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Such stuff as dreams are made on

It is perhaps the most mysterious of all common human experiences. Traversing a plethora of cultural divides throughout time, mankind has sought to make sense of our bizarre, night time visions.

Although there are some who believe that dreams are nothing more than arbitrary images produced when our brains continue operating when we sleep, many neuroscientists and psychologists accept the growing body of evidence that our dreams are significant and influenced by our psyche, our experiences during waking life and from the food we eat or the medication we take.

The famous neurologist and forefather of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freund viewed the content of his patients’ dreams as a window into their primitive, unconscious desires. Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung who collaborated with Freud, felt that Freud’s analysis of dreams was too limited. He viewed dreams as a communication from the unconscious as part of the self-regulation of the psyche.

While contemporary opinions still differ, modern studies support the theory that dream content is primarily related to the experiences a person has while awake. Known as the continuity hypothesis, our dreams are most likely to contain deep seated concerns or emotions which translate in to the bizarre visions and experiences we encounter during sleep.

One position that scientists agree on however, is that dreams originate internally. This diverges from the more mystical, spiritual approach which implies that there is some external influence which imparts prophetic or precognitive insights to people, through the medium of sleep.

Scientists dismiss reports of precognitive dreams for being statistically inevitable. Someone who dreams of a plane crash the night before waking up and finding that a real air disaster has occurred, could be forgiven for thinking that their dream was precognitive. But given the vast number of people globally who slept that night, a small number are bound to have dreamt of such a tragedy.

Nevertheless, from a Jewish perspective the Torah itself describes how God communicates with man through dreams. Having dreams and interpreting their meaning is one of the prominent threads that runs through the story of Joseph. Commentators have poured over the meaning of these dreams and whether dreams in the post-Prophetic era can also contain elements of prophecy.

The Talmud indicates that while some dreams are insignificant and meaningless (Horayot 13b) others have the potential to contain prophetic messages (Berachot 57b). Clearly the biblical dreams of Joseph, Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s servants fall into the latter category. But before we try and interpret our own dreams, there is one fundamental snag.

The Medieval commentator Rashi notes Jacob’s response to Joseph when relating his second dream about the Sun, Moon and eleven Stars bowing down to him, representing his leadership over his father, mother and eleven brothers. Jacob asks (Genesis 37:10) “Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you?” The primary reason for Jacob’s question was that Joseph’s mother Rachel had already died. Even prophetic dreams contain an admixture of truth and falsehood.

In light of Rashi’s point, how then do we relate to our modern day dreams which the Talmud describes as a ‘taste of prophecy’ (Brachot 57b)?

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (known as Ramchal, d. 1746) concurs with the scientific approach that dream content is affected by the thoughts and emotions one experiences, as well as through food and other substances in the body.  Yet he also adopts the Talmud’s assertion that our modern day dreams can have prophetic significance or relate to things only the spirit can experience (Derech HaShem 3:1:6).

According to Ramchal, when we sleep our souls can on occasion interact with external spiritual forces. These interactions enter our subconscious awareness and affect the content of our dreams. Nevertheless, even such extraordinary dream experiences are tricky to decipher.

However, this is where the Talmudic sages throw the proverbial spanner in the works, for they declare that the interpretation of non-prophetic dreams is more important than the dream itself (Berachot 56b). Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (d. 1821) explains that speech is the medium between the spiritual and the physical worlds and so the interpretation of a dream through speech has the power to bring matters from the potential dream-state into actuality.

One might conclude that the scientific view of dreams is far more rational and coherent than the spiritual approach. Yet in a recent article Psychologist Dr. Patrick McNamara notes that a wide range of unexplained dream phenomena, such as shared dreams and precognitive dreams containing exquisite, incontrovertible detail are widely reported (Psychology Today June 2016). He admits that science has “no good explanations” for such astonishing phenomena for “science has no place to put them within its current worldview — but this is all the more reason to investigate them.”

Quite true. But if a purely physicalist perspective of reality cannot answer such mysteries, perhaps we should resist writing off a spiritual explanation so quickly.

Death of Saul

Summary: The Philistines routed Israel in battle. Shaul kills himself rather than being captured alive. Upon hearing this news, the Jewish army fled and the Philistines plundered their cities. They removed Shaul’s head and took his armaments and stored it in their temple.

