A New Approach to the Story of Abaye, Rava and the Dream Interpreter Bar Hedya (b. Berakhot 55b-56a).
Dr. Haim Weiss
Dreams – an involuntary human experience of unclear purpose, and of symbolic and enigmatic elements – presented the rabbis with an interpretive, cultural, and theological crux. Their struggle with this challenge, extending from the Mishnah (c. 200 C.E.) all the way to the late midrashim (eighth-ninth centuries), is reflected in dozens of statements, stories, and theological discussions.
In addition to these asides about dreams, three lengthy passages devoted to dreams have come down to us: y. Ma‘aser Sheni 4; 55b-c; Eichah Rabbah, and part of the ninth chapter of b. Berakhot, known by scholars as “Tractate Dreams,” 1 which will be the focus of this article.
Dreamer and Interpreter: An Ancient, Fraught Encounter
In antiquity, an individual who wanted a dream interpreted might approach a professional dream interpreter. This encounter could be tense, as the dreamer is required to reveal the contents of his dream to someone else, often a total stranger. Moreover, the dream may be distressingly enigmatic or non-normative, and the dreamer may be terrified by the destructive, immoral, and subversive desires manifested in some dreams, fearing that they reveal his inner world.
Jerusalem’s Twenty-Four Interpreters
Rabbinic literature notes the function and position of dream interpreters in society. In “Tractate Dreams,” for instance, the following statement is attributed to R. Bena’ah, who lived at the end of the second century, C.E.:
בבלי ברכות נה ע”ב
עשרים וארבעה פותרי חלומות היו בירושלים ופעם אחת חלמתי חלום והלכתי אצל כולם ומה שפתר לי זה לא פתר לי זה וכולם התקיימו בי. לקיים מה שנאמר, כל החלומות הולכים אחר הפה.
b. Berakhot 55b
There were twenty-four dream interpreters in Jerusalem. One time I had a dream and went to each of them. What one interpreted for me, the other did not interpret for me, and (yet) they were all realized in me, to fulfill that which is stated: “all dreams follow the interpretation (literally, “mouth”)”.
Even if the number twenty-four is formulaic, R. Bena’ah assumes a world where their presence was natural and substantial. R. Bena’ah receives twenty-four different, yet valid explanations to his dream because of his personal initiative to consult twenty-four different interpreters – not because the interpreters coordinated in offering the different readings. R. Bena’ah’s actions reflect a dual approach that accepts the authority of dream interpreters and trusts in their ability to mediate between dream and meaning, yet simultaneously subverts this authority by demonstrating how someone can produce an assemblage of differing interpretations which are all equally legitimate.
The Story of Rava, Abaye, and Bar Hedaya
R. Bena’ah’s statement can be read as an introduction to one of the longest stories in rabbinic literature – a puzzling tale about two significant Torah scholars, Abaye and Rava, and the dream interpreter Bar Hedaya. The story begins:
בבלי ברכות נו ע”א
בר-הדיא מפשר חלמי הוה. מאן דיהיב ליה אגרא מפשר ליה למעליותא, ומאן דלא יהיב ליה אגרא מפשר ליה לגריעותא.
אביי ורבא חזו חלמא. אביי יהיב ליה זוזא ורבא לא יהיב ליה.
b. Berakhot 56a
Bar Hedaya was a dream interpreter. To someone who gave him payment, he (Bar Hedaya) would offer a positive interpretation. To someone who did not pay, he would interpret unfavorably.
Abaye and Rava had a dream. Abaye gave him a zuz and Rava did not give him a zuz.
Bar Hedaya – Professional Dream-Interpreter
Bar Hedaya is depicted as a professional, rather than amateur, dream interpreter. His name, probably a nickname, הדיא, is Aramaic for “hawk”; this may reflect his occupation, since hawks are known for their excellent vision. So too, dream interpreters can see things hidden from regular people. The hawk moniker may also point to the great violence that can accompany the act of dream interpretation; Bar Hedaya attacks and harms the dreamer just as a hawk pounces on its prey.
