodies, each one taking its own route.35
This view is reflected in the traditional prayer recited upon waking, Modeh Ani, which thanks God for faithfully and compassionately restoring our souls to us each morning of our lives.36 Examples of both motifs—both dreams as visitations and dreams as the ascent of the soul—can be found throughout kabbalistic and hasidic lore.37
To Heal Troubling Dreams
Because most ancients and medievals believed that dreams originated in other-worldly dimensions, the need to find a proper response to disturbing night visions took on special importance. Texts from as far back as ancient Assyria and Babylonia describe various petitions offered and rites employed to ameliorate the potential impact of “evil” dreams. Examples of such prayers include the following:
Make pleasant my dream [when I am on my] nocturnal couch.
May the dream I shall see [this night] be good. May the dream I shall see be reliable; transform [O gods] the dreams I shall see into pleasant ones.
Some devotees even turned to burying figurines under their bedroom floors inscribed with phrases like, “Get out, O evil [caused] by dreams; come in, O pleasantness [caused] by dreams.”38
It is against this backdrop that we can better understand the dream amelioration rituals that are later found in the Talmud. While many sages believed that dreams are a sixtieth part of prophecy, they were concerned about the portents and the sources of dreams. Does a disturbing image foretell harm? Is it a warning or a call to repentance? Or is it a veiled symbol of good tidings?39 Can one even rely on the veracity of a dream message, or has it been sent by demonic forces to mislead the dreamer?40 To avoid any potentially negative consequences, the Talmud prescribes three alternative amelioration rituals, all subsumed under the Hebrew rubric hatavat ha-ḥalom, literally to “make better” or “enhance” (the implications of) our dreams.
Through a “dream fast,” one who experienced a troubling dream could do penance in hope of averting any portended harm. Considered effective against bad dreams (as is “fire, which consumes fibers”), some authorities even permitted the dreamer an otherwise forbidden fast on Shabbat, provided the dream had occurred the night before.41 A primary goal of this fast, as well as the other ceremonies described below, is to move the dreamer to repent, so that God will mercifully forgive and “sweeten” the outcome of the troubling dream.
A second rite entails gathering three friends42 together immediately after the morning service on the day following a troubling dream.43 All four participants recognize but never openly speak of the convener’s disturbing dream. Instead, the dreamer begins by stating seven times that his (or possibly her) dream was good, which the friends affirm seven times.44 Antiphonally they recite a total of three sets of three biblical verses: the first containing derivations of the word “to reverse or transform,”45 the second set based on verses including variations of the verb “to redeem,”46 and the third all containing the word for well-being and peace.47 The ceremony concludes with the recitation of several biblical passages, each begun by the dreamer and concluded by the friends.48 As the dreamer then contributes to tzedakah, the friends recite words now familiar to us from the High Holy Day Musaf: “Repentance, prayer, and charity avert the harshness of the decree” and bless the dreamer, saying, “peace be to you, us and to all Israel. Amen.”
As might be evident from the two rituals described above, the dreamer never asks to have his (or her) dreams stop, or even to have them interpreted. Instead, these rites are intended to “sweeten” or transform the dreams. The healing power of this dynamic will become clearer still, as we now explore of the entreaty “Sovereign of the Universe, I have dreamed a dream.”49
“Sovereign of the Universe”
The Priestly Blessing, as prescribed in Numbers 6:24–26, was originally offered daily following the morning sacrifices in the Temple. Now incorporated into the prayer service, it is still recited by the kohanim present each morning in Jerusalem; other communities throughout Israel recite it only on Shabbat and festival days. Outside the Land of Israel, the most prevalent custom is for the kohanim only to invoke the threefold blessing during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah on all major Holy Days (first and last days of Passover and the first days of Sukkot, as well as on Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret) except Simḥat Torah, when it is recited during the Shaḥarit Amidah.