A deeper look: Shaul led the Jewish people into battle knowing that it would be his last. The Philistines began to rout Shaul’s men, targeting the king with archers (Samuel I 31:3). Shaul knew he was going to die in battle. Why then was he afraid of the archers (ibid.)?

Don Yitzchak Arbravanel (d. 1508) explains that Shaul was not afraid of dying, but of being injured and captured. If the Philistines took him alive they might parade him and desecrate God’s Name. This is why Shaul ordered his armour-bearer to kill him (Samuel I 31:4). Yet the amour-bearer refused, fearing that even under those circumstances, it would be a great transgression to kill the anointed king of Israel. So Shaul took the sword and fell upon it, killing himself before the Philistines could take him (ibid.).

While the Torah prohibits suicide (Genesis 9:5) many commentators demonstrate that under these extraordinary circumstances, Shaul was right to kill himself. Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) notes that Shaul knew through Samuel’s prophecy that he was going to die anyway. It was better to die by his own hand than be mocked and tortured to death by the Philistines (Radak on Samuel I 31:4).

After Shaul’s death together with his sons and armour-bearer, the Philistines took Shaul’s body, decapitated it and placed his remains ‘on the wall of Beth-shan’ (Samuel I 31:10). They took his head and placed it in the temple of Dagon, a Philistine idol. Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (d. 1879) explains that this was to exact revenge for the damage done to Dagon when the ark had been captured and taken there (Samuel I 5:1-8).

The inhabitants of Yavesh-Gilaad heard that Shaul’s body had been taken. They launched a daring attack to reclaim Shaul’s remains and afford him and his sons a proper burial.

While Shaul had made many mistakes, he was a righteous man and his loss was a great tragedy for the Jewish people. The baton of kinship now passed to King David. Shaul’s era had ended and David’s had begun, thus completing the First Book of Samuel.

David and Tziklag

Summary: The Philistine officers told Achish, the king of Gat that David should not be trusted. David reluctantly left the battle front. He found the city of Ziklag had been attacked and burnt by Amalek, David’s two wives together with the women and children had been captured. God reassured David that he would overcome the Amalekites. David’s army attacked them and rescued all the captives and possessions.

A deeper look: David had exiled himself to the land of the Philistines and found sanctuary with the Philistine king of Gat, Achish. In turn, David and his army would offer protection to the Philistine generals. David’s time in Gat had protected him from Shaul’s attempts on his life. Yet the Philistine generals now questioned David’s allegiance given that until now he had been their sworn enemy (Samuel I 29:5).

David and his men returned to Ziklag which Achish had given them to settle (ibid. 27:6). Yet when they arrived, they discovered that the army of Amalek had attacked the city and captured the women and children. Since David and his men had been with Achish, they had been forced to leave the city unprotected.

The people were ready to stone David (ibid. 30:6) because the men blamed David for allowing their families to be exposed to such danger (Metzudot David loc. cit.). While many would have crumbled under the pressure of losing both of his own wives and bearing the responsibility for the tragic losses his men suffered, Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) notes that David drew his strength from his unshakable belief in God (Radak loc. cit.).

With the help of the Urim v’Tumim, God led David and his men to the Amalekite attackers where they routed them, rescued their captives and recovered their belongings. Yet ‘four hundred youths who were riding camels’ managed to escape (Samuel I 30:17). Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (d. 1879) explains that they were able to escape because they were young and agile, and camels can run very fast (Malbim loc. cit.).

Rashi (d. 1105) however, offers a deeper connection. When Esau, the grandfather of Amalek (Genesis 36:12) went to meet with Jacob, he mobilised an army of four hundred men (Genesis 32:7). Yet when Jacob and Esau parted peacefully, these four hundred men deserted Esau one by one. In their merit, God now spared four hundred Amalekites. Yet the victory was brief, as an even greater trouble was brewing.

Shaul and the Necromancer

Summary: As the Philistines prepared for war against Israel, Achish the king of Gat asked David to be his personal bodyguard. Shaul was afraid when he saw the Philistine camp and attempted to ask God about his chances of victory, but received no reply. Despite banning witchcraft, he disguised himself and asked a woman who practiced necromancy to call on the spirit of Samuel. Samuel informed him that his reign as King had ended and he and his sons will die in battle the next day. Subsequently, the Jewish people would be delivered into the hands of the Philistines.

