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Rabbinic dreams during Late Antiquity

June 21, 2010

Dreams have always held significance for human beings through the ages, and dreaming has been associated with a multitude of different notions. The idea of dreams functioning as a link between humans and the divine has been particularly common. According to a thesis in religious studies from the University of Gothenburg, this notion is also found within Judaism from the period of Late Antiquity.

"The rabbis interpreted dreams using the same methods that they used to interpret the Bible. Texts and dreams were interwoven, for example stories in the religious documents tell of rabbis dreaming that they are reading verses from the Bible. Jewish prayers and dream rituals also recommend recitation of Scriptural verses as a way of dealing with bad dreams; the good text functioning as a kind of weapon against the evil dream," explains author of the thesis, Erik Alvstad.

The belief that gods and other divine forces convey knowledge and insights to humans through dreams is highlighted in many of the accounts of dreams that readers come across in ancient literary works, such as the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, the works of Homer and the Icelandic sagas. Dream interpretation, prayers and rituals to ward off evil dreams, as well as methods that could be employed in order to encourage good dreams through the power of suggestion, also occurred in ancient cultures.

And in the central text of rabbinic Judaism, the Talmud, we find a wealth of literary material linked to the phenomenon of dreaming. One aspect of particular interest in the Jewish dream culture is that the rabbis, the scholarly elite within the Jewish culture, appear to have made systematic attempts to subordinate dreams to the authority of the Bible, or Torah.

"In the capacity of God's revelation to the Jewish people, the Torah was regarded as the royal road to knowledge about how to live your life, as well as a source of insights about hidden secrets. But while the Torah was regarded as the most important link between man and God, dreams continued to attract attention: People had dreams and they speculated about where the dreams came from, what they might mean and whether they might be 'true'," says Erik Alvstad.

According to Erik Alvstad, the central role of text and textual practices within the culture had major consequences for the way in which dreams were regarded. By examining literary material of various genres in the rabbinic documents, he shows that the late ancient rabbis systematically associated the dream with the text.

"There's a kind of competition between the Torah, the central revelation given to the Jewish people on one unique occasion, and the dream as an alternative and more peripheral, yet at the same time continuing form of revelation. This is a circumstance that the rabbis express through the maxim: "Dreams are a sixtieth part of prophecy." The rivalry is also reflected in the polemical stories about conflicts between rabbis and professional dream interpreters about authority and social influence," says Erik Alvstad.
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University of Gothenburg

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