Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi

Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

No. 110

Parshat "Vayeshev"

The Dreams in Joseph's Story

Dr. Masha Turner

Department of Philosophy

Dreams play a major role in Joseph's story. There are three pairs of dreams: Joseph's dreams, the dreams of Pharaoh's ministers, and Pharaoh's dreams. In each pair, the links between the two dreams are very strong. From the literary standpoint, the dreams constitute a central axis around which the plot develops. Joseph's story can be seen as a "dream and its meaning" tale that opens with a depiction of Joseph's dreams (the bundles of grain in the field and the stars in the sky bowing down to him) and which continues as the narrative unfolds until the realization of these dreams (the brothers bowing down to Joseph as Pharaoh's chief minister and as the architect of the Egyptian economy).

One can also see each of the three pairs of dreams as a turning-point that drives the narrative forward. Joseph's dreams turn his brothers against him and lead to his being sold into bondage. The ministers' dreams help him to achieve fame and fortune: his accurate interpretations of their dreams turn him from a nameless prisoner to a successful interpreter of dreams whose skills are recommended before Pharaoh's throne and who is thus summoned to the royal court. Pharaoh's dreams provide Joseph with the opportunity to prove his abilities as an interpreter of dreams and as an adviser; in addition, these dreams bring about Joseph's appointment as ruler of all Egypt and as the chief provider of food to the nation, an appointment that ultimately cause Jacob and his entire family to take up residence in Egypt.

The dreams are related in the first person and, through the excitement and amazement of the dreamer, express the authentic experiences of the dreamer as well as providing an accurate picture of the dream's events. In each dream, there is an unusual, unnatural event that inspires wonder; this fact offers the key to the dream's interpretation. The alien, unreal quality of dreams in general is expressed here in personification, in the activation of things, in the acceleration of events, in the omission of certain stages in natural processes, and so forth. The dreamers in Joseph's story experience dreams that are highly relevant to their own future: Joseph's dreams prophesy that he will one day have dominion over his own brothers, the ministers have dreams about their immediate fate, and Pharaoh, who, as ruler, identifies himself with both his people and his land, has a dream about the fate of Egypt.

The dream as a divine message

The motif of the dream is closely related to the substance and essential nature of our narrative. In Joseph's story, we encounter the concept that a dreams is a divine message that reveals to us, through various allusions, what will happen to us in the future. This point is presented in the clearest possible manner through the explicit explanation Joseph gives to Pharaoh: "God's intentions have been conveyed to Pharaoh" (Genesis xli: 25).

This element can be seen throughout the narrative. As we can see from the reactions of both the dreamers and those who hear the dreams, dreams are not taken lightly in Joseph's story. Joseph relates every detail of his dreams and calls upon his brothers and his father to note their future significance. The brothers and Jacob relate in two ways to Joseph's dream. On the one hand, there is fear regarding what will take place in the future. On the other hand, there is protest against Joseph's audacity because the brothers and Jacob assume that his dreams are either an indication of future events or the reflection of his desires and ambitions; the phrase "his father kept the matter in mind (Gen. xxxvii:11) [1] perhaps shows that both Jacob and his sons tended towards the first assumption in their reaction to Joseph's dreams. Both Pharaoh and his ministers are very upset and very nervous because of the dreams they have had, and make strenuous efforts to enlist an interpreter.

Not only do the dreams reveal the future, they sometimes have an impact on future events. Joseph's dreams and Pharaoh's dreams are warnings of what will happen in the future. Because of his dreams, Joseph's brothers try to prevent their realization; at first, the brothers try to kill him, but, a short while later, they decide to sell him as a slave instead. By means of Joseph's interpretation, Pharaoh understands that his dreams were warnings; furthermore, Pharaoh accepts Joseph's counsel that an individual be appointed to gather produce for the years of famine to come. The divine message revealed in Pharaoh's dreams is not direct, but is rather a camouflaged communication that is concealed within a strange dream narrative requiring a special interpretation.