Sages and Dream Interpreters:
A Reversal of Interpretive Authority
In constructing the drama, the story posits that both sages dream the very same dream which they recount together to Bar Hedaya. This draws our attention to the peculiar processes of dream interpretation, as Bar Hedaya offers two different, indeed, opposite interpretations to the very same text.
With this in mind, let us examine the first dream and pair of interpretations:
בבלי ברכות נו ע”א
אמרי ליה: אקרינן בחלמין “שורך טבוח לעיניך וגו'” (דברים כ”ח, ל”א). לרבא אמר ליה: פסיד עסקך ולא אהני לך למיכל מעוצבא דלבך. לאביי אמר ליה: מרווח עסקך, ולא אהני לך למיכל מחדוא דלבך.
b. Berakhot 56a
They said to him: We recited (the following verse) in our dream: “Your ox shall be slain before your eyes etc.” (Deuteronomy 28:31). To Rava he said: Your business will fail and you will be unable to eat due to your sadness. To Abaye he said: Your business will prosper and you will not be able to eat out of joy.
Abaye and Rava are the two most prominent amoraim in the Bavli, perpetually involved in learned discussion and responsible for numerous students. 2 Unusually in our story, both sages recite the verse in one voice, like students reciting texts before their masters – even though Bar Hedaya is a non-rabbinic figure. But now that the verse is taken out of the normal context of rabbinic study, the rabbis are suddenly unable to explain it.3
A Troubling Verse at the Center of the Dream
The beginning of the dream verse – from the rebuke section of Deuteronomy – describes an ox lying slaughtered and ready to enjoy in front of someone who, strangely, cannot eat it:
שׁוֹרְךָ טָבוּחַ לְעֵינֶיךָ וְלֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ חֲמֹרְךָ גָּזוּל מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וְלֹא יָשׁוּב לָךְ צֹאנְךָ נְתֻנוֹת לְאֹיְבֶיךָ וְאֵין לְךָ מוֹשִׁיעַ.
Your ox shall be slain before your eyes and you shall not eat of it, your donkey will be violently taken away from before your face and will not be restored to you; your sheep shall be given to your enemies; and you will have none to save you.
Bar Hedaya produces two opposing explanations for why the person does not eat, suggesting that Abaye will enjoy such intense happiness because of substantial profit, and Rava will be in such great pain due to significance losses.
The story goes on to describe fourteen identical dreams seen by Abaye and Rava, in which each time Abaye pays he receives a positive interpretation while Rava’s refusal to pay garners a negative interpretation. Notably, a disproportionate number of these are from the same “rebuke” section of Deuteronomy, such as “Your sons and daughters shall be given unto another people (Deuteronomy 28:41) and “You shall carry much seed out into the field and shall gather little in (Deuteronomy 28:38).
Rava Finally Pays
Subsequently, without any explanation, Abaye stops coming, while Rava keeps consulting Bar Hedaya. Rava does not understand that by withholding payment, he receives negative interpretations that lead to the death of his wife and children, the failure of his businesses, and his loss of status, prestige, and basically everything he has.
Only at the very end of the story does Rava change course and decide to pay Bar Hedaya. In turn, Bar Hedaya offers positive interpretations, though these only provide minor corrections for the profound damage that has taken place:
בבלי ברכות נו ע”א אמר ליה: אקריון הללא מצראה בחלמא. אמר ליה: ניסא מתרחשי לך.  הוה קא אזיל בהדיה בארבא, אמר: בהדי גברא דמתרחיש ליה ניסא למה לי? בהדי דקא סליק נפל סיפרא מיניה, אשכחיה רבא וחזא דהוה כתיב ביה: כל החלומות הולכין אחר הפה.  אמר: רשע! בדידך קיימא וצערתן כולי האי! כולהו מחילנא לך, בר מברתיה דרב חסדא. יהא רעוא דלמסר ההוא גברא לידי דמלכותא דלא מרחמו עליה. אמר: מאי אעביד? גמירי: דקללת חכם אפילו בחנם היא באה, וכל שכן רבא – דבדינא קא לייט, אמר: איקום ואגלי, דאמר מר: גלות מכפרת עון.