When Birkat Kohanim was recited regularly, all the dismayed dreamer had to do was attend worship the next morning and recite “Sovereign of the Universe” as the kohanim blessed the community. However, as the opportunities to hear Birkat Kohanim decreased, several procedural questions arose. Should the dreamer only recite “Sovereign of the Universe” if he or she had a disturbing dream the night before the holy day, or can it cover all disturbing dreams one has experienced since the previous festival? If one recites it on the first day of a festival and has no troubling dream the following night, should it be recited again on the second day, or would that violate the proscription against taking God’s name in vain? In those locales where Birkat Kohanim is recited on Shabbat, is everyone allowed to say “Sovereign of the Universe,” or is it—like the “dream fast”—permitted only to those who had disturbing dreams the night before? When should the recitation of the “Sovereign of the Universe” prayer begin and end? And what happens if it seems the worshipper is unable to complete the entire prayer before the kohanim finish their blessing?50
The practice today in congregations that recite “Sovereign of the Universe” is for everyone present to say it on each festival day.51 The first day’s recitation covers all disturbing dreams since the last festival. Since the prayer asks God to heal dreams others have had about you, it also can be recited on the second day; after all, who knows who might have dreamed of you the night before, even if you yourself had no disturbing dream then? In Israel, where Birkat Kohanim is recited on Shabbat, the custom is for “Sovereign of the Universe” to be recited solely by those troubled by their Friday night dreams, similar to the restriction cited above covering a “dream fast”; this is a moot point for those who reside outside of Israel.
To assist in deciphering the meaning of the prayer, it might be useful to understand exactly how this dramatic rite proceeds in situ. The cantor and the kohanim antiphonally recite the first two words of the blessing, y’varekh’kha Adonai (“May the Eternal bless you”). The kohanim then chant a melody as the congregants recite the text of “Sovereign of the Universe,” and then conclude with the third word of the first blessing, v’yishm’rekha (“and guard you”). The community then responds, amen. The cantor and kohanim then antiphonally recite the next four words of blessing, ya·eir Adonai panav eilekha (“May the Eternal’s face shine upon you”). The kohanim again chant a melody while the congregants repeat the text of “Sovereign of the Universe,” and they then conclude with the fifth and final word of the second blessing, vi-ḥunneka (“and be gracious unto you”). The community again responds with an amen. The cantor and kohanim then antiphonally recite the first six words of final blessing, yissa Adonai panav eilekha v’yaseim l’kha (“May the Eternal’s face be turned toward you [connoting divine favor] and grant you…”), chant the melody, and conclude with the final word, shalom (“peace”) as the community responds with a final amen. While the kohanim privately recite their own concluding prayer, the congregation offers a different entreaty: “You who are majestic on high and who abides in might, You are peace and Your name is peace. May it be Your will to bestow peace on us.”52
Underlying both the recitation of the “Sovereign of the Universe” prayer and the aforementioned “gathering of three friends” ceremony is the talmudic principle according to which “all dreams follow the mouth [i.e., their stated interpretation].53 Tractate Berakhot even recounts the misadventures of an unscrupulous dream interpreter, one Bar Hedya, whose pronouncements would determine whether identical dreams would be fulfilled for good or for ill, based on whether or not the dreamers paid him his fee.54 On a practical level, the notion that dreams “mean” whatever their interpreters claim they mean might indicate that the dreamer is more likely to focus on those aspects of the dream highlighted by the interpreter, while remaining insensitive to other elements in the dream. However, I believe this notion is rooted more firmly in Judaism’s beliefs about the power of words in general. Genesis 1 depicts a God who speaks the world into existence. A great deal of Jewish superstitious practice is based on name magic and the recombination of the letters of various Hebrew words (including equating their numeric value with those of other phrases, all of which are subsumed under the general rubric of gematria). A popular incantation used even today by magicians, “Abracadabra,” is actually an anglicized version of an ancient Aramaic phrase meaning, “I shall create through speaking.”55
Neither when reciting “Sovereign of the Universe,” nor through the ritual of “gathering three friends” is the dreamer looking for verbal interpretations. Even to admit out loud the belief that one’s dream images were evil might trigger harmful consequences, as indicated by the talmudic warning not to “open your mouth to Satan”—intended to warn against inadvertently allowing one’s words to serve as portals for demonic forces.56 Through the recitation of Birkat Kohanim and its attendant prayer, or by the dreamer and the three friends repeatedly affirming that the dream was good, and through the calls during both rituals for transformation, release, fortification, healing, and peace, the dreamer finds assurance that the troubling images of his or her dream might ultimately bode well for the dreamer.
