Dreams and Prophecy
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
Our Parashah is "bookended" with stories about dreams; both stories
featuring Yoseph as the central character. At the end of our Parashah, we
are told about Yoseph's success in the prison of the court of Egypt - and of
his insightful explanation of the dreams of two of his fellow prisoners:
Each of the two men - the butler and the baker of the king of Egypt, who
were being held in prison - had a dream the same night, and each dream had a
meaning of its own. When Yoseph came to them the next morning, he saw that
they were dejected. So he asked Pharaoh's officials who were in custody with
him in his master's house, "Why are your faces so sad today?" "We both had
dreams," they answered, "but there is no one to interpret them." Then Yoseph
said to them, "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams."
Yoseph is confident about his ability to explain their dreams - and that
confidence is quickly validated, as each of his explanations is played out
in Pharaoh's court. The butler is restored to his position and the baker is
Where did Yoseph get this confidence; indeed, where did he get the ability
to interpret dreams? The earlier dream sequence in the beginning of our
Parashah, involving Yoseph, posits Yoseph not as a dream interpreter;
rather, as the dreamer. His brothers and father are the ones who make
inferences from his dreams - but he just reports them. When did he learn how
to explain dreams?
This question carries extra significance in light of the later story of
Yoseph's redemption from prison. The butler "finally" remembers Yoseph and
reports his successful dream interpretation abilities to Pharaoh. This leads
not only to Yoseph's rise to greatness (as a result of his explanation of
Pharaoh's dreams), but ultimately to our terrible oppression and slavery in
Egypt. (See BT Shabbat 10b)
DREAMS AND REACTIONS
In order to understand Yoseph's ability to interpret the dreams of the
butler and baker - and then those of Pharaoh, let's look back at the first
dream-sequence at the beginning of our Parashah:
Yoseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all
the more. He said to them, "Listen to this dream I had: We were binding
sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood
upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it." His
brothers said to him, "Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually
rule us?" And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he
had said. Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers.
"Listen," he said, "I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and
eleven stars were bowing down to me." When he told his father as well as his
brothers, his father rebuked him and said, "What is this dream you had? Will
your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground
before you?" His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the
matter in mind. (B'resheet 37:5-11)
Yoseph had two dreams - the dream of the sheaves and the dream of the stars.
An in-depth study of the differences between these dreams - surely a worthy
enterprise - is beyond the scope of this shiur. We do note, nevertheless,
several significant differences in the reaction of his family members to the
dreams. Resolving two questions about these reactions and one (seemingly)
ancillary issues will help us understand Yoseph's later confidence and
ability as a dream interpreter:
1) Why did Yoseph tell his brothers about his dreams? He already had a
tempestuous relationship with them and, surely, relating these dreams would
do nothing to reverse that trend.
2) When he told them that he had had the first dream (the dream of the
sheaves) - before informing them of the content, they hated him more than
before (37:5). After he related the content of the dream, his brothers
accused Yoseph of plotting - or, at least contemplating - a "takeover" of
the family. After he related the second dream (the dream of the stars), they
had no reaction. Note that the dream of the stars is much more impactful
than the dream of the sheaves in two ways:
a) Not only are the brothers bowing down (akin to the blessing given to
Ya'akov - B'resheet 27:29), but the sun (father) and moon (mother) are also
b) Unlike the first dream, where their sheaves bowed to his sheaf, the
second dream had the stars, sun and moon bowing to Yoseph himself.
Nevertheless, the brothers remained silent in response to hearing this dream
- although they were jealous (37:11). Note that he related this dream twice;
to his brothers and, later, to his father in their presence. Why didn't they
react to the second dream - either time?
3) The father, on the other hand, reacted to the second dream in the same
fashion as the brothers' reaction to the first dream - yet he kept the
matter in mind; i.e. he waited to see if it would be fulfilled. Why did
Ya'akov simultaneously castigate his son for this "egocentric" dream -
indicating a dismissive attitude towards it - while waiting to see if it
would come to pass?