b. Berakhot 56a He (Rava) said to him (Bar Hedaya): They recited the “Egyptian Hallel” in my dream. He (Bar Hedaya) said to him (Rava): A miracle will happen to you.  In the end, the two of them went down to the ferry. He (Bar Hedaya) said (to himself): Why do I need to be with a person to whom a miracle will happen? When he went onto (the shore) a book fell from him. Rava found it and saw that in it was written: “all dreams follow the interpretation (literally, “mouth”).  Rava said: Wicked one! The matter was in your hand and yet you pained me so?! I forgive you for everything except (what happened to) the daughter of Rav Hisda (Rava’s wife, who died as a result of one of Bar Hedaya’s negative interpretations)! May it be (His) will that that man (Bar Hedaya) will be given over to a kingdom that will have no mercy on him. He (Bar Hedaya) said: What should I do? For we have learned – the curse of a wise man comes (true), even for naught, and all the more so Rava(’s), for he cursed justifiably. He (Bar Hedaya) said: I will get up and go into exile, for exile atones for sin.
A Dramatic Reversal:
Rava’s Final Dream
In this final section, Bar Hedaya devolves from an all-powerful interpreter who harms Rava time and again, to a frightened and persecuted man whose world has come undone. The interpretive approach that he had previously pioneered changes from a tool with which he harmed others to one which will ultimately hurt himself. Rava, on the other hand, morphs from a dreamer who is entirely dependent on Bar Hedaya and his interpretations into a person whose power and self-confidence have returned to him. Rava finally understands the senselessness of the situation and regains his powerful standing by using a tool that, as a Torah scholar, he has had at his disposal all along.
Three significant elements come to the fore in this section:
- The miracle and its symbol – the “Egyptian Hallel”;
- The book which falls out of Bar Hedaya’s hands;
- Rava curses Bar Hedaya.
Each one of these uncovers the limitations of Bar Hedaya’s interpretive approach, and brings Rava back to his natural state, that of a leading sage.
Rava’s Future Miracle as a Double-edged Sword
הלל המצרי – the so-called “Egyptian Hallel” which is read to Rava in the dream, is the regular Hallel prayer (Pss. 113-118), which the rabbis connected to the Exodus from Egypt (b. Pesahim 117a). The dream interpretation which Bar Hedaya proposes is rather simple: Hallel represents the miracle of the Exodus, and thus some sort of miracle will happen to Rava.
Notably, for the first time in the entire story, Bar Hedaya speaks in general rather than specific terms. Because of this open-ended interpretation, Rava transforms into a walking hazard, since he alone is promised safety from a future, perilous event while anyone in his vicinity will be exposed to the danger without ready protection.
Crossing the Sea of Reeds
Immediately, such a situation arises. Bar Hedaya chances upon a ferry with Rava and is stricken by his fear of the potential danger. Of course, in the ancient world water travel was always dangerous. The similarity between the contents of Rava’s dream and his setting out on a ferry likely added additional concern.
Rava saw in his dream that they were reading to him the Egyptial Hallel. This text was connected to the Exodus, which included the miracle God performed at the Sea of Reeds when the Israelites passed through on dry land while the Egyptians drowned. Bar Hedaya realizes that he has set up a sharp division between Rava and himself, where Rava is likened to Israel and thus will be safe in this river crossing, while he – Bar Hedaya – will be like the Egyptians who had drowned. It is also possible that by placing Rava on the Israelites’ side, Bar Hedaya finally realizes the great violence and cruelty which he had inflicted on Rava, and of the punishment which will certainly come in its wake.
