Sunday 27 May 2018


13th-century 'Questions and Answers from Heaven' by R. Ya'akov of Marvège.
 Part 1:


The Halachic process is usually understood as a particularly sober and disciplined study of legal sources and texts, after which the experienced decisor applies his mind and arrives at an appropriate ruling.

Yet there are many examples of another process which is not so well known – that of reverting to dreams! Using dreams as a basis for formulating Halacha was particularly popular during the 1100’s and the 1200’s, where leading Tosafists and other rabbinical authorities made use of this expediency.
In this article, I draw extensively from research by Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel[1].


RABAN (1152):


In 1152, one of the foremost German Tosafists, R. Eliezer ben Natan (Raban) of Mainz, records a certain ruling (about a complicated case concerning non-kosher wine coming in contact with a stoneware utensil) in his Halachic Responsa entitled Even haEzer[2].

During a Shabbat lunch, he had ruled that the wine was permitted. However, after sleeping in the afternoon, he reversed his earlier ruling, claiming that his late father-in-law had appeared to him in a dream and indirectly corrected him - by means of subtle hints - which Rabam later interpreted himself when awake. So now, what he had previously permitted[3] became prohibited, and he fasted for two days to repent his mistaken ruling!

Two points need to be made regarding this particular case:

1) Raban did not initiate a process known as a ‘dream question’ (She’elat Chalom) where the questioner intentionally goes to sleep with the aim of receiving guidance during the dream. Also, it appears that in this instance, his sleep was simply a daytime nap.

2) The ‘answer’ was not conclusive but instead, indirect, where the son-in-law was still made to use his own initiative when his normal senses returned. It could be said that Raban simply dreamed about the events of the previous day and “was guided by the familiar, yet respected presence of his father-in-law and major teacher, whose rulings and guidance had certainly helped him in the past. Raban was initially unsure of the message...but upon awakening...realized that his own halachic ruling may have been in error...(and he) took full responsibility for the changed ruling that resulted.”

However, as we progress over the next century or so, notice how the influence of dreams upon Halacha becomes more and more direct and overt:



Another German Tosafist, R. Ephraim of Regensburg (who had studied with Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam) permitted the eating of a fish called balbuta which shed its scales when taken out of the water (thus resembling a non-kosher fish).[4]

Thereafter, he too had a dream in which, according to one version[5], a kindly and elderly man with a long beard and white hair was offering him an overflowing platter of non-kosher sea creatures to eat. R. Ephraim angrily refused. And the old man responded by saying that they were ‘just as kosher as the food he had permitted that day’.

Upon awakening, R. Ephraim said that the old man in the dream was none other than Elijah the prophet – and he no longer ate balbuta ever again.

RID (d.1240):


The Italian Tosafist, R. Yeshaya ben Mali di Trani, also known as RID, issued a responsum in which he declared that if an animal was slaughtered in a permissible manner and afterwards an adhesion was found on the lungs (indicating it would not have lived much longer anyway) – it is not kosher.
R. Yeshaya claimed that in a dream Elijah the Prophet had also confirmed his ruling that the animal is not kosher.

It is interesting to note that in the three abovementioned cases, which all involved food, each of the three rulings lean towards the stricter side with the food in question being prohibited.

R. MEIR OF ROTHENBURG (1215-1293):


R. Meir, also known as the Maharam of Rothenburg, issued a ruling that a worker cannot be paid in straw and chafe (teven vekash) as it is difficult to gather. This is based on the Talmud[6] which says the same thing. The question was whether the Talmud was referring exclusively to straw and chafe or whether it included similar produce like wheat and fruit, which are also difficult to gather.

The Maharam ruled that we follow the narrow interpretation that the Talmud refers exclusively to the two commodities of straw and chafe – and even though wheat and fruit are equally difficult to gather, a worker would just have to accept payment with cumbersome wheat and fruit.
According to the Maharam’s student[7], he ruled narrowly like this because he received such an interpretation through a dream.

Interestingly, R. Kanarfogel shows how the Maharam of Rothenburg had strong connections with the German Pietists known as Chassidei Ashkenaz (who studied an ancient form of Kabbalah known as Heichalot, which practiced dream questions) and therefore, it is probable that he actively initiated a She’elat Chalom or dream question as they were wont to do.

R. YECHIEL OF PARIS (d. 1286):


During the short form of repetition of Shemone Esrei on Friday night[8], there is a practice to refrain from talking. R. Yechiel of Paris was pedantic about not permitting talking during that short section because apparently, a certain departed soul appeared to him in a dream complaining that “the angels were throwing him up and then allowing him to fall without catching him”. 



