Dreams, and their meaning and relevance to our lives, are certainly a fascinating subject. Already in the book of Bereishit dreams feature prominently in a number of different episodes.[1] Dreams also play a major role in the life of Yosef. Yosef had a dream that he would become ruler over Egypt which indeed came to pass. It is noted, however, that other parts of his dream were merely fantasy. This is because he also dreamt that his deceased mother would one day bow down to him during his lifetime, which obviously could not happen. We see from here that dreams will always contain some element of nonsense.[2]

One who had a disturbing dream is encouraged by many authorities to perform a ritual known as hatavat chalom, the amelioration of a dream.[3] The instructions and liturgy of the hatavat chalom ceremony can be found in most siddurim. It requires the participation of three others with whom one enjoys an affectionate bond. These three individuals should preferably be rabbis or scholars.[4] They may be relatives,[5] and if need be, minors.[6] If one cannot find three individuals to participate in the hatavat chalom, some authorities allow one to perform the ritual with two or even with one other person.[7] There is no need to share the details of one's dream to those participating in the hatavat chalom though one is required to keep the dream in mind throughout the ceremony.[8]

The hatavat chalom ceremony requires the one who had the dream to recite a number of verses responsively with the participants. These verses are all related to the theme of peace and redemption. It is preferable that the hatavat chalom ceremony take place in the morning after one had the dream,[9] though it may be performed any time throughout the day.[10] It may even be performed on Shabbat and Yom Tov.[11]

An alternative to the hatavat chalom ceremony is to recite a special prayer known as "Ribono Shel Olam," which is a prayer for the amelioration of dreams. It is a component of the Birkat Kohanim.[12]

The basic text of the ribono shel olam is as follows:[13]

Master of the World, I am yours and my dreams are yours. I dreamt a dream but I do not know what it is…whether it is something I dreamt about myself or something I dreamt about others or something that my friends dreamt about me. If these dreams are indeed good, strengthen them like the dreams of Yosef. However, if the dreams need to be healed, heal them like Moshe healed the bitter waters of Marah, and as Miriam was healed from her tzaraat, and as Chizkiyahu was healed from his illness, and as the waters of Yericho were healed by Elisha. Just as you changed the curse of Bilaam to a blessing, so too, change all my dreams for goodness. 

Relying on the ribono shel olam prayer to ameliorate a dream is somewhat impractical for those who live in the Diaspora where Birkat Kohanim is only recited on holidays. However, one who is really disturbed by a dream, and is unable or unwilling to perform the hatavat chalom, can recite the ribono shel olam during the "Sim Shalom" blessing of the repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei.[14] Most authorities recommend that everyone recite the ribono shel olam on holidays even if one does not recall having a bad dream. This is because it is unlikely that one did not have a dream since the last holiday.[15] According to most opinions, the ribono shel olam prayer should not be recited on Shabbat unless one had a bad dream the night before.[16] In the Diaspora, however, where the opportunity to recite ribono shel olam is so infrequent, common custom is to recite it on Shabbat without hesitation.[17]

One whose dream was exceptionally disturbing is advised by many authorities to consider fasting that day. This optional[18] fast is said to neutralize any possible negative effects of the dream.[19] In fact, the hatavat chalom, as well as the fast, may even be held on Shabbat![20] However, those who fast on Shabbat as a result of a bad dream are required to fast another day during the week, preferably the Sunday immediately following the fast. This additional fast is in order to atone for having caused oneself to not enjoy Shabbat due to having fasted![21]

Nevertheless, a number of authorities are of the opinion that nowadays one should not fast on Shabbat as a result of having had a disturbing dream. This is because we no longer know how to properly interpret dreams, nor do we know whether a disturbing dream is really intended to predict future occurrences.[22] This is true even regarding the types of dreams that are discussed in the Talmud and interpreted by our sages. It is explained that just like we no longer rely on the medical remedies offered by the sages of the Talmud, so too, we should no longer rely on their interpretations of dreams, either. Therefore, due to the many doubts regarding the status of a dream, one should not fast on Shabbat due to a disturbing dream.[23] Another alternative to fasting on Shabbat due to a dream is to refrain from speaking with anyone and to recite the entire sefer Tehillim.[24] One who had a bad dream following a daytime nap should fast for the following twelve hours[25] or at least until nightfall.[26] If one had a bad dream that included another person, only the dreamer must fast – not the other person.[27]

One should always try to go to sleep in a good mood which is said to trigger dreams of a positive nature. It is considered auspicious to dream about any of the following: a well, a river, a bird, a kettle, a donkey, a white horse, Avraham, King David, King Solomon, an elephant with a saddle, wheat, barley, a fig, a pomegranate, olives, dates, goats, an etrog, a goose, chickens, and seeing oneself take a haircut, among other things.[28] One should write down one's positive dreams[29] and appreciate having had them.[30] It is recommended to give charity and to try to improve oneself after having a disturbing dream as a way of finding favor with God.[31] One should not tell others of one's dreams that seem to predict wealth or other extraordinary good news. This includes one's spouse.[32]

Our sages throughout the ages have been divided as to whether dreams should be given any credibility.[33]  As the Chazon Ish writes, "Many times I had dreams but I paid no attention to them."[34] Most authorities insist that dreams merely reflect the experiences that one had during the day.[35] As the prophet Daniel says, "Your thoughts came while on your bed."[36] Indeed, in an era where people are so involved in worldly affairs along with the non-stop media sensationalism of news stories, it is simply natural for one to dream all sorts of disturbing and apocalyptic thoughts at night. Eating before bed is also known to trigger dreams, and therefore, one who went to sleep on a full stomach should not fast after a disturbing dream that one might have had.[37] One who has a toothache can expect to dream that his teeth will fall out.[38]