With regard to the special skills needed to interpret dreams, various approaches are offered in Joseph's dreams. His brothers and his father interpret his dreams by themselves, in a simple and natural manner. From their immediate reaction, it is clear that, according to Joseph's brothers and Jacob, Joseph's dreams have a clear message. Furthermore, Jacob and his other sons believe that this message can be easily understood and that no special skills are required to decode it. In contrast with Joseph's dreams, Pharaoh's imprisoned ministers do not regard that their dreams contain an easily understandable message; the two individuals are worried and confused, as can be sensed in their statement, "we have each had a dream, but we do not know what it means" (Gen. xl:8). Thus, the ministers seek an individual capable of interpreting their dreams. In Pharaoh's view, dream interpretation requires special skills, and he therefore calls upon his mystics and counselors to provide him with answers (Gen. xli:8). Joseph has a different view: the ability to interpret dreams is derived from God. This difference in viewpoint between the ministers, Pharaoh and Joseph is expressed in the following dialogues:

The ministers: We have each had a dream, but we do not know what it means.

Joseph: Only God can provide the answers. Please tell your dreams to me

(Gen. xl:8).


Pharaoh: I have had a dream, but I do not know what it means. But I have heard that, once you hear a dream, you can interpret it (Gen. xli:15).

Joseph: You need not rely on my interpretation. God Himself will answer your majesty (Gen. xli:16).


In the course of the narrative, we note a significant change in the way Pharaoh perceives the source of dream interpretation, as he asks his slaves: "Is there anyone here who has the spirit of God?" (Gen. xli:38) Addressing Joseph, Pharaoh says, "After God has made all this known to you, there is no one else in the kingdom as wise and as intelligent as you are" (Gen. xli:39).

If we see dreams as riddles offered to us by God, it is natural to assume that the only truly accurate interpretation of a dream will be one provided by God. Thus, according to what we read in his story, Joseph, who receives his answers directly from God, is the ideal dream interpreter.

Joseph, the Master of Dreams

Dreams have a critical impact on the course of Joseph's life, and he becomes increasingly involved with dreams as the narrative unfolds. At first, he himself is a dreamer, then he interprets the dreams of others, and, finally, he provides counsel on the basis of the dreams he interprets, thereby determining the fate of both his family and Egypt as a whole. As demonstrated above, Joseph believes that dreams contain a divine message: God conveys that message to the dreamer, while the interpreter conveys to the dreamer what God informs the interpreter (Gen. xl:8; xli:16; xxv:28).

It is interesting to consider Joseph's mode of interpreting dreams. When Joseph listens to the dreamer's depiction of the dream, Joseph relates to two elements in that dream: the objects and the events. He interprets the objects as symbols and the dream narrative as an allusion to a future event. Since Joseph's basic assumption is that the dream conveys a divine message about a future event, he interprets the number of units per object in the dream as the number of time units until the occurrence of the event: thus, the three branches in the grapevine and the three baskets symbolize three days, and the seven cows and the seven ears of wheat represent seven days. Joseph converts the dimensions of space in the dream into dimensions of time in reality.

Joseph is not the only one to use such a method. It can be assumed that Joseph's brothers and father try to understand his dreams by regarding the objects as symbols and the dream narrative as an allusion to a future event. In contrast with Joseph's dream, which appears quite transparent and quite easy to interpret in the eyes of Jacob and his other sons, the dreams of Pharaoh and the ministers are much more opaque.

We might well ask from where does Joseph derive his reading of the branches as days and the ears of wheat as years. This reading sounds arbitrary and is perhaps meant to demonstrate that not everything can be interpreted in a dream without divine assistance. [2]

Another point should be raised here with regard to symbols and events. At times, the symbol represents more than one element in the world of reality: the grapevine branches symbolize both the profession of the chief-cupbearer and the number of days remaining until his pardon; the number of baked goods in the upper basket symbolize both the profession of the chief baker and his flesh, while the number of these baked goods represents the number of days remaining until his execution; the cows and the ears of wheat are allusions to the produce of Egypt, while their number alludes to the number of years of plenty and famine respectively. Although they are allusions to future events, the dream narrative is camouflaged in various ways: the squeezing of the grapes into Pharaoh's cup alludes to the fact that the chief-cupbearer will resume his former position, while the birds eating the baked goods in the upper basket on the chief baker's head symbolizes how the birds will consume the flesh of the chief baker after he has been executed.

