Keter detail of a Kab­bal­is­tic Print­ing (Mizrach) by Samuel Habib, 1828

Dreams have fas­ci­nat­ed me ever since I was a child; I used to dream of talk­ing ani­mals, and giant shop­ping malls that one could reach by climb­ing through a space in the back wall of a clos­et. As I grew old­er, I expe­ri­enced mun­dane and dis­ori­ent­ing dreams – los­ing my lug­gage or get­ting lost on the sub­way – but there were also won­drous images and encoun­ters: seeds grow­ing in my hands, labyrinths beneath Jerusalem, jour­neys to cas­tles that hung in the air. These images felt sim­i­lar to images I found in ancient myths and sacred texts. Over time, I dis­cov­ered that dreams can have guid­ing pow­er. To give one potent exam­ple, I final­ly made the deci­sion to go to rab­bini­cal school after I dreamt of meet­ing God (who was vis­i­bly preg­nant) at a cock­tail party.

I began to write Under­torah: An Earth-Based Kab­bal­ah of Dreams because I want­ed to say some­thing about the land­scape of dreams. The Zohar, a thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry kab­bal­is­tic text from Spain, says that at the time of sleep­ing, souls con­ceal them­selves inside the Shekhi­nah, the aspect of the divine which is clos­est to mate­r­i­al real­i­ty. The Zohar imag­ines that night-wan­der­ing souls go with­in the sacred and trav­el around inside it. To me, this kab­bal­is­tic teach­ing sug­gests that a dream is an immer­sive envi­ron­ment, and that this is part of its pow­er: a dream doesn’t tell” us some­thing but rather brings us to a place where we can have an expe­ri­ence that changes us.

For exam­ple, in anoth­er one of my dreams, which begins the book, I am in Jerusalem, explor­ing a tem­ple. The tem­ple is bustling with humans, but below the ground floor I dis­cov­er there are caves that lead deep with­in the earth. I wan­der the caves and find an under­ground riv­er. I fol­low the riv­er, and come to a map that sug­gests the rivers go fur­ther down, to where there are flows of lava and the heart of the earth itself. This dream shows me where I most want to be: con­nect­ed to the nat­ur­al world, explor­ing the heart of being. No mat­ter where I am, no mat­ter what my spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion, I always have a con­nec­tion to the earth.

Some, like me, dream of going down into the depths, but for oth­ers dreams lead upward into the sky per­haps into the heart of a vast ani­mate tree; or unplumbed depths under­wa­ter to the realms of water-breath­ing beings. These dream images, which dream­ers have gen­er­ous­ly shared with me dur­ing the years that I’ve been research­ing the book, give me a sense of the ways dreams help us find our con­nec­tion to our­selves, one anoth­er, and the cos­mos itself. The stark feel­ings we expe­ri­ence in dreams can help us relate more deeply to our wak­ing lives.

For gen­er­a­tions, Jews have under­stood dreams to hold prophet­ic inspiration.

My sense that dreams hold wis­dom has only grown as I have explored dream­ing as a spir­i­tu­al prac­tice. I’ve inter­viewed dozens of dream­ers from a vari­ety of back­grounds, and I’ve heard sto­ries in which dream­ers received food or med­i­cine that healed phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al ail­ments. I’ve been told of dreams that pre­dict­ed (and some­times avert­ed) heart attacks or car crash­es; dreams of pow­er­ful vis­its from deceased loved ones; night­mares that turned into per­son­al trans­for­ma­tions. And I have seen how even seem­ing­ly ordi­nary dreams can offer us truths that help us grow as peo­ple. I have come to under­stand dreams as an Under­torah: a wild, image-based, con­stant­ly unfold­ing sacred text that we dis­cov­er night­ly. As I write in the book, The dream is a jour­ney beyond the ordi­nary bounds of the self…each one brings us back to the pro­found mys­tery of the cos­mos in which we live.” When we pay atten­tion to our dreams, we tap into a well of hid­den truth; when we share dreams, we come to know one anoth­er much more deeply.

For gen­er­a­tions, Jews have under­stood dreams to hold prophet­ic inspi­ra­tion. In Gen­e­sis, dreams are a pri­ma­ry way God com­mu­ni­cates with peo­ple. The mys­te­ri­ous images in bib­li­cal dreams — bow­ing sheaves of grain, lad­ders between heav­en and earth — cap­ture our imag­i­na­tion to this day. The Tal­mud claims that dreams hold one-six­ti­eth of prophe­cy,” and sug­gests a prayer to say when one has a con­fus­ing or dis­turb­ing dream. In Jew­ish mys­ti­cal lore, dreams are a night­ly jour­ney dur­ing which the soul ris­es to heav­en­ly realms. These ways of approach­ing dreams resem­ble Indige­nous prac­tices (such as those of indige­nous Mex­i­cans or the Gua­jiro peo­ple of Colom­bia) in which dreams are shared each morn­ing as a source of knowl­edge. Many con­tem­po­rary views of dreams, in which dreams reflect ran­dom fir­ings of the brain, or aspects of per­son­al psy­chol­o­gy, don’t quite address the mys­te­ri­ous pow­er dreams have to heal and trans­form us.

So how do we find the mes­sages with­in our dreams? We can write or imag­ine dia­logues with peo­ple, crea­tures, or land­scapes in our dreams. We can med­i­tate on dream images. We can seek out land­scapes — rivers, moun­tains — like the ones we’ve met in our dreams. And we can share our dream images and expe­ri­ences with oth­ers. The Tal­mud men­tions one dream­er who takes a dream to twen­ty-four dream inter­preters. Each one offers a dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tion, and each inter­pre­ta­tion comes true. The truth with­in dreams, like the truth in a poem, is mul­ti­ple. Con­ven­ing a group of dream­ers to lis­ten to and read” one another’s dreams is a pow­er­ful way to get a sense of the range of mean­ing with­in a dream.

For me, the moment in a dream that I come back to is often a moment of won­der. Recent­ly, I dreamed of walk­ing in a gar­den where all the leaves of a tree were cov­ered in shin­ing drops of dew. The drops were just bare­ly frozen so they held their shape. As I looked upward, the drops all melt­ed and fell toward me in a mag­nif­i­cent show­er, drench­ing me. Dreams exist for a moment, but their joy, beau­ty and poten­tial for reck­on­ing have a last­ing impact.

Rab­bi Jill Ham­mer, PhD, author, schol­ar, rit­u­al­ist, poet, midrashist and dream­work­er, is the Direc­tor of Spir­i­tu­al Edu­ca­tion at the Acad­e­my for Jew­ish Reli­gion (www​.ajrsem​.org), and co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priest­ess Insti­tute (www​.kohenet​.org). She is the author of the just-released Under­torah: An Earth-Based Kab­bal­ah of Dream­ing (Ayin Press, 2022), Return to the Place: The Mag­ic, Med­i­ta­tion, and Mys­tery of Sefer Yet­zi­rah, and The Hebrew Priest­ess: Ancient and New Visions of Jew­ish Women’s Spir­i­tu­al Lead­er­ship (with Taya Shere), as well as oth­er books.