Interpreting Dreams

Interpreting Dreams

In the Torah portion Vayeishev (Gen. 37:1–40:23), we read about Joseph interpreting dreams of the Pharaoh’s chief butler and the chief baker:

And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him: “In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; and in the vine were three tendrils…” And Joseph said unto him: “This is the interpretation of it: the three tendrils are three days.”  (Gen. 40:9-12)


Joseph interpreting dreams, Benjamin Cuyp (1630-1652)

How did Joseph know that three tendrils are three days?  The story repeats itself with the chief baker:

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph: “I also saw in my dream, and, behold, three baskets of white bread were on my head…” “This is the interpretation thereof: the three baskets are three days.”  (Gen. 40:16-18)

Again, how did Joseph know that three baskets were three days? 


Joseph Interprets the Dream of Pharaoh (19th Century painting by Jean-Adrien Guignet)

In the next Torah portion, Miketz, we read about Joseph interpreting two dreams of Pharaoh who first dreamed about seven parched ears of grain consuming seven healthy ears and, in the second dream, seven skinny cows devouring seven fat cows.  Joseph interprets seven healthy ears of grain and seven fat cows as seven years of plenty and seven parched ears and seven skinny cows as seven years of famine.  What led Joseph to interpret the number ears of grain and cows as years?

One might think that it was the river in the dream of Pharaoh that gave Joseph the hint. From ancient Chinese to Greeks and Romans, a river served as a metaphor of time. (See my essay On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe.) Yet, the river appears only in one of two dreams of Pharaoh and does not appear at all in the dreams of the chief butler and the chief backer. That can’t be the clue.

In all four instances, Joseph interprets dream’s symbols—physical objects, such as tendrils of a grapevine, baskets, ears of grain and cows—as units of time.  What gave him this idea?  It was not at all obvious.  Many wisest men and magicians of Egypt who attempted to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams thought of seven daughters who would be born and die, seven wars that would be won and seven that would be lost—but nobody thought of connecting these symbols with years! What did Joseph see that others didn’t?  This question bothered me for years until I understood the answer.

Let’s summarize all four dreams and their interpretations in a table:

Dreamobjects of the dreamJoseph’s interpretation
Dream of the chief butlerthree tendrils of grapevinethree days
Dream of the chief bakerthree basketsthree days
First dream of Pharaohseven fat cowsSeven years of plenty
First dream of Pharaohseven skinny cowsSeven years of famine
Second dream of Pharaohseven good ears of grainsSeven years of plenty
Second dream of Pharaohseven parched ears of grainsSeven years of famine

What is the common denominator in all four dreams?  It is the repetition of the identical physical objects: three tendrils of grapevine, three baskets, seven fat cows, seven skinny cows, seven good ears, seven parched ears. Repetition is the essential characteristic of time, which is cyclical in nature.  We measure time by counting cycles—seconds, minutes, hours, days, years…  Each cycle is identical to others, and the repetition of these cycles provides the background against which we count the flow of time.  I believe, the repetition of an identical physical object in a dream gave Joseph the clue that these symbols are all related to cycles of time.

When I realized this, I was filled with joy—I had the answer to the nagging question. However, the doubt replaced my joy soon enough.  If my answer was correct, the rule should apply to all instances where the same object is repeated multiple times in the same dream. I realized that I had a problem. The first two dreams described in the Torah portion Vayeishev are dreams of Joseph himself. Joseph tells his brothers his first dream:

“Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf.” (Gen. 37:7)

The identical sheaves in this dream symbolize Joseph’s brothers, not units of time. And in the second dream:

“Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me.” (Gen. 37:9)

Again, eleven stars symbolize eleven brothers, not units of time. My theory must be wrong! But then I realized that all these dreams—dreams of Joseph, dreams of Pharaoh’s ministers and dreams of Pharaoh himself came in pairs. Joseph saw two dreams. Chief butler and chief baker (together) saw two dreams,

Now both of them dreamed a dream, each one his dream on the same night…”  (Gen. 40:5).