YA'AKOV AND HIS *BEN Z'KUNIM*
Solving one other difficulty at the beginning of our Parashah will set us on
the path to a solution. As we are introduced to Yoseph and the special
relationship he had with his father, we are told:
"Now Yisra'el loved Yoseph more than any of his other sons, *ki ven z'kunim
hu lo* (because he had been born to him in his old age)..." (B'resheet 37:3)
The Rishonim provide several opinions about the key phrase *ben z'kunim hu
lo*. Rashi understands it as our translation indicates - since Yoseph was
born to Ya'akov when he was old, the father felt a special affection for
him. Ramban challenges this interpretation on two points:
b) The verse states that Ya'akov loved Yoseph more than any of his other
sons; the implication is that Ya'akov loved him more than Binyamin, who was
born much later and when Ya'akov was much older.
Onkelos translates *ben z'kunim* as "wise child". Ramban points out the
difficulty with this translation: The verse states *ki ven z'kunim hu lo* -
he was a *ben z'kunim* TO HIM (to Ya'akov). If *ben z'kunim* is rendered
"wise child", then there is no need for the possessive *lo* afterwards.
Clearly, the *ben z'kunim* position was not an objective description, rather
it was relational to Ya'akov.
Ramban then offers his own explanation:
"The custom of elders was to take one of their younger sons as a servant,
and he would lean on him at all times, never separating from him. He would
be called "the son of his old age" (*ben z'kunav*) since he would serve him
in his old age...this is what they [the Rabbis] intended when they stated
(B'resheet Rabbah 84:8) 'Everything that [Ya'akov] learned from Shem and
Ever he passed on to [Yoseph]', i.e. he transmitted to him the wisdom and
Following Ramban's explanation, Yoseph had every reason to see himself as
the heir of the Avraham-Yitzchak-Ya'akov tradition. As the closest and most
favored recipient of Ya'akov's wisdom and tradition, Yoseph understood that
he was destined to experience some of the same events that befell his father
- and to have a similar relationship with God. (See Rashi at 37:2 -
"...everything that happened to Ya'akov [also] happened to Yoseph...")
YA'AKOV - THE FIRST DREAMER
Among our Avot (Patriarchs and Matriarchs), the only one whom we are told
had a dream was Ya'akov. Ya'akov dreamt not once, but twice - on his way out
of the Land (B'resheet 28:12-15) and when being beckoned back (31:10-13).
[It is interesting to note that the only other two dreams recorded in
B'resheet before Yoseph were nearly identical occasions. God appeared to
Avimelekh (B'resheet 20:3-7) to warn him to return Avraham's wife to her
husband. God then appeared to Lavan (31:24) to warn him not to attack
Ya'akov. These two dreams are not of a category with Ya'akov's - or with the
three remaining couplets of dreams - Yoseph's, Pharaoh's stewards' or
Pharaoh's. In those dreams, there was a message about the future of the
individual or his nation, not a divine intercession on behalf of the righteous.]
It is reasonable to posit that Ya'akov related his dreams, their meanings
and their outcomes to Yoseph. The favorite son, heir apparent to the
tradition, had every reason to believe that if he dreamt a dream where the
"message" of the dream was obvious, that he should regard it as prophecy and
the word of God - just as his father experienced.
DREAMS AND VISIONS
We can now look through the first dream sequence and understand the
different reactions of the brothers and Ya'akov - and what Yoseph learned
from them. [I recommended a careful review of 37:5-11 before continuing]
It is clear from the opening verses of our Parashah that Yoseph was engaged
in a power struggle of sorts within the structure of the family (see Rashi
and Ramban on 37:2). Yoseph then experienced a dream - with an obvious
implication for that struggle and its [seemingly divinely mandated] outcome.
