I have always wondered how the ancient Hebrew language understood dreams. My initial thought was that Ch-L-M might have derived from Ch-L-H (sick). As I investigated, I learned that the issue is really the opposite. Two times in Tanach there are words that seem to be from the root Ch-L-M and that mean something like “healthy” or “strong.” These instances are at Is. 38:16 and Job 39:4. Therefore, the issue that scholars discuss instead is: is there a connection between “dream” and “healthy/strong”?
One suggestion made is that from an initial “healthy/strong/youth” meaning came the meaning “sexual dreams.” From this, the meaning evolved into “dreams” in general. This suggestion is found in several respected sources. Fortunately, other respected sources think it is ridiculous and I agree.
Marcus Jastrow, in his dictionary, also seems to relate the two Ch-L-M roots. With regard to Ch-L-M/dream, he implies that “dream” is not the fundamental meaning of the root. Rather, the root fundamentally meant “sleep well.” Obviously, this is farfetched as well.
Another scholar claims that we should relate Ch-L-M/dream to aleph-lamed-mem. One of the meanings of A-L-M is “bind.” Accordingly, he suggests that dreams reflect “the entanglement of ideas during sleep when they are free of the rule of the intellect.” But obviously we would prefer to interpret the word Ch-L-M without having to make a substitution of aleph for chet.
Rav S.R. Hirsch is another figure who tries to understand the ancient Jewish view of dreams. In his commentary to Gen. 20:3, he sets forth an entire Jewish philosophy of dreams that he believes is implicit in the root Ch-L-M. But there is a problem with his analysis. There is an unusual word at Job. 6:6, “chalamut.” The Targum understands this as having a meaning identical with chelmon, the yolk of an egg. Rav Hirsch’s theory is based on assuming that this word chalamut is related to dreams and that its translation is “yolk of an egg.” (Rav Hirsch writes: “Every chalom is a chalamut, a return of the psyche, the mind, to the embryonic state.”) But today most scholars believe that this word “chalamut” has nothing to do with dreams and is not the “yolk of an egg.” Rather, it is a plant that has liquid flow from it. (R. Hirsch does use the word “healing” in his discussion. He believes that dreams have an aspect of healing to them, consistent with the other Ch-L-M meaning.)
I have to add that the words with the letters Ch-L-M at Is. 38:16 and Job 39:4 may instead derive from the word chayil (strength), and there was possibly no root “Ch-L-M” in Hebrew that meant “healthy” or “strong.”
I am going to conclude, along with one of my favorite sources, “The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament,” that the etymology of the word Ch-L-M/dream has yet to be satisfactorily explained. My search for its origin still remains a dream! But as you can see, I did learn many interesting things along the way.
I also learned that the vowel “cholam” may be called this because it is a “strong” vowel. (So says Ibn Ezra.)
In my chalom/dream research, I also came across a very interesting interpretation of a phrase that we are all familiar with. Psalms 126:1 uses the phrase “hayinu ke-cholmim” to describe the Jewish reaction to the return to Zion with the permission of the Persian kings. We are used to understanding these words to mean “we were like dreamers.” The turn of events was so surprising that it was unreal. Interestingly, the Targum offers a different interpretation: “We were like people who were healed.” Professors Shmuel and Ze’ev Safrai, in their classic work “Haggadat Chazal” (p. 232), take the position that this is most likely the correct interpretation! They also mention a text of this verse in the Dead Sea Scrolls (see J. A. Sanders, “The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll,” p. 40) that has a different spelling of ke-cholmim here, with the lamed preceding the vav. They claim that this spelling certainly fits their interpretation. But I would not rely on the spelling in the Dead Sea text (very possibly an error) to understand the meaning of our traditional text. Also, the post-Talmudic Masoretes certainly knew of the Targum’s interpretation. If they thought it was correct, they would have likely chosen a different nikud for our word. Finally, since Ch-L-M with a meaning like “healthy/strong/healed” is rare in Tanach, only appearing two times, it is unlikely that this alternative (but creative!) interpretation of Psalms 126:1 is the correct one.
As part of my research for this column, I was also investigating another sleep-related root: Lamed-Yod-Nun (alternatively, Lamed-Vav-Nun). We are all familiar with this root. It means to “spend the night.” (For example, it is the root of the word “malon,” lodging place.) I discovered that according to many scholars, the root of this word is Lamed-Yod-Lamed, which means “evening” and that the second lamed evolved into a nun. For further examples of lamed/nun switches, see, e.g., Rashi to Is. 21:15.
Finally, this is a good time to mention a fascinating work from the early 13th century, authored by one of the French Tosafists, R. Jacob of Marvege. R. Jacob would seek answers from heaven about Halacha (by means of seclusion, prayer and uttering Divine names), and his questions were replied to in a dream! R. Jacob then compiled the answers he received and published them as “She’elot U-Teshuvot Min Ha-Shamayim.” (We have a copy in our library at Congregation Beth Aaron.) I wish there was someone around now who could use this method and finally determine for me the origin of the word “chalom”!
(For more on R. Jacob, see Encyclopaedia Judaica, 9:1233. For other Rishonim who relied on dreams for psak, see the introduction in Reuven Margaliot’s edition of R. Jacob’s work, and “Peering Through the Lattices” by Rabbi Ephraim Kanarfogel.)
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected] (He would like to acknowledge the site balashon.com, which provided some of the material for the above column.) He will not be able to sleep and dream properly until the origin of the word “chalom” is finally determined.
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.