A deeper look: The Torah outlaws the practise of אוב (ov)and ידעוני (yidoni) which are types of necromancy (Deuteronomy 18:11, Leviticus 20:27). Yet in Saul’s desperation he employed a woman to bring up Samuel’s spirit.

The woman screamed when she saw Samuel’s spirit rise up (Samuel I 28:12). The Midrash notes that normally a spirit would ascend feet first but since Saul was still king, Samuel’s spirit rose head first out of honour for him (Tanchuma ibid.). The woman now realised that her client was none other than Shaul and feared that this was a ruse to expose her evil practises and punish her.

While Maimonides (d. 1204) dismisses necromancy and other forms of black magic as tricks and sleight of hand, others accept that it is real. It is difficult to understand how the Torah would ban mere trickery with the threat of capital punishment. Rashi (d. 1105) explains that the Egyptian magicians used the negative spiritual forces associated with the dead (Genesis 40:8). Nachmanides (d. 1270) explains (commentary to Deuteronomy 18:9) that this was why it was possible for them to imitate the miracle of Aharon’s staff turning into a snake (Exodus 7:11).

Rabbi Moshe Dovid Valle (d. 1777) notes that a spirit summoned from the dead would rise feet first because it is a way of disgrace and shame, fitting for an act which employs negative spiritual forces (Moshiah Chosim on Samuel I 28:12). According to Rabbi David ben Solomon ibn Zimra (d. 1573), Samuel was raised by God himself (Responsa Radbaz 3:642) which explains how he was able to rise head first.

Shaul admitted to Samuel that God had turned away from him. Samuel informed Shaul that having failed to defeat Amalek (Samuel I 15:28) his kingdom had finally been torn from him, paving the way for the new King David, Melech Yisrael.

David spares Saul

Summary: A group from the town of Ziph disclosed David’s whereabouts to Shaul sparking a deployment of troops to track David down. Yet David found Shaul’s camp first arriving while the entire troop, including Shaul and his general Avner lay sleeping. David and his nephew Avishai took Shaul’s spear and flask of water, but once again David refrained from killing him. David called out to Avner, rebuking him for being remiss in protecting the King. Shaul awoke, realised what had happened and admitted his sins. He asked for reconciliation before returning home. Fearing for his life, David travelled to the town of Gat in Philistine. There he convinced the king, Achish to give him a town for him and his men.

A deeper look: As David is once again given the opportunity to kill Shaul, he reminds his nephew Avishai that he swore an oath not to harm the anointed king of Israel. When he admonished Avner, Shaul’s general he was once again proving once again that he had the chance to strike but had chosen to spare Shaul’s life.

In what would be their last meeting and exchange, David pleads with Shaul to desist from hunting him down. He pointed out that due to Shaul’s relentless pursuit he was now forced to exile himself to the lands of the Philistines (Samuel I 26:17-19).

David declared ‘Let my blood not be cast down to the ground away from God’s attention, for the king of Israel has sought a single flea, as one would pursue a partridge in the mountains’ (Samuel I ibid. 20). Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) remarks that David was praying to God to not forget him during his ensuing exile to a place of both spiritual and physical danger. His blood being cast to the ground symbolised his life being forgotten by God (Radak on Samuel I 26:20). He then compares himself to a flea symbolising a diminutive, objectionable creature that has been hunted like the valuable and desirable partridge.

On hearing this, Saul entreats David, begging him for reconciliation. Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso (18th Century) notes that this is the first time he confesses to any sin. When he had wronged Samuel (Samuel I 13:13) or spared the Agag’s life (ibid. 15:15) he had not expressed any significant remorse (Meam Loez on Samuel I 26:21).


David fled to Philistine leaving Shaul to face his final battle and ultimate demise.

Naval and Avigail

Summary: Samuel died and was buried in Ramah. David travelled to the Desert of Paran and sent messengers to a wealthy man who lived in the city of Maon called Nahval to ask for provisions. He refused David’s request and disparaged David’s kingship, a crime punishable by death.