Through its fifteen Hebrew words, Birkat Kohanim invokes God’s blessing, protection, illumination, grace, favor, and peace. When recited by the kohanim, God’s presence is understood to be directly manifest amidst the congregation gathered in the sanctuary. It is particularly within this flow of blessing, and the sense of the immediacy of the Divine evoked by Birkat Kohanim, that the potentially harmful portends of our dreams can best and most thoroughly be transformed for good.
One analogy used to describe this ceremony’s widely perceived and intense power to heal dreams was offered by the seventeenth-century Galician commentator, Rabbi Avraham Ḥayyim Schor.57 It derives from a principle associated with the Torah’s dietary laws, known to halakhic cognoscenti as the bateil b’shishim rule. The words bateil b’shishim literally mean “it is annulled through sixty [parts],” and the principle can best be explained by example: if, for example, milk were inadvertently to drip into a vat of meat soup, the soup would be rendered non-kosher—unless the soup’s original volume was at least sixty times greater than the spilled milk. If, however, this proportion is met or exceeded, then the milk is deemed nullified and the soup is considered kosher. When the kohanim bless the people, the radiant Divine Presence—itself acknowledged in our texts as the source of prophecy—is believed to flood the sanctuary. Its infinite volume is more than sufficient to annul a bad dream, imagined literally to constitute a sixtieth part of prophecy,59 even if that dream emanated from demonic forces. It has even been noted that if one adds up the number of letters that constitute the fifteen Hebrew words of Birkat Kohanim, the total is sixty!60
Given its long history, reciting “Sovereign of the Universe” during Birkat Kohanim must have proved reassuring and cleansing for our forebears. However, the question remains whether its recitation—or participation in any of the other traditional dream amelioration rites—might so impact us today.
Dreams and Their Meanings: Then and Now
Flannery-Dailey was definitely correct: our contemporary understanding of dreams is far different from that of the pre-moderns.61 However, the more I study the classical Jewish texts that address dreams, the more foreshadowing I see of principles that we moderns often claim to have discovered during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To be sure, the observations scattered throughout tradition are often formulated in mythopoeic language and clearly were not derived through scientific study. Indeed, save in the work of Almoli and a few others, they were not presented in any systematic fashion at all. Contrary to talmudic claims that all dreams contain an admixture of nonsense,62 we are now coming to understand that potentially every aspect of a dream can be meaningful. It certainly would be unwarranted to claim that all elements of Freud’s or Jung’s theories of dreams can be found in rabbinic or kabbalistic literature; however, there is certainly wisdom in these classical sources that we should not discount—as some of them presage, by centuries, the findings of modern psychology and even neurology.63
Carl Jung claimed that imagery and symbol are in and of themselves the language of dreams, a fact now borne out by the current findings of neurobiology.64 In the twelfth century, the aforementioned Sefer Ḥasidim already observed that “the symbolic imagery of dreams may be compared to sign language. When travelling in a foreign country, one will meet people whose language one does not understand. They will communicate through sign language, much like we communicate with the deaf. Yet the wise can discern what is being shown in the dream, why it is shown through symbols, and for what the symbols stand.”65
Centuries ago, Rabbi Zeira claimed: “One who goes seven days without a dream is called ra [‘unfortunate’ or ‘bad’], since Scripture says, ‘One shall abide satisfied and shall not be visited by misfortune (ra).’—Read not savei·a (satisfied) but sheva (seven). What it means is this: one sees [all sorts of things in a dream], but does not remember what has been seen.”66
