Nedarim 8

Only in dreams.

In her powerful 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes makes its way to the surface.” Dreams shed light on who we are, what we believe, what we feel, even when we don’t recognize those things during our waking hours. Because dreams can make us aware of unrecognized truths, they can continue to affect us while we are awake. But how do we deal with those effects? 

On today’s daf, Rav Yosef tells us: 

One who was ostracized in a dream requires ten people to dissolve it for him. 

In rabbinic times, ostracism referred to more than simply social avoidance. It was a formal mode of exclusion, and a pretty big deal. According to Rav Yosef, if a man dreams that he has been ostracized, that ostracism continues to have some kind of effect once he has woken up. Thus, as with a real-world ostracism, the man needs ten people to get together to annul it. Rav Yosef next explains that the ten need to be highly qualified, learned experts in halakhah, in order to effectively annul the dreamt-of ostracism.

A generic ostracism requires ten people to annul it, but what if, in a dream, the ostracism was implemented by an individual? 

Ravina said to Rav Ashi: If he knows who ostracized him, what is (the halakhah)? Can he dissolve it for him? (Rav Ashi) said to him: (Maybe he was) was appointed as an agent to ostracize him, but he was not appointed as an agent to dissolve it for him?

According to Rav Ashi, dreams are so powerful, and have real social effects, that if one is ostracized in a dream, even by one person, ten experts are still required to annul the ostracism and allow the dreamer to participate fully in the community. But what if a person was both ostracized and had that ostracism canceled in a dream?

Rav Aha said to Rav Ashi: If he was ostracized and dissolved for him in his dream, what is (the halakhah)? He said to him: Just as it is impossible for the grain to grow without straw, so too, it is impossible to dream without idle matter.

Even profoundly serious dreams might have a random clown in them, so we cannot trust that the annulment of the ostracism in the dream is legitimate. Perhaps the dream ostracism was serious and the dream annulment was the random clown. 

My initial reaction to this discussion is one of bemusement. Dreams may offer profound insight into the subconscious, but why would an ostracism, which by its nature is social and relational, be enacted if it only happened in someone’s dream, in their own head? 

Here I return to Virginia Woolf, and her insight that dreams are a way for submerged truths to come to the surface of our awareness. One who dreams that they are ostracized, whether or not the ostracism is annulled in the dream, may well be processing a fear of exclusion, an awkward social interaction, or some other social concern. So what does the Gemara tell that person to do? Gather up ten people who are learned and wise and have the ten explicitly welcome them back. Even dream ostracism can lead to isolation; to counteract it, we are required to gather a wise community that understands our fears and welcomes us anyway. 

Read all of Nedarim 8 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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