A deeper look: As the Jewish people gathered to eulogise Samuel (Samuel I 25:1), Nahval prepared a feast to celebrate the shearing of the sheep by making festive celebrations (Radak on Samuel I 25:8). David’s men had provided protection to Nahval and his shepherds (Samuel I 25:8) yet when David’s messengers asked for supplies Nahval not only refused but disparaged David by saying ‘who is David and who is the son of Yishai (Jesse)?’ (ibid. 10). David responded by preparing to kill Nahval (ibid. 13). Why did Nahval behave this way and did he really deserve to die for his insolence?

Nahval was a descendant of Kalev (Caleb) who had stood with Joshua when speaking positively about the Land of Israel (Numbers 13:30). After the sin of the spies, Kalev and Joshua were excluded from God’s punishment that the nation would die in the desert before reaching the Promised Land (ibid. 14:24).

The Jerusalem Talmud explains that as a descendant of Kalev, Nahval poured scorn on David’s kingship because he thought he was more qualified than David to be the king given his ancestor’s pious deeds (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2:3). Rabbi Shimon Ashkenazi HaDarshan of Frankfurt (c. 1260) explains that Nahval thought that David was arrogant, assuming power over to some ‘drops of anointing oil’ (Yalkut Shimoni). This also explains why he ignored the national mourning for Samuel, the one who had anointed David.

Even though David hadn’t assumed power as Shaul was still alive, he still had the status of an anointed king. Nahval’s attitude was therefore a meridah b’malchut (treachery towards an anointed king) and punishable by death.

He was only saved when his wife Avigail sent provisions and pleaded to David for mercy. David granted clemency but when Nahval heard of what had happened he was stunned and died ten days later (Samuel I 25:37-38). The Talmudic sage, Rabbah ben Abbuha explained that the ten day period was between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. God allowed Nahval the opportunity to repent, but he failed (Rosh Hashanah 18a). Avigail however, was taken by David as a wife and is regarded as one of the most remarkable women in Jewish history (Megillah 14a-15a).

Doeg’s treachery

Summary: David escaped to the Caves of Adullam where he became the leader to around 400 men with different troubles who had heard that he was hiding there. David arranged for his parents to stay with the King of Moav and progressed to the Forest of Cheret. Shaul demanded loyalty from his men.

A deeper look: Doeg Ha’Adomi (Doeg the Edomite) revealed that he had witnessed Achimelech provide David with food and armament (Samuel I 21:8). Shaul assumed that this had been an act of treachery against him and summoned for Achimelech. He ordered his men to kill Achimelech and his entire household. The men refused Shaul’s order and so on Shaul’s command, Doeg proceeded to kill 85 Kohanim and massacred every man, woman and child of the city Nov. Eviyatar, one of the sons of Achimelech escaped and informed David.

Although Doeg was Jewish, he lived in the area of Edom and was therefore called Ha’Adomi, the Edomite. Edom (meaning red) is the nation who descended from Esau and refers to the red lentil soup which he took from Jacob in exchange for his birthright (Genesis 25:30). The name Edom also points to the nature of Esau as a ‘spillers of blood’ (Rashi on Genesis 25:25) and they became an eponymous enemy of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Shimon Ashkenazi HaDarshan of Frankfurt (c. 1260) cites midrashic sources which associate Doeg with the nature of Edom, for shedding the blood of so many innocent Kohanim. He turned David and his wife into fugitives making it acceptable for others to kill them. He is credited with being the one who persuaded Shaul to spare the life of Agag (Samuel I 15:8). He would also regularly embarrass people which the Gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) likens to murder (Yalkut Shimoni 131).

The Chofetz Chaim (d. 1933) cites this incident as an example of what can happen when someone engages in rechilut (tale bearing) and lashon hara (evil speech). Doeg knew that Achimelech had acted out of loyalty to Shaul, not treachery. He had given David provisions because he thought that he was on a mission from Shaul. Yet Doeg only told part of the story to create a narrative of betrayal. He therefore curried favour with the king by demonstrating his own loyalty (Samuel I 21:3). Yet the result was a national tragedy. Indeed, the Gemara cites Doeg as one who lost his share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 90a).