We now know that all human beings (as well as other living creatures) dream during REM sleep, as well during other times in the sleep cycle, even if those dreams are not remembered upon waking.67 Rabbi Zeira might well be right that one who cannot recall even one dream per week is “unfortunate” because this lack represents a serious disconnect from one’s unconscious, thus from a vital source of new insight and a path toward personal integration. That person might also be deemed “bad” because disconnection from one’s dreams insulates one from their warnings—and so we might thus be more susceptible to acting out harmful impulses unconsciously, or to failing to see dangers that can result from not heeding a dream’s warning to moderate or rebalance our behavior.68 As the Zohar recounts: “Rabbi Ḥiyya and Rabbi Yosi used to study with Rabbi Simeon. Rabbi Ḥiyya once put to him the following question: ‘We have learned that a dream left uninterpreted is like a letter left unopened. Does this mean that the dream comes true without the dreamer being conscious of it, or that it remains unfulfilled?’ Rabbi Simeon answered: ‘The dream comes true, but without the dreamer being aware of it.’”69
Rabbi Banaah taught that “there were twenty-four dream interpreters in Jerusalem. Once I dreamed a dream and I went round to all of them and they all gave different interpretations, and all were fulfilled, thus confirming that which is said: ‘All dreams follow the mouth.’”70 At first glance, this claim might seem overblown, if not fully preposterous. Yet we now know that a single dream can resonate on multiple levels, including different layers of personal meaning and import for one’s immediate community and the greater society. The dreams may even manifest telepathic and non-temporal qualities.71 Even though rabbinic literature does use the number twenty-four as a formulaic expression when it means “many,”72 it is quite possible that each interpreter correctly highlighted a different aspect of Rabbi Banaah’s dream. However, lest we think that dream interpretation is a free-for-all, the talmudic passage above continues: “Is this notion scriptural? Yes it is, as stated by Rabbi Eleazar: ‘Whence do we know that all dreams follow the mouth? Because it says, and it came to pass, as he [Joseph] interpreted to us [Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and baker], so it was. Rava said: ‘This is only if the interpretation corresponds to the content of the dream: for Scripture says, to each man according to his dream he did interpret.’”73
It is now considered a sine qua non that any legitimate dream interpretation must not go too far afield into chains of associations or universal symbols, but instead must remain faithful to the elements of the dream and the dreamer’s experience. Ultimately, the dreamer is the authority on the meaning of his or her dream and it is the dreamer, therefore, who must validate any interpretation with his or her “aha!” assent.74 As early as the twelfth century, the author of Sefer Ḥasidim stated that “if an interpretation fits the elements of the dream and the dreamer is satisfied with that interpretation, it is an indication that this is indeed what the dreamer has been shown.”75
“Sovereign of the Universe” Revisited
In my opinion, the same prescient wisdom manifest in the texts cited above inheres in the words of the “Sovereign of the Universe” prayer that is recited during Birkat Kohanim. The Polish talmudic scholar and legist Rabbi Joshua Falk (1555–1614) notes that nowhere within this dream amelioration prayer do the petitioners ask that their troubling dreams stop.76 Then, going further, reflecting talmudic wisdom and anticipating the observations of contemporary psychology, Falk indicates that having troubling dreams is preferable to having no dreams at all. This is why “Sovereign of the Universe” cites Moses sweetening the bitter waters at Marah:77 had Moses instead prayed that the bitter waters disappear, the Israelites would have been left in an even worse state, with the possibility of no water to drink. Thus, the examples of healing cited by this dream prayer demonstrate the purpose and power found in the transformation of harmful conditions. While not intentionally desired, these can strengthen the distressed and those who know them in ways unavailable to those who have not had to overcome affliction. For example, Miriam’s healing from leprosy strengthened Israel’s resolve to avoid harmful speech,78 and Naaman’s healing by the prophet Elisha led to the exaltation of the true God in the eyes of the ancient pagan nobility.79