The Book of Dream Interpretations
While fleeing the ferry, Bar Hedaya drops a book, which Rava picks up and sees contains the words: “All dreams follow the interpretation.” This book is the only evidence in rabbinic literature to the existence of professional guide-books for dream interpreters.4 Nothing else is known about the book’s contents. Bar Hedaya’s authority as an interpreter apparently derives from this book. Yet the very quote that we hear negates the standing of the book as a source of interpretive knowledge. The interpreter does not actually mediate between the symbols that appear in the book and the concrete dream that he interprets, for according to the authority that the book grants, the interpreter alone creates the meaning of the dream.
Rava Reestablishes his Power
At this point, Rava understands that the negative interpretations that he received stemmed from the calculated actions of Bar Hedaya. Rava’s tragic error throughout the story was that he saw in Bar Hedaya an interpreter who could objectively mediate between his dreams and their fixed meanings. Now, Rava ruefully declares: “Wicked one! The matter was in your hand and yet you pained me so!”—in other words, you decided through your own authority to interpret my dreams in such a negative fashion.
With the reestablishment of the usual power dynamic between the Torah giant and the rabbinically unlearned dream interpreter, the story reaches its climax with Rava’s curse: “May it be (His) will that that man (Bar Hedaya) will be given over to a kingdom that will have no mercy on him!” Through Rava’s curse, Bar Hedaya is now stripped of his powers while Rava dishes it out to him, measure for measure. Just as Bar Hedaya used his power to hurt Rava, so Rava uses his power as a Torah sage to curse Bar Hedaya. Indeed, just as Bar Hedaya himself admits, the curse of a Torah sage has an effect even without a good reason (“for naught”).
Between Rabbis and Dream Interpreters
The story of Rava and Abaye’s encounter with Bar Hedaya uncovers complex, violent, and subversive features of the encounter between the rabbi and the dream-interpreter. The fact that two Torah giants would wholly give themselves over to an unknown dream interpreter who, time and again, does with them and their dreams as his wont, exemplifies the negative attitude of the rabbis toward the dream interpreters.
The reversal of the regular power dynamic between rabbis and the rabbinically unlearned, and the fact that the greatest victims of this approach are the rabbis themselves, draws our critical attention to the interpretive process of deriving meaning from dreams. As it turns out, dream interpretation is not a simple, innocent act, but a particularly fraught and exploitable encounter. In the final analysis, it is not clear whether dream interpreters should be consulted. Perhaps this story suggests that it is best to avoid them altogether and to leave the dream in its natural, uninterpreted state.
- The phenomenon of sub-tractates, including “tractate Dreams” was extensively explored by Abraham Weiss, Studies in the Literature of the Amoraim (Hebrew; New York: Horev and Yeshiva University, 1962). See also Shai Secunda’s TABS essay on the Esther midrash preserved at the end of the first chapter of b. Megillah. ↩
- Indeed, a talmudic term for learned discussions is “the debates of Abaye and Rava.” ↩
- To my knowledge, this is the only time that this verse is expounded in rabbinic literature. This fact heightens the oddness of the situation in which these two sages find themselves. It is not simply that the meeting with Bar Hedaya takes them out of their natural environment but also that the verse at the center of the discussion is one which has been left out of the regular discussions of the study hall.
It is possible that this dream, as well as the ones that follow it, reveals those texts which the institutionalized, rabbinic consciousness tried to suppress. Perhaps due to the threatening and scary nature of the Deuteronomy’s “rebuke”, rabbinic discussion regularly avoids directly discussing it. ↩
- On dream interpretation books in ancient world see: Alan Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, Third Series: Chester Beatty Gift (London, 1935), pp. 7–27; A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (Philadelphia, 1956); and Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams (Robert J. White, trans; New Jersey, 1975). ↩