“Interpreting the Dreams of Others”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, Joseph is accused of the attempted rape of Mrs. Potiphar. Her husband, Potiphar, “took Joseph and placed him in a prison” (note the rather gentle language) where the king’s prisoners were confined.

As G-d was with Joseph, the warden favored Joseph and placed all the prison inmates in Joseph’s care. Whatever Joseph did, G-d made it succeed.

Scripture then relates (Genesis 40:1), “Vy’hee ah’char ha’d’varim ha’ay’leh, chaht’oo mahsh’kay melech Mitzrayim v’ha’oh’feh la’ah’doh’nay’hem l’melech Mitzrayim,” And it happened after these things, that the butler of the king of Egypt and the baker transgressed against their master, the king of Egypt.

According to Rashi, the sin of the chief butler was that he served Pharaoh a cup of wine with a fly in it, while the chief baker’s transgression was that he presented Pharaoh a loaf of bread that had a pebble inside the crust. Pharaoh was enraged at his servants, and placed them in the same prison in which Joseph was confined.

Joseph was appointed to be with the two ministers and to attend to their needs. According to Rashi, Joseph attended to the butler and the baker for a period of one year. During that time, Joseph learned much about their dispositions and personalities, and about the workings of the Pharaoh’s court. This information would prove to be of great importance to Joseph when interpreting their dreams.

One morning, while attending to Pharaoh’s ministers in prison, he noticed that they appeared upset. They told Joseph that they had each dreamed a dream, but that no one could interpret the dreams for them. Joseph then declared (Genesis 40:8), “Do not interpretations belong to G-d? Relate it to me, if you please.”

After hearing the butler’s dream, Joseph told him that in three days, the butler would be restored to his previous post, and that he will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as he had done formerly when he was Pharaoh’s chief butler. Joseph then added a plea to the butler that he remember him, and help free him from the dungeon.

Scripture in Genesis 40:16 then states, “Va’yahr sahr ha’oh’feem kee tov pah’tar, va’yo’mehr el Yosef,” the baker saw that Joseph had interpreted well, and he too related his dream to Joseph. Joseph responded by saying that in three days Pharaoh will lift the baker’s head and hang him on a tree, and that the birds will eat the baker’s flesh.

Both of Joseph’s interpretations were fulfilled. On the third day, which was Pharaoh’s birthday, Pharaoh made a feast for all his servants, and recalled the chief butler and the chief baker. He restored the butler to his position, but the baker was hanged exactly as Joseph had predicted.

Unfortunately, the butler did not remember Joseph, and forgot him. Joseph languished in prison for another two years, until Pharaoh dreamed his famous dream and Joseph was summoned to interpret it.

Many of our commentators state that Potiphar knew that his wife’s accusations against Joseph were false. This explains why Joseph was “gently” placed in a special prison along with the upper class royal prisoners. The Midrash also states that Potiphar did not want to lose the benefits of Joseph’s sage advice and seemingly magic touch.  He would, therefore, regularly visit the prison to consult with Joseph about household matters, for it was Joseph’s advice that made Potiphar successful and wealthy. However, since the relationship between Potiphar and Joseph (master and servant) was quite sensitive, it would be unseemly for Potiphar to appear to help Joseph in any way. After all, Joseph had been accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife.

When Pharaoh’s butler and baker arrived in prison, Potiphar saw  the opportunity to help Joseph indirectly, and arranged for Joseph to be placed in charge of caring for the royal ministers.

The difference between Joseph’s interpretive abilities in Egypt and those in Canaan were stark. When Joseph was in his father’s house in the land of Canaan, a Heavenly message would arrive directly to him through his own dreams about others. Now, with Joseph in exile and in the hands of strange masters, he no longer received direct Heavenly communication. Instead, others had the dream, and he would retrieve the message from their dreams.

Scripture tells us in Genesis 40:5, “Va’ya’chahl’moo chah’lohm sh’nay’hem, eesh chah’loh’moh b’lye’lah eh’chahd, eesh k’fit’rohn chah’loh’moh,” The butler and the baker each dreamed their dream on the very same night, each one according to the interpretation of his dream. Our rabbis maintain that, in addition to their own dream, they also dreamed the interpretation of the other’s dreams. Even though as senior ministers it had been many years since they themselves had actually acted as servants, they nevertheless dreamed about themselves actively serving Pharaoh.

The Torah states in Genesis 40:16 that the chief baker saw “kee tov pah’tar,” that Joseph had interpreted well. This can mean that Joseph interpreted the baker’s dream favorably, or that the chief baker thought that Joseph had the power to magically transform a dream into a favorable dream.

The question remains: How did Joseph know the true interpretation of the dreams?

The Abarbanel says that Joseph received all his interpretations through Divine inspiration. Others say that Joseph’s familiarity with the politics of the palace, having spent so much time in prison with the butler and the baker, made it possible for him to interpret their dreams. Benno Jacob (1862-1945, German Jewish Bible scholar, chiefly known for his commentary on the Pentateuch in which he made use of keen critical analysis and modern scholarship in support of the traditional positions) argues that Joseph was able to understand the message of the dreams from the nature and details in the dreams themselves. After all, the chief butler was very active in his dream, pouring wine into Pharaoh’s cup again. On the other hand, the chief baker was passive, and the birds were eating the baked goods off the top of his head. The Rashbam argues that “The truth speaks for itself.” Although there were no obvious clues in the dreams to help confirm the truth of Joseph’s interpretation, the power of truth is often self-evident and bears its own telltale seal.

Whatever enabled Joseph to properly interpret the dream, Joseph was still not ready to be the public hero that he was to become two years later. As he languished in prison for two years, Joseph grew in his own self-knowledge, sophistication and fervent belief in G-d. The two extra years transformed Joseph into the real Joseph. It allowed for the formerly “seventeen year old lad” to become a great, mighty and perspicacious leader.

May you be blessed.