Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Divining Dreams (Vayeshev)

The Torah Text

The story of Joseph begins with dreams of grandeur, as he describes his older brothers bowing down to him. But after being sold into slavery in Egypt, and subsequently getting thrown in prison, Joseph seems to be at a low point. At his point, he seems to reach a new understanding of his life story, and God’s will steadily guiding everything behind the scenes.

His fellow prisoners, the former royal baker and butler, have dreams of mysterious significance, but they can’t figure them out.

“They said to Joseph, ‘We had dreams, but there is no one to interpret them!’ So Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me [your dreams].'” (Genesis 40:8)

What does Joseph mean by first saying that interpretation is a divine activity, and then asking them to share their dreams with him?

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

וטעם הלא לאלהים פתרונים. כי פתרון החלומות לשם הוא. כי הוא יודע העתיד והראה בחלום מה יהי’ למי שירצה. ואם אני אפתר אותו לטוב או לרע לא יועיל ולא יזיק ואחר שהדבר כן ולשם פתרון כל החלומות. אל תחושו שתספרו חלומותיכם לי. וכל התלומות הולכים אחר הפה דברי יחיר הם

Genesis 40:8 DO NOT INTERPRETATIONS BELONG TO GOD? Its meaning is that the interpretations of dreams belong to the Lord because God knows the future. God has revealed what is going to come to pass in a dream to one whom God selected and it therefore makes no difference whether I interpret the dream for good or ill. Since this is so, and all interpretations belong to God, do not be concerned about telling me your dreams. The Rabbinic statement that all dreams follow the interpretation is the opinion of an individual sage. 

Reflections for the Path

Joseph reassures the butler and baker that they don’t need to fear his interpretation causing a particular outcome. The interpretation that is correct will be one foreordained by God, so knowledge will not cause harmful tampering with the future.

Ibn Ezra refers to Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 55b, where Rabbi Elazar suggests the opposite, that how you interpret a dream creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, a dream has indeterminate impact on one’s life, until one determines what you think it means, at which point it begins to come true in that way. I think that Rabbi Elazar’s view reveals sophisticated understanding of how our lens on life shapes our actions which often leads to results that reinforce the “truth” of the lens.

But Ibn Ezra disagrees. For him, what is simply is. A dream “interpretation” therefore is either right or wrong. We either guess correctly about what will be, or we do not. Correct knowledge then becomes our tool for piercing the veil of illusion and clarifying our understanding of reality, rather than a means by which we turn illusion into reality.

How do you relate to dreams (yours or others)? Do they possess an objective truth, even if you can’t always figure out what it is? Or might you shape your own life through how you choose to interpret your dreams?

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.