Berakhot 56

Interpreting dreams is a risky business.

Today’s daf opens with the sages Rava and Abaye bringing a series of identical dreams to the renowned dream interpreter Bar Haddaya, who was known to interpret dreams favorably if he was paid and unfavorably if he wasn’t. Abaye pays Bar Haddaya and repeatedly receives positive interpretations. Rava does not pay and receives negative interpretations of the same dream. Much havoc is wreaked on Rava’s life as a result.

The Gemara then relates this story about Bar Haddaya and Rava taking a trip together by ship:

As Bar Haddaya was climbing onto the ship a book fell from him. Rava found it and saw “all dreams follow the mouth” written therein. He said to bar Haddaya: Scoundrel. I was dependent on you, and you caused me so much suffering. 

In other words, the manifestations of Bar Haddaya’s dream interpretations are due not to the specific content of the dreams, but to his interpretations of them. When Rava discovers Bar Haddaya’s agency in manifesting the tragedies that he experienced, he curses him. Later we learn that Bar Haddaya was brutally murdered at the hands of the Roman empire.

Today’s daf teaches us that it is the way we interpret our dreams that shapes our lived reality — not the other way around. This is why, later in the daf, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that we have a responsibility to offer positive interpretations of dreams immediately upon waking so as to prevent an equally legitimate negative interpretation from taking hold. Rabbi Yehoshua goes on to list a number of things people might dream about — rivers, birds, grapes — and the positive verses associated with those things one should quote to ensure a happy outcome, as opposed to the equally possible negative outcome.

Most of the dreams that Rava and Abaye report are in fact verses of Torah being read before them. This is no coincidence. Our rabbis not only tasked themselves with interpreting Torah, but elevated the very practice of interpretation to be a central tenet of Jewish life. Through their teachings on dream interpretation, the rabbis have downplayed the mystical potency of dreams and dramatically elevated the power of the interpreter. And the subsequent instruction from Rabbi Yehoshua to interpret dreams positively underscores the responsibility of the interpreter to use that power for good and without self-interest — a lesson that applies to Torah interpretation as well.

Read all of Berakhot 56 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 28, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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