Saul resumes his chase

Summary: Having left the Desert of Zif, David travelled to Ein Gedi to hide from Shaul but was discovered. Shaul entered a cave to relieve himself but unbeknownst to him, David and his men were hiding in the far end of the cave. They urged him to strike but David refused and instead cut off the corner of Shaul’s garment. David felt guilty for damaging the king’s garment. David stepped out of the cave and revealed himself to Shaul. Saul forgives David and they reconcile their differences.

A deeper look: David had had the opportunity to kill Shaul and was goaded by his men to carry out the act. Given that Shaul was a rodef (a pursuer threatening to murder and therefore subject to extra-judicial killing, see Sanhedrin 74a) David’s men saw a Divine opportunity to finish off their enemy. Yet Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (known as the Ralbag, d. 1344) explains that David resisted because Shaul was still the anointed king; killing him would have been a meridah b’malchus (treachery against the king). Furthermore such actions could set a dangerous precedent if David demonstrated that one could assassinate a Jewish king.

By tearing part of Shaul’s garment, he was able to show that he could have killed Shaul but chose not to. This inspired great remorse in the king and he wept, confessing that David was more righteous than him (Samuel I 24:17-18).

While their rapprochement came about through this one act, ripping the corner of Shaul’s garment carried great symbolism. David immediately felt guilty for doing so, for while he had spared Shaul’s life, damaging his clothing was also an act of treachery (Samuel I 24:6).

While David’s actions appear to be valiant, Rabbi Shabbatai Sheftil Weiss notes that God responded to David ‘what is the difference between cutting the tzitzit and cutting his head’? God would have saved David either way. Rabbi Shimon Ashkenazi HaDarshan of Frankfurt (c. 1260) explains that in addition, since David had cut the corner of Shaul’s garment, he prevented Shaul from performing the mitzvah of tzitzit (Yalkut Shimoni 133).

Rabbi Shmuel Laniado (16th century) also notes that since tzitzit remind a person of the 613 commandments, David prevented Shaul from benefitting from both the mitzvah and from the inspiration not to sin through murdering him; David had removed that extra protection from him (Kli Yakar).

Yet a new challenge was on the horizon with the death of one of the foremost Jewish leaders.

Keilah and Saul’s remorse

Summary: David was told that the Philistines were waging war against the city of Ke’ilah. Eviyatar, the son of Achinoam had brought the Ephod (High Priest’s breastplate) with him when he fled from Nov and after consulting the Urim V’tumim (the parchment inserted inside the breastplate) his men came out of hiding and defeated the Philistines. Shaul travelled to Ke’ilah to capture David. David asked God through the Urim V’tumim what to do. He hid with 600 men in Desert of Zif where he was secretly reunited with Jonathan. However, the people of Zif were loyal to Shaul and betrayed David’s location. Having surrounded David, Shaul retreated when a messenger told him that the Philistines were about to attack.

A deeper look: The Gemara notes that the city of Ke’ilah was situated in the area of Judah on the Philistine border (Eruvin 45a). Rabbi Shmuel Laniado (16th century) explains that David felt compelled to protect the inhabitants of Ke’ilah as fellow Jews, but also considered himself indirectly responsible for their plight; since Shaul had expended so much man power on hunting David down, the Philistines had seen an opportunity for attack (Kli Yakar on Samuel I 23:1).

When Evyatar (the son of the slain High Priest Achimelech) escaped from Nov, he took the Ephod (breastplate) with him (Samuel I 23:1). This contained the Urim V’tumim which allowed the user to receive answers to questions posed directly to God (Exodus 28:30).

David asked God if he should come out of hiding and risk exposing himself and his men to Shaul in order to save the people of Ke’ilah. The Urim V’tumim responded positively. Yet his men refused until David repeated his request (Samuel I 23:4). Why did David’s men insist that he repeated the request?

Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (known as the Ralbag, d. 1344) explains that David had asked if they should wage war with the Philistines to help the people of Ke’ilah (Samuel I 23:2). The men understood that the response merely indicated that they were the only hope for Ke’ilah, but not that they were guaranteed success. If they chose to fight they risked revealing their whereabouts to Shaul for what could have been a fruitless mission. David asked once again if they would be victorious and also received a positive response. On seeing this, they attacked immediately. The wanted to defend their fellow Jews, but rightly refused to gamble David’s life, as he was destined for greatness.