Joseph also makes use of verbal hints provided by the dreamer. When the baker describes how the birds eat the baked goods in the basket he holds on his head, Joseph interprets the dream by switching the words in the Hebrew phrase uttered by the baker, "above my head" (Gen. xl:17) and by creating a new phrase, "[lifting off] your head from your body" (Gen. xl:19). Thus, Joseph arrives at the idea that, within three days, Pharaoh will lift off the baker's head from his body, that is, execute him by decapitation, and will then hang him from the branch of a tree. Pharaoh describes his dream to Joseph, adding, "Looking at the cows, you could not possibly know that anything had been consumed by them" (Gen. xli:21). Joseph uses this comment as an important element in the interpretation: "Observing the effect of the famine when it comes, you could not possibly know that years of plenty had been experienced in the land previously" (Gen. xli:31).

Joseph also relates to the fact that Pharaoh experiences two consecutive dreams: "the repetition of Pharaoh's dream signifies that God's decision is final and that God will carry out his will without delay" (Gen. xli:32). This line of interpretation can be applied to the other pairs of dreams.

To sum up, in his method of interpretation, Joseph uses the following rules:

1. Objects are regarded as symbols and, sometimes, also as time units.

2. The dream narrative is read as an allusion to a future event.

3. The words used by the dreamer in the depiction of the dream are significant and the interpretation of the dream is based, in part, on these words.

4. The repetition of the dream indicates that God is firmly resolved to carry out his will without delay.

When we speak of Joseph as the Master of Dreams, we should distinguish between Joseph the dreamer and Joseph the interpreter of dreams. The Joseph we encounter in Egypt is vastly different from the Joseph whom we encountered in the Land of Canaan and who "would tend the flocks of sheep with his brothers". Before he reaches Dotan, Joseph is an innocent young boy who has never experienced fear, who is concerned chiefly with himself, and who displays a considerable degree of insensitivity regarding the feelings of his brothers (as we can see when he tells his dreams to his brothers and when he again recounts his dreams to his brothers and his father). The horrendous event at Dotan quickly transforms Joseph into a responsible, careful, reliable, successful adult who is sensitive to the fate and feelings of others (as we can see from the functions he fulfills in Potiphar's home). Thanks to these qualities of maturity, Joseph becomes a popular figure in Egyptian society, gains the confidence of those surrounding him, and develops his skills as an interpreter of dreams. The depiction of Joseph's success in interpersonal relationships is paralleled in the depiction of his relationship with God. God protects him (Gen. xxxix:2, 3, 5, 21, 23) and he is protected by God. The name of God is constantly on Joseph's lips (Gen. xxxix:9; xl:8; xl:16; xxxii:18; xliii:23, 29; xlv:5, 7, 8; l:20, 24, 25). Joseph acknowledges God as ruler of the world and recognizes the total dependence of mortal beings on God. Joseph's beliefs are articulated most dramatically in his noble behavior towards his astonished and frightened brothers, who have discovered his true identity and whom he seeks to comfort: "You need not be in the least bit frightened nor should you feel any sorrow over the fact of your selling me. As you can see, God has appointed me to provide for your physical wellbeing" (Gen. lv:5). Joseph emphasizes a central point: "You were not the ones who sent me here; God sent me here . . . ." (Gen. lv:8)

As a dreamer, Joseph is an egocentric individual who arouses the anger and hatred of his brothers. However, as an interpreter of dreams, Joseph shows deep concern for others and is loved by all. For the sake of accuracy, it should be mentioned here that the term, "Master of Dreams" (Gen. xxxvii:19), assigned him by his brothers, signifies the beginning of Joseph's involvement with dreams, although the term itself, as uttered by the lips of Joseph's brothers, expresses contempt and disgust. In contrast, at a later stage in his life, Joseph receives another title, one that articulates Pharaoh's deep admiration: "Is there anyone here who has the spirit of God?" (Gen. xli:38).


[1] See also Rashi's comments on this verse.

[2] On the question as to how Joseph knows that three grapevine branches signify three days (and not three weeks or three years), the commentator Ibn-Ezra notes that Joseph was aware that Pharaoh would be celebrating his birthday in three days' time (Gen. xl:12). According to the commentator Beno Jacob on the other hand, Joseph learns this fact from the speed at which the dream narrative proceeds. Joseph thus realizes that the time units alluded here must be quite short; in other words, that the time units are days, not weeks or years. Both commentators claim that Joseph uses rational thinking in his interpretation. In contrast, Abarbanel argues that Joseph acquires his knowledge of the appropriate time unit from divine inspiration.

[3] Cf. Berakhot p. 55b in the Babylonian Talmud: "All dreams follow the utterances of one's lips".

Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro


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