In the Torah portion Vayeishev (Gen. 37:1–40:23), we read about Joseph interpreting dreams of the Pharaoh’s chief butler and the chief baker:

And the chief butler told his dream to Joseph, and said to him: “In my dream, behold, a vine was before me; and in the vine were three tendrils…” And Joseph said unto him: “This is the interpretation of it: the three tendrils are three days.”  (Gen. 40:9-12)

How did Joseph know that three tendrils are three days?  The story repeats itself with the chief baker:

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said unto Joseph: “I also saw in my dream, and, behold, three baskets of white bread were on my head…” “This is the interpretation thereof: the three baskets are three days.”  (Gen. 40:16-18)

Joseph interpreting dreams, Benjamin Cuyp (1630-1652)

Again, how did Joseph know that three baskets were three days? 

In the next Torah portion, Miketz, we will read about Joseph interpreting two dreams of Pharaoh who first dreamed about seven parched ears of grain consuming seven healthy ears and, in the second dream, seven skinny cows devouring seven fat cows.  Joseph interprets seven healthy ears of grain and seven fat cows as seven years of plenty; and seven parched ears and seven skinny cows as seven years of famine.  What led Joseph to interpret the ears of grain and the cows as years?

One might think that it was the river in the dream of Pharaoh that gave Joseph a hint. From ancient Chinese to Greeks and Romans, a river served as a metaphor for time. (See my essay On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe.) However, the river appears only in one of two dreams of Pharaoh and does not appear at all in the dreams of the chief butler and the chief backer. That can’t be the clue.

In all four instances, Joseph interprets dream’s symbols—physical objects, such as tendrils of a grapevine, baskets, ears of grain, and cows—as units of time.  What gave him this idea?  It was not at all obvious.  Many wisest men and magicians of Egypt who attempted to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams thought of seven daughters who would be born and die, seven wars that would be won, and seven that would be lost. However, nobody thought of connecting these symbols with years! What did Joseph see that others didn’t?  This question bothered me for years until I understood the answer.

Let’s summarize all four dreams and their interpretations in a table:

Dream objects of the dream Joseph’s interpretation
 Dream of the chief butler    three tendrils of grapevine    three days
 Dream of the chief baker    three baskets    three days
 The first dream of Pharaoh    seven fat cows    Seven years of plenty
 The first dream of Pharaoh    seven skinny cows    Seven years of famine
 The second dream of Pharaoh    seven good ears of grains    Seven years of plenty
 The second dream of Pharaoh    seven parched ears of grains    Seven years of famine

What is the common denominator in all four dreams?  It is the repetition of the identical physical objects: three tendrils of grapevine, three baskets, seven fat cows, seven skinny cows, seven good ears, seven parched ears. Repetition is an essential characteristic of time, which is cyclical.  We measure time by counting cycles—seconds, minutes, hours, days, years…  Each cycle is identical to others, and the repetition of these cycles provides the background against which we count the flow of time.  I believe, the repetition of an identical physical object in a dream gave Joseph a clue that these symbols are all related to cycles of time.

When I realized this, I was filled with joy—I had the answer to the nagging question. However, the doubt replaced my joy soon enough.  If my answer was correct, the rule should apply to all instances where the same object is repeated multiple times in the same dream. I realized that I had a problem. The first two dreams described in the Torah portion Vayeishev are dreams of Joseph himself. Joseph tells his brothers his first dream:

“Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf.” (Gen. 37:7)

The identical sheaves in this dream symbolize Joseph’s brothers, not units of time. And in the second dream:

“Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me.” (Gen. 37:9)

Again, eleven stars symbolize eleven brothers, not units of time. My theory must be wrong! But then I realized that all these dreams—dreams of Joseph, dreams of Pharaoh’s ministers and dreams of Pharaoh himself—came in pairs. Joseph saw two dreams. Chief butler and chief baker (together) saw two dreams,

Now both of them dreamed a dream, each one his dream on the same night…”  (Gen. 40:5).

Furthermore, Pharaoh saw two dreams, which is precisely what confused all his magicians and dream interpreters of Egypt. Joseph found great significance in the repetition of Pharaoh’s dream:

And concerning the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice that is because the matter is ready [to emanate] from G‑d, and G‑d is hastening to execute it. (Gen. 41:32)

I thought, perhaps there is a special significance in the repetition of Joseph’s dream as well. If we apply my hypothesis that the repetition of identical physical objects in a dream symbolizes units of time, we are forced to interpret eleven stars in the second dream of Joseph as eleven years.  The identical sheaves belonging to Joseph’s brothers were also eleven—another eleven years.  Two dreams—two times eleven—twenty-two years.  From the time Joseph told his father and his brothers of his dreams, it would be exactly twenty-two years until his prophecy of his brother bowing down to him would come to pass! After all, the dreams of Joseph are not the exception from the dream interpretation principle I intuited — the repetitive objects in a dream symbolize units of time. 

The nature of time is the biggest mystery in all of physics. As we see here, Joseph had an incredible insight into the nature of time. This theme will continue as a leitmotiv through the rest of Genesis.


Joseph’s dreams