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What Is the Origin of the Word ‘Chalom’ (Dream)?

I had always wondered what view of dreams was reflected in biblical Hebrew. My initial thought was that Ḥ-L-M might have derived from Ḥ-L-H (sick). (I will use Ḥ for the letter “chet.”)

But as I investigated, I learned that the issue is really the opposite. Two times in Tanach (at Isaiah 38:16 and Job 39:4) there are words that seem to be from the root Ḥ-L-M and that mean something like “healthy” or “strong.” Therefore the issue that scholars discuss instead is whether there a connection between “dream” and “healthy/strong.”

One suggestion made is that from an initial “healthy/strong/youth” meaning evolved the meaning “sexual dreams,” and from this, the meaning evolved into “dreams” in general. This suggestion is based on the fact that in Arabic there is a root similar to Ḥ-L-M that has the meanings “dream” and “come of age” (=become mature). I find the above scenario farfetched.

Marcus Jastrow, in his dictionary (p. 471), also seems to relate the two Ḥ-L-M roots “dream” and “healthy/strong.” His fundamental definition of Ḥ-L-M is “to sleep well.” This too seems far-fetched.

I also have to point out that the words with the letters Ḥ-L-M at Isaiah 38:16 and Job 39:4 may instead derive from the word Ḥ-Y-L (=strength), so perhaps there was no root Ḥ-L-M in Hebrew that meant “healthy” or “strong.”

Another scholar claims that we should relate Ḥ-L-M/dream to the root aleph-lamed-mem. One of the meanings of this root 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 understand our root without having to make a substitution of aleph for chet.

Rav S.R. Hirsch is another figure who tries to understand the biblical view of dreams. In his commentary to Genesis 20:3 he sets forth an entire biblical philosophy of dreams that he believes is implicit in the root Ḥ-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 meaning “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. (Rav Hirsch does use the word “healing” in his discussion. He believes that dreams have an aspect of healing to them, consistent with the other Ḥ-L-M meaning.)

Now I would like to offer my own speculative suggestion for the etymology of “chalom.” The word “chalon” (=window) derives from the root Ḥ-L-L/opening. Perhaps “chalom” comes from this root as well and even the ancients understood that a dream is an “opening” into the mind! (Of course, all such suggestions have to be evaluated in light of the form of the word in all the Semitic languages. Typically, suggestions that sound like they have potential based on Hebrew fail when the form of the word in all the Semitic languages is taken into account.)

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concludes that the etymology of the root Ḥ-L-M/dream “has not been completely explained.” This is a tremendous understatement! They should have written “the 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 Ḥ-L-M/dream research I also came across a very interesting interpretation of a phrase that we are all familiar with. Psalms 126:1 use the phrase “hayinu ke-cḥolmim” 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,” i.e., the turn of events was so surprising that it was unreal. Interestingly, the Targum offers a different interpretation: “We were like sick people who were healed.” Professors Shmuel and Zeev Safrai, in their classic work “Haggadat Chazal” (1998), 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 that has a spelling that supports 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 vocalization for our word. Finally, since Ḥ-L-M with a meaning like “healthy/strong” 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.

This is also an appropriate time to mention a fascinating work from the early 13th century, authored by one of the French Tosafists, R. Jacob of Marvège. 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.” I wish there was someone around now who could use this method and finally determine for me the origin of the word “chalom”!

(For other Rishonim who relied on dreams for psak, see the introduction in Reuven Margaliot’s edition of R. Jacob’s work [1957, third ed.], and Ephraim Kanarfogel, “Peering Through the Lattices” [2000], pp. 164 and 238.)

I would like to close on a homiletical note. R. Mayer Twersky in “A Glimpse of the Rav,” Tradition 30:4 (1996), p. 108, observes that the root Ḥ-L-M has two meanings: “dream” and “healthy/strong.” He then elaborates on this in the context of R. Joseph Soloveitchik and the strong dream that he had for fostering Torah growth in America. R. Twersky writes;

The ideal dream is not an idle, but rather a guiding vision.

It does not represent a flight from reality, but rather a blueprint

for improving it.

As the righteous Yosef of old, the Rav was not an idle dreamer.

He combined vision with conviction [and] prophecy with persistence.

The above article is an adaptation of the “chalom” article in my new book, “Roots and Rituals.” The book is available at amazon.com, kodeshpress.com, Judaica House, and the YU seforim sale.

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. 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.

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