The aforementioned Rabbi Avraham Ḥayyim Schor highlighted a homeopathic element present in the examples of remedy cited in “Sovereign of the Universe.”80 In several instances, the stated means of healing seem counterintuitive to what one might normally think to be an appropriate cure. Moses cast a tree, bark and all, into the waters of Marah and Elisha poured salt into the contaminated waters of Jericho81—and both of these acts normally would render water undrinkable. And Hezekiah’s ulcer was healed by applying a poultice of figs, which ordinarily would have exacerbated the boil.82 This insight resonates with what we now know about disturbing dreams: the more terrifying the dreams, the less one really wishes to revisit them. However counterintuitive it may seem, it is by confronting those disturbing images—sometimes even by engaging them in an imaginary dialogue—that we find the potential to discover that they are not in fact harbingers of ill, but rather are symbols of help or needed warning.83
My interest in dreams has led me to study aspects of dream interpretation and to train as a dream group leader.84 Once, a dreamer reported to me that she was completely overworked yet feared letting go of one of her jobs for financial reasons. One night she dreamed that she and a friend were sitting in the anteroom of a lawyer’s office. Through a partition window, they saw three large, shadowy figures enter an inner room. Shots rang out and the two women dropped, cowering, to the floor. I asked her to contemplatively re-imagine the dream scene and simply ask the figures, “Who are you?” Upon doing so, the figures replied, “We’re bail bondsmen and we’ve come to rescue you.” When asked about the shooting they answered, “Did you think you were going to leave here without some blood being spilled?”
This re-imagining and further engaging with the elements of a dream is but one example of a Jungian contemplative process known as Active Imagination.85 Its practice might offer us a modern twist on the concept of “sweetening” or “transforming the dream,” a contemporary analogue to throwing tree bark or salt into water. The dreamer’s imaginary dialogue, described above, uncovered a hopeful message at the core of what she had first experienced with fright. She realized that she could change her work life, but not without some cost to her and disappointment by those at work who had come to depend on her. And since dreams are notorious for expressing their meaning through non-literal symbols and wordplay, the term “bail bondsmen” reminded her that her late father had left her some valuable treasury bonds that could help “bail” her out of her stressful work situation.86 Thus, her dream was transformed from terror into an intimation of potential blessing—just as “Sovereign of the Universe” hints can happen by noting that God did not eliminate but rather transformed Balaam’s words from curses into blessing.
Monford Harris observed that, with the exception of Yom Kippur, all of the occasions when we recite “Sovereign of the Universe” occur during multi-day festivals.87 This insight casts a special light on our understanding of the relationship between Birkat Kohanim and dream amelioration. As a participant in the recurring ritual drama of Birkat Kohanim during these holidays, the dreamer could again and again feel enveloped by its uniquely transformative sense of the holy. Combined with the concurrent repetition of “Sovereign of the Universe” amid sacred community over the course of these days, the dreamer could find both inspiration and a safe therapeutic setting in which to process his or her disturbing dream. During this period the dreamer could revisit the dream, re-examine it, and possibly reengage with its images, recognizing where amends to others might be needed and discerning what guidance was being offered to shape future behavior and action. By the end of the festival, infused with the spirit of the Priestly Blessing and the hopes that “Sovereign of the Universe” convey, the dreamer could feel forgiven, renewed, and encouraged upon returning to everyday life.
Healing and Wholeness
Jeremy Taylor, a foremost expert in Dream Studies, is fond of saying, “All dreams come in the service of healing and wholeness…and invite you to new understandings.”88 The words and practices associated with “Sovereign of the Universe” seem structured to lead the troubled worshipper to just such realizations. Its phrases impel us to admit that we don’t know the meaning of our dreams and remind us that, like Joseph’s dreams, their ultimate purpose might only be revealed over time.89 Its examples point us to the healing potential nestled amid even frightening dream images. This unfolding prayerful process, repeated amid the compelling ritual drama of Birkat Kohanim, can inspire us to revisit and explore previously unrecognized aspects of our dreams and our lives, buoying us with the promise that both can be transformed for our good.
