An excerpt from Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams
Editorial Note: In Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams, Rabbi Jill Hammer takes readers on a journey through the root systems of the dreamworld. In this hybrid work of mystical scholarship, Rabbi Hammer posits dreams as sacred texts and the dreamworld as a sacred Place — an underground temple — that connects us to spirit and inspires us to heal our world.
The following excerpt has been edited for a digital format.
The dream temple has guardians, healers and wise teachers who help us to connect to the temple’s deeper reality. In other words, the Place is often tended by a Presence. When Jacob sees in his dream the ladder between heaven and earth, and suddenly finds God standing next to him, he is experiencing a guardian at the gateway to his dream temple. Indeed, upon waking he marvels: “This is none other than God’s house, and this is the gate to heaven” (Genesis 28:17).
The understanding that dream characters are messengers has a long history.  Medieval Jewish tradition describes the maggid or “one who tells”: a spirit entity that communicates with human beings and shares hidden wisdom, sometimes through a dream. Joseph Caro, writer of the 16th-century Jewish law code called the Shulchan Arukh, had a maggid whom he identified with the Shekhinah, and who visited him in dreams and in waking visions. The 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria called such dream messengers the “answering angels.”
We, too, may meet a maggid in our dreams: a person or entity who meets us at the portal to Being. We might see such entities as messengers of Presence, guiding us on our journey to repair self and world. These messengers, who hold elemental power yet also interact with us on a personal level, help us bridge the awe-inspiring cosmic Presence and our own human perceptions. Like Paracelsus, the 15th-century alchemist who used the term “elemental” to mean a being that embodied one of the four elements, I too often use the term “elementals” to describe this kind of dream messenger. We might call these elementals “emissaries of Being.” They stand at the portals of our dreams, inviting us deeper.
THE GREAT BEAR
“I dream again and again of a giant bear that is in my house. It’s not attacking me but it is so large that I am frightened. … It’s alive and rank and feral. Its great arms are around me and I think, ‘That’s it, I’m going to be crushed.’ But the bear is gentle. The bear says: ‘Call on me and I’ll show you what you need to be healed and what others need to be healed.’ The bear and I are joined heart to heart, heart-center to heart-center. And since then I’ve been connected to the bear.”
When I first began to ask people to tell me their dreams, I noticed that my friends (who lived in suburban houses and urban apartments, far from the woods) kept dreaming about bears — and I wondered why. As I asked more friends and encountered more bear dreams, I discovered that the bear often appeared at a door, fence or gateway. I began to see the bear as a guardian of the underground temple.
Simon took a dream class with me while training to be a cantor. This dream of the Great Bear that he shared with me is a passage into the underground temple, as well as a journey of memory, healing and love.
I am standing beside the ruins of Old Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, where I did an archaeological training dig in 1970. I am exhausted; my neck, back, legs, and shoulders ache, as they often did then. It is late in the evening but the moon is bright enough to light the way to my tent. I stop briefly at the water pump to take a long drink and splash cold water on my face and neck, which feels wonderful.
Then I walk to my tent, strip off my shoes and boots, and crawl into my sleeping bag. Suddenly, the tent is shaking, and so is my body; there’s a deafening pounding. Afraid, I rush out to see what’s happening. The cattle in the adjacent field are stampeding, circling in closer and closer to the fencing that surrounds our encampment. As I watch, a bull charges the fence near me. I run away, and can feel small stones cutting into my feet.
I am racing up the hill toward the keep when I realize that the ground is collapsing beneath me. I land on a slide of some kind, and end up in a dark, narrow stone passage. I realize that I must be in a deep portion of the Castle’s basement that has miraculously remained intact. It is quiet but I feel safe.
As I walk the stone corridor, my eyesight and hearing gradually improve as I become accustomed to the dark and quiet. I realize it is not silent here. I am certain there is sound that is just beyond the limits of my hearing, and I know I need to hear that sound.
I stop, turn, and place my palms against the wall. I feel the cold filling my palms and spreading along my arms. The sound is clearer now, pulsing mournfully within the walls. I relax my defenses, allowing the musical energy that flows through the wall to pass into and through me as well. There are psalms of praise and hymns of loss. They are difficult to parse but so infused with feeling as to be unmistakable in their meanings. I feel what the ancients felt, and am convulsed first in agony, then joy, until I can reach inside myself and hold my own emotions at a distance—while still loving them.
With the psalms still reverberating through my body, I let go of the stone. I hear the voices echoing dimly off the walls; they seem to be coming from far down the corridor. I follow them.
At the end of the corridor, I encounter an enormous black bear. I run to hug him. I know that it must be my father, who died when I was nine: it’s identical to the carved black bear he brought home from Germany after the war. He engulfs me in his hairy arms, lifts me off the ground and smiles. “You found your way,” he says. “You’re learning to hear the music of the stones and touch them.”
Then he steps aside. A flight of stairs emerges behind him. With a nod of the head he sends me on my way. I do not want to go. I hang on tightly and cry. Then I awake.