R. Menachem of Worms endorsed the ‘al haMila’ blessing prior to a Bris (no matter whether the father or a designated Mohel performs the circumcision - as opposed to another version ‘laMul’ – when the father himself performed the circumcision on his son).

Although there was divided opinion as to which blessing a father recites if he is the Mohel, R. Menachem ruled that ‘al haMila’ is always recited. This was determined on the basis of a dream he had.



R. Avraham ben David (1125-1198) - regarded as a father of Kabbalah[9] and a severe critic of Rambam - ruled (against Rambam in his commentary to Mishneh Torah) that the myrtle branch of the Four Species, which has its uppermost leaves cut off, was disqualified. This was because of “the holy spirit that had appeared already several years ago in our study hall.



R. Eliyahu Menachem of London authorised a particular text in the Grace After Meals – based on a question he was asked during a dream.

 R. Eliyahu also compiled a ‘magical adjuration’ or She’elat Chalom which contained names of G-d and of angels – often recited over grasses and herbs - and prepared the practitioner for a spiritual encounter in which questions would be answered.



During the early 1200’s, R. Ya’akov haLevi of Marvège[10] wrote a work entitled ‘Questions and Answers (Responsa) from Heaven’. It deals unapologetically with resolving over seventy questions of Jewish law through dream intervention. R. Ya’akov explains that he addressed his questions directly to G-d and the angels responded by means of Torah verses which alluded to the answers.

R. Kanarfogel explains that “he was not seeking heavenly guidance to initiate halachic discussions...but rather to break existing rabbinical logjams.”

Some took this work quite seriously and Shibbolei haLekket by R. Tzidkiya haRofe Anau (d. 1260) quoted from it as a reliable source on about six occasions.


R. Kanarfogel writes: “Tosafists and other Askenazic rabbinical scholars who were conversant and comfortable with mystical teachings and concepts were apparently prepared to allow dreams and visions to play a role in the halachic process, while those Tosafists who were less involved with mysticism would not necessarily concur.”

It should be noted at the outset that the use of dreams in determining Halacha was not unanimously accepted by the rabbinical world. Not only were the Rationalists such as Rambam (1135-1204) strongly against such practices – but even ‘halachicKabbalists such as Ramban (1194-1270) and ‘the non-philosophically inclined’ Rashi (1040-1105), were opposed to these techniques.

RASHI (1040-1105):


In Rashi’s Talmudic commentary, he wrote that he was conscious of limiting the influence of Elijah the Prophet on Halachic matters: The Talmud[11] debates the permissibility of using a kosher fish skin for the writing of Tefillin scrolls. The problem was that the fish odour may never fully dissipate and therefore it would be disrespectful to the Tefillin. The ruling was inconclusive and left to Elijah the Prophet to determine. Rashi is quick to point out, though, that Halachic matters concerning something “permitted or prohibited is not dependant on him (Elijah), since Torah is not in Heaven.”

RAMBAM (1135-1204):

Rambam writes that a prophet who suggests a permanent change in a practical Halacha - based on some form of prophecy – is to be put to death because Torah is not in Heaven.

RAMBAN (1194-1270):

Ramban, who was a mystic himself, also did not consider practical Halacha to be influenced by any supernatural phenomena.


R. Kanarfogel points out that it is noteworthy that similar dream interventions were taking place within the Christian culture of that age. Here is one example:

The Benedictine theologian, Guibert of Nogent-sous-Coucy (d. 1125) records in his autobiography how his tutor experienced a dream in which a “white-haired elderly man, of distinguished appearance and bearing, leads the young Guilbert to the room of his sleeping tutor, promising that the tutor will...instruct him well.”

Later that same kindly, white-haired and elderly man appeared again to the tutor - this time to admonish the tutor over the fact that Guilbert was becoming too influenced by the works of the pagan poets and had departed somewhat from the straight and narrow.

[1] Dreams As a Determinant of Jewish Law and Practice in Northern Europe During the High Middle Ages, by Ephraim Kanarfogel.
[2]Sefer Raban sec. 26. [Not to be confused with the later Even haEzer of R. Yaakov ben Asher, also known as the Tur (1270-1340), who was the son of the Rosh.]
[3] In this case wine.
[4] Rashi and his two grandsons Rabbeinu Tam and Rashbam had also permitted the consumption of balbuta.
[5] The version of his student, R. Baruch of Mainz.
[6] Bava Metzia 118a.
[7] R. Meir haKohen, author of Haggahot Maimuniyot.
[8] Known as ‘Bracha achat me’in sheva’.
[9] He was the father of the Kabbalist R. Yitzchak the Blind.
[10] Or possibly Ya’akon ben Levi of Viviers.
[11] Shabbat 108a.

No comments:

Post a Comment