The current version of “Sovereign of the Universe” offers an addendum to the words found in the Talmud.90 At the end of the prayer, we add: “May [God] protect me, be gracious to me, and find favor in me. Amen.” These three requests invoke the blessings found respectively in each of the three lines of Birkat Kohanim. It expresses a hope as relevant today as it was when “Sovereign of the Universe” was first composed. Through that divine sense of safety, grace, and favor so movingly promised by Birkat Kohanim, may we find healing messages amid even our most troubling dreams, thus transforming them and our lives for good. Amen.
1 B. Berakhot 55b, attributed to one of three late talmudic figures, Amemar, Mar Zutra, or Rav Ashi.
2 Literally “to ascend a platform,” dukhening is a Yiddish-derived term in widespread use in Jewish American English to denote the rite in which the kohanim bless the community with Birkat Kohanim.
3 Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book: Ha-Siddur Ha-Shalem (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949), pp. 627–630.
4 Monford Harris, Studies in Jewish Dream Interpretation (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1994), p. 107.
5 This renders the Hebrew word hevel, the author’s regular term for “impermanence.”
6 Compare, e.g., Deuteronomy 13:2–6 to Deuteronomy 18:15–22.
7 B. Horayot 13b.
8 B. Berakhot 55a, citing Isaiah 38:16.
9 Found at B. Berakhot 55b–57b and frequently cited in this essay.
10 A full examination of dream incubation, a practice that extends back to Greece and the ancient Near East, is beyond the scope of this essay. Treatments of this practice in antiquity can be found throughout Frances Flannery-Dailey’s Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (Leiden: Brill, 2004) and in Shaul Bar, A Letter That Has Not Been Read: Dreams in the Hebrew Bible, trans. Lenn J. Schramm (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2001), pp. 223–232. Discussions of later Jewish practices of dream incubation, divination, and the posing of dream questions can be found in Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (New York: Atheneum, 1970), pp. 230–248 and in Joel Covitz, Visions in the Night (Toronto: Inner City Books, 2000) pp. 76–82.
11 Guide for the Perplexed II 36–37.
12 Harris, Studies, chaps. 4 and 5.
13 Collette Aboulker-Muscat, Alone With the One (New York: ACMI Press, 1995) and Catherine Shainberg, Kabbalah and the Power of Dreaming (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005).
14 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dream, trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Macmillan, 1913), chap. 3, pp. 103–112.
15 Carl Jung, “The Practical Use of Dream Analysis” (1934), excerpted in The Essential Jung, ed. Anthony Storr (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 168–189.
16 Fredrick (Fritz) Perls (d. 1970) was a founder of Gestalt Therapy.
17 For a full description of this research complete with diagrams, see Robert Hoss’s excellent website, www.dreamscience.org.
18 Frances Flannery-Dailey, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests, p. 1.
20 Genesis 28:10–22.
21 Genesis 37:5–11; 40:4–22, and 41:1–43.
22 B. Sotah 48b, Sanhedrin 11a, and Yoma 9b.
23 B. Berakhot 55b.
24 B. Ḥagigah 5b.
25 Ibid., citing Deuteronomy 31:18 and Numbers 12:6.
26 Bereishit Rabbah 17:5, cf. B. Berakhot 57b.
27 B. Berakhot 55a.
28 Representative instances can be found in B. Berakhot 56b, Sanhedrin 102b, and Avot D’rabbi Natan, chap. 40 (regarding which, see Judah Goldin’s translation in his The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan [New York: Schocken Books, 1974], p. 167).
29 At B. Berakhot 10b and Sanhedrin 30a; for the biblical usage, see Genesis 37:18.
30 Harris, Studies, pp. 12–14.
31 Avot D’rabbi Natan, chap. 17. (Goldin’s translation is in his Fathers, p. 89.)
32 Zohar I 183a–b.
33 Solomon Almoli, Pitron Ḥalomot, gate 1, as translated by Joel Covitz in his Visions in the Night, pp. 88–92. Almoli’s categorization of dreams is of particular interest. Relegating “psychological status dreams” to the realm of the imagination, which spins visions from the dreamer’s daily thoughts, Almoli then describes: (1) “prophetic” dreams with their direct message from God; (2) “ordinary” dreams instilled by the ba·al ha-ḥalomot, which are a variant of prophecy still vouchsafed to Israel; and (3) “magical” dreams, which are self-induced by the dark arts of sorcerers and are to be repudiated.