And Pharaoh saw two dreams, which is precisely what confused all his magicians and dream interpreters of Egypt. Joseph found great significance in the repetition of Pharaoh’s dream:

And concerning the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice that is because the matter is ready [to emanate] from God, and God is hastening to execute it. (Gen. 41:32)

I thought, perhaps there is a special significance in the repetition of Joseph’s dream as well. If we apply my hypothesis that the repetition of identical physical objects in a dream symbolizes units of time, we are forced to interpret eleven stars in the second dream of Joseph as eleven years.  The identical sheaves belonging to Joseph’s brothers were also eleven—another eleven years.  Two dreams—two times eleven—twenty-two years.  From the time Joseph told his father and his brothers of his dreams, it would be exactly twenty-two years until his prophecy of his brother bowing down to him would come to pass! After all, the dreams of Joseph are not the exception from the dream interpretation principle I intuited — the repetitive objects in a dream symbolize units of time. 


Joseph’s dreams

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About the Author:

Alexander Poltorak was trained as a theoretical physicist in Russia. He is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. Dr. Poltorak served as an Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, as an Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, he guest-lectured at Columbia University School of Engineering and Business School. He is presently affiliated with the CUNY serving as an adjunct professor of physics at the City College of New York and Research Fellow at the Institute for Ultrafast Spectroscopy and Lasers. Alex Poltorak authored several books and many articles. He blogs about physics, kabbalah and Jewish philosophy.


  1. Rachel November 29, 2017 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    The question is, how did he distinguish between days and years?
    The visions we see in our dreams are usually symbols. By correctly interpreting the symbols in a dream, we can discover their profound psychological meaning. There are two methods by which we can interpret the meaning of a symbol. The first and most common method is by deciphering the linguistic associations in the dream. This method is used today in psychoanalysis as well as in psychodrama, art therapy and other forms of psychotherapy, and it is abundant in the Talmud in its discussions on dream interpretation. Using this method, the objects in a dream are interpreted via linguistic phenomena. Indeed, Joseph was proficient in seventy-one languages, which made him an expert in this realm.
    The second method of dream analysis is to abstract the physical objects in the dream and interpret them as temporal symbols. This is true in particular when there is a numerical symbol in the dream. A number is a theoretical concept that, when it has no other explanation, must relate to an abstract concept such as time. Joseph used this method to decipher the butler’s and baker’s dreams, translating the butler’s three vine twigs and the baker’s three baskets as three days. He then proceeded to solve their dreams according to symbols and their literal and linguistic meanings. Joseph used the same method to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. After initially perceiving the equivalence between Pharaoh’s two dreams, Joseph interpreted the seven cows and the seven ears of grain as seven years.
    Joseph’s unique method of dream interpretation in the time dimension proved correct in all cases. He was sensitive to time as the inner dimension of reality.
    Here we must ask, why did Joseph interpret one set of dreams as days and the other as years? What is the difference between a day and a year?
    The numbers here tell the story. The principle division of the ten sefirot is into three intellectual soul powers and seven emotive attributes. The intellectual powers illuminate the soul with the light of day, as in, “and God called the light day.” In contrast, the seven emotive attributes constantly fluctuate. They may sometimes be revealed and sometimes be in darkness. Light is constant; it reflects our subjective sense of infinity. Indeed, the numerical value of “light” (אוֹר) is 207, which is equal to the numerical value of “infinity” (אֵין סוֹף). Both terms are often used with reference to God, who never changes, as the verse in Malachi states, “I am God, I have not changed.” The concepts of light and day symbolize the unchanging common denominator, the eternal aspect of time that is strung through all of reality. In contrast, the changing seasons are reflected in the year. Indeed, in Hebrew, the two words “year” (שָׁנָה) and “change” (שִׁנוּי) share the same root.
    Thus, day is the inner, unlimited, eternal dimension of time. This relates to the light infused into the psyche by the three intellectual powers of the soul. In contrast, years represent the external, limited, changing aspect of time that corresponds to the seven emotive attributes.

  2. Rachel November 29, 2017 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    Must add that the previous comment is an excerpt from a book by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh shlit”a

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