“Bar Hedia interpreted dreams. If someone paid him one coin, he would give that person a favorable interpretation of the dream. If someone [who had a dream] failed to pay him one coin, he would give that person an unfavorable interpretation of the dream. Abbaye and Rava both had the same dream. Abbaye paid him one coin; Rava did not” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot, 56a).
Two famous rabbis who are always arguing with one another have the identical dream and they describe it to an interpreter named Bar Hedia. In each case, Bar Hedia interprets the dream in accordance with the payment he is (or is not) given. Thus, he gives Abbaye a favorable interpretation and gives Rava an unfavorable one.
The verses that provoke Abbaye and Rava’s dreams are taken from the section containing curses in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8). In this reading, Moses describes for the Children of Israel what reward they can expect “if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God” (Deut. 28:1), and what dire penalties they will receive “if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God” (Deut. 28:15).
The curses that will be visited upon those who disobey God’s will cover all spheres of life – personal and national, financial and health-related – and reflect an apocalyptic picture of the fate of the individual and of the nation.
“Abbaye and Rava told Bar Hedia: We both had a dream in which the verse, ‘Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof’ (Deut. 28:31), was read out to us. Bar Hedia provided Rava with an unfavorable interpretation: ‘Your business will go into bankruptcy; you will slaughter an ox but you will be unable to eat its flesh because of the great sadness in your heart.’ Bar Hedia gave Abbaye a favorable interpretation: ‘Your business will prosper; people will slaughter an ox in your home but you will be unable to eat its flesh because of the great happiness in your heart.’
“They continued: In our dream we heard the verse, ‘Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but they shall not be thine; for they shall go into captivity’ (Deut. 28:41). Bar Hedia gave Rava an unfavorable interpretation, but gave Abbaye a favorable one. He told Rava that the dream portended evil, as per the message of that verse. He told Abbaye, ‘You will have many sons and daughters; your daughters will marry gentiles and you will regard them as if they have been carried off into captivity.’
“They continued: In our dream we heard the words of the verse, ‘Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people’ (Deut. 28:32). Bar Hedia told Abbaye: ‘You will have many sons and daughters. You want them to marry your relatives, while your wife wants them to marry her relatives. She imposes her will on you; your sons and daughters marry your wife’s relatives and you regard them as if they had been handed over to another nation.’ He told Rava: ‘Your wife will die and your sons and daughters will be handed over to another woman.’
“They then told him: In our dream we heard the words, ‘Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather little in; for the locust shall consume it’ (Deut. 28:38). Bar Hedia told Abbaye that only the first part of the verse would apply to him; to Rava he said the second part would apply” (ibid).
The curses described in this week’s Torah portion make a person reflect. He compares the curses with his own life experiences, and considers whether the particular decree will apply to him or whether it can be interpreted in another way so that it will not necessarily have negative implications.
In order to settle the matter in his mind, he goes to a qualified interpreter. That interpreter, for example, gives Rava, who does not pay him sufficiently, the news that his wife and children will die and that he will suffer various other afflictions. And indeed, the dream comes true: Rava’s wife and children die.
Bar Hedia tries to run away but Rava pursues him and sees a book that was concealed in Bar Hedia’s garments fall to the ground, as is also described in Tractate Berachot: “Rava picks up the book and sees what is written there: ‘All dreams follow the mouth’ (that is, a dream’s interpretation depends on what the dream interpreter says). Said Rava, thinking of Bar Hedia: ‘You had the power to determine how the dream would be realized. May it be God’s will that just as this person showed me no compassion, he should be handed over to the authorities and they should show him no compassion.’”
And that is precisely what happens: Bar Hedia is arrested by the imperial authorities and executed.
The comment by Rava, reflecting his frustration – “You had the power to determine how the dream would be realized” – points to a disparity between his expectations of the dream interpreter, and the manner in which Bar Hedia sees his own trade. Rava believes that every dream has one clear meaning regarding the dreamer’s fate, and that the interpreter’s role is to disclose that meaning: in effect, to link the signifier with the signified. However, the interpreter’s manual which falls from Bar Hedia’s garments reveals to Rava that dreams actually can have many different interpretations.
The meaning of a dream “follows the mouth” is that it is realized in accordance with the particular interpretation it is given. The interpreter’s power lies not in his disclosure of an existing meaning, but rather in the very act of interpreting, which is a kind of magical act in which the interpreter can impose his interpretation upon reality.
Bar Hedia’s authority, argues Haim Weiss in a book (in Hebrew) on the “dreams tractate” in the Babylonian Talmud, depends on the guidebook that taught him how to interpret dreams. That book effectively cancels out his status as a source of interpretive knowledge and returns the responsibility of interpretation to the mouth of the reader.
In his book on Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, Prof. Saul Lieberman notes the similarity between the techniques of dream interpretation and some of the qualities of midrashim – that is, the same techniques that serve Bar Hedia and other interpreters referred to in the Talmud, and the techniques used by the sages in their interpretation of biblical verses.
Lieberman bases his analysis on the following midrash: “After all he says, ‘For a dream cometh through a multitude of business’ (Ecclesiastes 5:2). It stands to reason that what is true for dreams that have no real effect on anything but which can have many different interpretations is doubly true for a biblical verse, which can also have many different interpretations’” (Midrash Gadol, Genesis, Margaliot edition, page 39).
However, the comparison in this story goes beyond mere technique; it also touches upon motivation. Bar Hedia’s demand for suitable payment for his services represents a materialistic kind of motivation behind his interpretations, whereas the motivation driving the sages when they interpret biblical verses, according to this somewhat sarcastic midrash, is to impose upon others their own particular world view – even when, in doing so, they twist the verse’s syntax so that it suits their purposes.
The story about Bar Hedia, Rava and Abbaye also mocks the naïve reader of biblical texts who believes, like Rava, that there is a single meaning that can be discovered in the text. The dream interpreter’s manual that Rava comes upon is also a manual for the Oral Law. It is a secret book that is not intended for everyone, and its secret is that it actually denies its very own status: It reveals that the Oral Law can never really be written down because it follows the mouth of the homilist.