34 Interestingly enough, current neurobiology has discovered that the aspect of our brain structure which controls the generation of motor commands, the primary motor cortex, is inactive when we sleep. See Robert Hoss, “The Dreaming Brain,” section 3.1, available online at www.dreamscience.org/idx_science_of_dreaming.htm.
35 Zohar I 183a–b.
36 The Modeh Ani appears in almost every comprehensive prayerbook, cf., e.g., Siddur Sim Shalom (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1994), p. 1.
37 Prime examples of a visitation dream and an ascent vision can be found respectively in the Sefer Ha-ḥezyonot of Rabbi Ḥayyim Vital (1543–1620), III:9, and in the Tzava·at Ha-Rivash (The Ethical Will of the Baal Shem Tov). Translations of both texts can be found in Louis Jacobs, Jewish Mystical Testimonies (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), pp. 127–128 and 149–153.
38 These examples come from A. Leo Oppenheim’s essay, “The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, With a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book,” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series 46:3 (1956), p. 230.
39 B. Berakhot 57b: “Our rabbis taught: [If one dreams of] a corpse in the house, it is a sign of peace in the house.”
40 B. Berakhot 55b.
41 B. Shabbat 11a.
42 Here the Talmud already prescribes a condition that modern dream work considers axiomatic: one should only share dreams with those whom the dreamer considers emotionally safe. The Zohar further cautions: “And Joseph dreamed a dream, which he told to his brothers and they hated him the more….From this we learn that a person should not tell one’s dream save to a friend, otherwise the listener may pervert the significance of the dream” (I 183b).
43 The primary source of this rite is B. Berakhot 55b. The entire ritual as summarized here, including post-talmudic additions, is detailed in Harris, Studies, pp. 98–102, which he cites from Seligmann Baer’s Seder Avodat Yisrael (1868; rpt. Berlin: Schocken, 1936), pp. 578–579.
44 Harris, Studies, suggests that the three friends might constitute a beit din, a religious court, which can be composed of three lay people for small civil matters.
45 That is, words based on the Hebrew root hei-pei-kaf; the verses are Psalm 30:12, Jeremiah 30:13, and Deuteronomy 30:6.
46 That is, words based on the Hebrew root pei-dalet-hei; the verses are Psalm 40:19, Isaiah 30:10, and 1 Samuel 14:45.
47 That is, shalom; the verses are Isaiah 57:19, 1 Chronicles 12:19, and 1 Samuel 25:6.
48 The respective passages begin with Psalm 121, followed by Numbers 6:22–26, Psalm 16:11, and Kohelet 9:7.
49 The full text can be found at the opening of this essay. In many Hebrew texts this prayer is referred to the by the first word of the prayer, ribbon.
50 For a full discussion of these issues, see Sefer Eliyahu Rabbah (the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh) to S.A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 130:1.
51 Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Sacks Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishing, 2009), pp. 832–837.
52 B. Berakhot 55b. Originally this passage was recited only if one could not finish “Sovereign of the Universe” before the kohanim concluded the benediction.
53 B. Berakhot 55b.
54 B. Berakhot 56a.
55 Trachtenberg, Magic, chap. 7.
56 B. Berakhot 19a.
57 Sefer Torat Ḥayyim on B. Bava Kamma 55a (New York: Ḥayyim Zimmerman Publishing, 5707 [1946/1947]), p. 12a.
58 Cf., e.g., 1 Samuel 10:6 or 16:13.
59 Bereishit Rabbah 17:5 and B. Berakhot 57b.
60 Sefer Torat Ḥayyim on B. Bava Kamma 55a, p. 12a.
61 Flannery-Dailey, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests, p. 1. See discussion above, under “When We Sleep: The Process of Dreaming.”