As such, one should not pay any attention to most dreams.[39] It is taught that most of the dreams of the Patriarchs and other biblical figures were not even recorded because the vast majority of them never came true![40]  One must never accept anything that a dead person tells you in a dream,[41] unless it’s advice on proper repentance for one’s transgressions.[42] Rav Menachem Meiri tells us that dreams are primarily nonsense.[43] Rav Kook teaches that a bad dream is a sign that one has allowed his mind to internalize something harmful.[44] One should pay no attention to dreams that one has after a fast.[45]

On the other hand, Rav Don Isaac Abarbanel, basing himself on the Talmud,[46] declares that a dream is comparable to prophecy.[47] There is also a Midrash that defines dreams as “undeveloped prophecy.”[48] Even the rational Rambam treats dreams in a manner that is similar to the way he relates to prophecy.[49] We also can’t ignore the many pages of the Talmud that are devoted to offering outlooks and insights on interpreting dreams.[50]  There were even rabbis throughout history who rendered halachic decisions based on what they saw in their dreams.[51]

One should proceed cautiously regarding a dream that one has had three or more times.[52] One who impulsively thinks of a specific scriptural verse immediately upon awakening should treat such an occurrence as a minor form of prophecy. So too, it is taught that a dream which is dreamt during the daytime hours is more likely to come true.[53] As mentioned, even a dream that contains some truth, and even prophecy, will also contain nonsense, as well.[54] Some of our greatest sages were interpreters of dreams.[55] Indeed, some authorities recommend that anytime one has a disturbing dream, one should simply proceed to a great rabbi in order for him to offer a positive interpretation for the dream.[56]

The following anecdote from the Talmud offers some guidance on how we should approach the subject of dreams. A woman once asked Rabbi Eliezer to interpret her dream in which the ceiling of her house caved in. Rabbi Eliezer told her that this was a sign that she would give birth to a boy – and so it was. Some time later, the woman had the identical dream and returned to seek Rabbi Eliezer's interpretation. Rabbi Eliezer, however, could not be found and his students interpreted her dream for her. They told her that the dream predicted that her husband will die – and so it was. When Rabbi Eliezer heard what had occurred, he scolded his students saying, "You caused the death of her husband, for the outcome of a dream depends on its interpretation!"[57]

[1] Bereishit 18,28.

[2] Berachot 55a.

[3] Berachot 55b; OC 220:1.

[4] Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:3.

[5] Teshuvot V'hanhagot 2:256.

[6] Eishel Avraham (Botchatch) 220.

[7] Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:5.

[8] Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:2.

[9] Mishna Berura 220:2; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 220:5.

[10] Machatzit Hashekel 220:1.

[11] Mishna Berura 220:3; Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:8.

[12] Sota 39a; OC 130:1; Taz, OC 128:23; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 100:12; Kaf Hachaim, OC 130:11.

[13] Berachot 55b.

[14] Rema, OC 130:1.

[15] Aruch Hashulchan, OC 130:3; Mishna Berura 130:1.

[16] Magen Avraham 128:70; Mishna Berura 130:4.

[17] Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:104.

[18] Teshuvot Harashba 132; Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:15.

[19] OC 220:2.

[20] Shabbat 11a; OC 288:4; Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:8. See also Kaf Hachaim (Palagi) 36:58-61.

[21] Rambam, Hilchot Taanit 1:12; Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:24.

[22] Tur, OC 568.

[23] Shulchan Aruch Harav, OC 288:7.

[24] Kaf Hachaim, OC 288:3.

[25] Rema, OC 288:4; Shulchan Aruch Harav, OC 288:12.

[26] Mishna Berura 288:13.

[27] Sefer Chassidim 444.

[28] Berachot 56-57b.

[29] Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:6.

[30] Berachot 55a.

[31] Ritva, Taanit 12b; Kaf Hachaim, OC220:8. See also Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 10.

[32] Sefer Chassidim 447; Kaf Hachaim, OC 220:20.

[33] Rambam, Hilchot Maaser Sheini 6:6; Rambam, Hilchot Zechia U'matana 10:7, C.M. 255:9. See also Rabbeinu Bechaye, Miketz, Orchot Tzaddim s.v. yirat shamayim.

[34] Igrot Chazon Ish 2:149.

[35] Berachot 55b; Gittin 52a; Horiyot 13b; Taz, OC 288:3; Shulchan Aruch Harav, OC 288:7; Shaar Hatziun 220:1; Pele Yoetz s.v. chalom.

[36] Daniel 2:29.

[37] Aruch Hashulchan, OC 288:13.

[38] Mishna Berura 288:18.

[39] PiskeiTeshuvot 220:1; Tosefta, Ma'aser Sheini 5:6; Chiddushei Haran, Sanhedrin 30a.

[40] Chizkuni, Bereishit 37.

[41] Rav Yehuda Hachassid 13.

[42] Sefer Chassidim 729.

[43] Meiri, Sanhedrin 30a.

[44] Ein Ayah, Berachot 55b.

[45] Shaar Hatziun 220:1.

[46] Berachot 55b, 57a.

[47] Commentary to Parshat Miketz.

[48] Bereishit Rabba 17:7; Zohar, Vayeitzei 149:1.

[49] Moreh Nevuchim 2:36.

[50] Berachot 55b.

[51] See for example Tashbetz 2:122; Tashbetz Katan 352; Maharsham 5:29; Meshivat Nefesh 35; Beit Yosef, OC 651; Taz, OC 585:7; Shach, CM 333:25.

[52] OC 288:8.

[53] Berachot 55b.

[54] Berachot 55a-55b.

[55] Berachot 55,56.

[56] Aruch Hashulchan, OC 288:13.

[57] Berachot 55a,b. See also Me'am Loez, Bereishit 40:21.