He told the dream to his brothers - and they hated him even more just for
telling them! He must have been confused by this (unless he wasn't aware of
it) - for why would they not be interested in hearing the word of God,
especially as it affects them so directly?
When he relates the dream of the sheaves (only to his brothers - his father
does not hear of it), they understand its implication - and berate him for
it. What did they find so offensive about his vision?
The verses do not indicate that the brothers disbelieved his dream - but
they were offended by it. The brothers had a piece of information which was
not yet known to Yoseph: Although father Ya'akov is a prophet - and his
dreams are indeed visions from God, that is no longer the case with the next
generation. A dream may not necessarily be a vision - it may be the
expression of subconscious desires and repressed urges (as conventional
psychology maintains). The Gemara in Berakhot (56a)
records two incidents where the local (non-Jewish) governor challenged one
of our Sages to predict the content of his dreams of the coming night. In
each case, the Sage described a detailed and horrific dream - which so
preoccupied the governor that he dreamt about it that night.
An important distinction between a vision-dream and a subconscious-based
dream is in interpretation. If the dream is truly a prophecy, its meaning
should be fairly evident, as it is not generated by the person's own
subconscious - we need not be privy to the psychological makeup of the
dreamer to understand the message. A conventional dream, as we are all
aware, may take a great deal of sophistication to understand - although that
is not always the case.
The brothers were not offended by the dream - rather, by the apparent cause
for this dream. They figured that Yoseph must be thinking about his takeover
of the family so much that these thoughts have entered his dreams. Their
derision and hatred is now clear - but why did they keep silent at the
There was a tradition in the house of Ya'akov that although a single dream
may be caused by internal thoughts and ruminations, if that same dream (or
the same "message" clothed in alternate symbolism) occurs twice, it is no
longer a happenstance - it is truly God's word. We find this approach
explicitly stated by Yoseph when he explains Pharaoh's doubled dream:
The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter
has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon. (B'resheet 41:32)
When Yoseph reported his second dream to his brothers, they did not increase
their hatred - not at the report of the dream nor at the retelling of its
content. The fact of the second dream - and its similar implication - was no
longer reason for hatred, rather for concern and jealousy.
Ya'akov, however, had heard nothing about the first dream. That is why he,
upon hearing about Yoseph's second dream, responds in an almost identical
fashion as the brothers did to the first dream:
"What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers
actually come and bow down to the ground before you?"
At this point, Ya'akov surely expected his other sons to have a similar
reaction - but they were silent. [Remember from the incident in Sh'khem that
these sons were not shy about speaking up in father's presence - their
silence here is telling]. After his rebuke, the Torah tells us that his
brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Ya'akov must have been surprised by the brothers' silence - and must have
figured that this dream was not the first one Yoseph had shared. That clued
him in that there may be more to this dream than he first thought - and he
kept the matter in mind - i.e. he waited to see if it would be fulfilled.
Yoseph learned a powerful lesson from this encounter - that even if a dream
is "just a dream" and not prophecy - this is only true when it is an
isolated incident. When the dream is repeated, this is a sign from God and
must be understood that way.
We can now return to Yoseph in the Egyptian prison and explain his response
to the butler and baker. When he learned that they had both experienced
significant and terrifying dreams in the same night, he understood that
these were more than dreams. He reasoned that just like a dream that occurs
twice to the same person is more than a dream, similarly, if two men sharing
a fate have impactful dreams on the same night, their dreams must be divine
His response: Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams - is
not presumptuous. He was telling them that their dreams were more than "just
dreams" - they were in the province of God and, as such, would not need
sophisticated interpretation (as is the case with a subconscious-based
dream). They would be fairly easy to understand - as indeed they were.
Yoseph earned his reputation as an interpreter of dreams - and his ultimate
freedom and final rise to power - not by interpreting dreams at all! He
earned it by remembering the lesson from his father's house - that the
"doubled dream" is a mark of prophecy, and by applying it intelligently
years later in the Egyptian dungeon.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.