62 B. Berakhot 55a.
63 For anticipation of Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious. see Avot D’rabbi Natan, chap. 31, and B. Niddah 30b; for Jung’s anima and animus, cf. Zohar III 43a; for Jung’s concept of projection, see B. Kiddushin 70a.
64 The aspects of our brain structure responsible for spatial imagery, pictographs, and emotional processing, particularly in the right-brain hemisphere, remain active as we sleep; those associated with logic, planning, inhibition, and episodic memory, especially in the brain’s left hemisphere, are blocked. For a full treatment see Robert Hoss, Dream Language (Ashland, OR: Innersource, 2005), chap. 3.
65 Sefer Ḥasidim, §606, based on the translation of Rabbi A. Y. Finkel in his Sefer Chasidim: The Book of the Pious (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson In, 1996), p. 341.
66 B. Berakhot 55b, quoting Proverbs 19:23. This homily is based on a play on the words savei·a and sheva, both of which contain the same consonants and would thus appear identical to each other in an unvocalized text.
67 REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is one of two states that alternate during the natural cycle of brain activity when we sleep. (The other is called NREM, or non-REM.) REM sleep is the state most associated with dreaming. See Robert Hoss, “The Science of Dreaming,” section 1, available online at www.dreamscience.org/idx_science_of_dreaming.htm.
68 See Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, ed. Aniela Jaffe, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Random House, 1961), concerning a mountaineer who ignored his dreams in which he envisioned stepping out into space. Jung, who tried unsuccessfully to get this patient to heed this dream warning, later learned that he had fallen to his death while mountain climbing.
69 Zohar I 183a–b. Carl Jung cites two instances of the consequences paid by those insensitive to the warnings of their dreams in his Man and His Symbols (New York: Dell, 1968), p. 34.
70 B. Berakhot 55b. Rabbi Banaah was citing a well-known apothegm.
71 For a full and accessible treatment of each of these types of dreams based on forty years of study, see Jeremy Taylor, The Wisdom of Your Dreams (New York: Tarcher, 2009).
72 Eikhah Rabbah 1:2.
73 B. Berakhot 55b, citing Genesis 40:22 and 41:13.
74 See Jeremy Taylor’s “Basic Dream Work Toolkit,” online at www.jeremytaylor.com.
75 Sefer Ḥasidim, §605, as translated by Finkel, p. 341.
76 P’rishah commentary on S. A. Oraḥ Ḥayyim 130.
77 The story is found in Exodus 15:23–26.
78 Numbers 12:1–15. On the midrashic connection between leprosy and slander, see B. Shabbat 97a.
79 2 Kings 5.
80 Sefer Torat Ḥayyim on B. Bava Kamma 55a.
81 2 Kings 2:19–22.
82 2 Kings 20:7 and Isaiah 38:21.
83 Louis Savary, Patricia H. Berne, and Stephon Kaplan Williams, Dreams and Spiritual Growth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984), pp. 58–63.
84 On the nature and dynamics of dream groups, see Robert Haden, Jr., Unopened Letters from God (Hendersonville, NC: Haden Institute Publishing, 2010), Appendix B; and Jeremy Taylor, “Dreamwork,” at www.jeremytaylor.org.
85 See Robert Johnson, Inner Work (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), section III, pp. 135–222.
86 In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud notes that ancient Near Eastern dream books had recognized the prevalence of punning and the non-literal nature of dreams millennia ago. The Talmud, at B. Berakhot 56b–57a, is replete with examples of such wordplay, including the following: “Our rabbis taught: If one sees a reed (kaneh) in a dream, one may hope for wisdom, for it says: Get (k’neih) wisdom” (Proverbs 4:5).
87 Harris, Studies, pp. 104–105.
88 “Basic Dream Work Toolkit,” online at www.jeremytaylor.com.
89 B. Berakhot 55b points out that it took Joseph twenty-two years to appreciate fully the implications of his youthful dreams.
90 Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Sacks Siddur (Jerusalem: Koren Publishing, 2009), pp. 832–833.