In the dream, we meet two animal guardians: the bull and the bear. The fence where Simon encounters the charging bull seems to mark the boundary between the mundane, and a realm where the dreamer can find transformation. The bull suggests the wild and powerful Presence in the dream. As Simon proceeds deeper into the earth, the aliveness of the cosmos comes to him in the songs of the stone walls. As Simon listens, he feels “what the ancients felt”: the joy and sorrow of being alive. The dream is introducing him to the Place that is Presence — to the animate sacred world.
Here, at this portal to Presence, Simon meets a bear he recognizes as a manifestation of his father, who lovingly praises him for his new wisdom. This affectionate bear connects to the human realm and also to the elemental forces of the earth. Through the bear guardian, the dream offers Simon the healing and release of embracing and being embraced by his father, combined with the joy of hearing the stones’ song. Love and awe are thus seamlessly woven together.
In my mind, the music of the stones that the Great Bear guards is the music of life. We, too, may hear the music of the stones when we hike a mountain trail or pick up shells on the beach. We may hear it when we pray or meditate, or when we remember the beings who have walked this earth before us. We may hear it in the people we love. Such music is waiting for us in the forests and fields all around us. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said, every blade of grass has a song.
RIDING THE DRAGON
“It is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin
The experience of contact with an elemental dream guide, and the portal that guide tends, can be a life-altering experience. The witness of such a dream guardian can alter our self-understanding. When I was twenty, I encountered a dragon in my dreams, who taught me that wonder and appreciation for the profound beauty of creation are at the core of my life.
As I emerge from a forest path, I find before me a dusty bridge over a river or canyon. It is a simple bridge, made of rough wooden slats, with logs sunk into the earth to anchor it. Across the bridge is an immense building with tall glass windows. It looks like a palace, though it does not rise very high off the ground. It is as if much of the building is underground. I am curious and also a little afraid. I leave the forest and cross the bridge.
As I cross, I see to my right a low structure like a stable. Inside are several dragons. They have huge wings and thick ridges on their backs. One of them rises to meet me, and I climb onto its back. I can’t see it very well, but I can feel how big it is. The dragon takes off and flies through an open door into the immense palace-like building. I am exhilarated by the sensation of flight.
I can see that the building is indeed partly underground, and much larger and taller inside than it looked from the outside. Inside the massive edifice are miles of magnificent gardens, full of impossibly bright-colored flowers in every hue. Even though the gardens are underground, the glass windows let in bright sunlight.
The dragon flies me over these gardens, spinning several times so that I get a 360-degree view. Every section of the garden is different from the one before, and every view is gorgeous. Enchanted by the beauty, I want the dragon to keep flying and flying. I discover that I can use my mind to direct the dragon to any part of the garden I want to see.
As we circle over the gardens, I become aware that I am dreaming and that I am beginning to wake. With all my might, I try not to wake up, but as the dragon whirls above the garden and more and more kinds of flowers appear, I feel myself waking.
I can remember and relive this dream as if it was yesterday. From the moment I climbed onto the dragon, it was as if we were one creature. Why do I feel this strong kinship with the dragon? The dragon’s appearance and its merging with me in flight lets me know something about myself: my own fiery spark within, my desire to soar, to discover new worlds. This dream gave me a sense of my own power to journey, to experience joy and awe — a sense that has never left me. The wonder remains, even now, 30 years later. After all these years, I am still finding the dragon in myself.
You, too, may have had a dream where you met a guardian of the Place. Your guardian might not be a bear or a sea serpent or a dragon. It might be a bird or a deer or a snake or any creature that appears at a moment when the dream goes deeper. When we meet a guardian, particularly an elemental, it is a sign we are ready for that deeper journey. We have to watch our dreams carefully to find the portals to our temple — and to find our guides along the way.
CONNECTING WITH A DREAM GUARDIAN
When we meet dream guardians, how can we identify them and open ourselves to their gifts, power and love? How can we let these elementals lead us to the elemental in ourselves? In this section, we’ll consider how we can find our guardians and receive their messages.
As an example, we will work with a dream offered by one of my clients, Nessa, a rabbinical student and kohenet. In one of our sessions together, we explored the setting, narrative and characters present in this dream, in order to locate a dream guardian and integrate their wisdom. During this process, we were able to identify moments of blockage by reentering the images and feelings of the dream, and as a result we uncovered a profound opportunity for liberation and opening.
In the dream, Nessa is walking through the city where she lived in childhood. She hates the new look of the city: less green and more concrete. Later in the dream, she’s trying to run an errand and gets on the wrong bus, which takes her someplace she doesn’t expect:
I run into a friend, who is a musician and educator. He tells me that I should get on the No. 13 bus, but it takes me in the wrong direction, past grassy fields and white marble statues of Athena and Artemis. Then we go into a tunnel. The bus driver starts singing. His voice is beautiful. He’s like a gospel choir soloist, with a deep, full, earthy voice. He says he wanted to wait until we got into the tunnel because the sound is better in there.
A few people join in with the driver, and soon the whole bus is joyfully harmonizing. I’m nervous, not sure if my voice belongs in the mix, but then I join in with a quiet, tentative “aaaaah” note. I think far too late that maybe I should record the singing on my phone, but I can’t find it. Have I lost it? It was just in my pocket! I only find it again after the singing. It has been in my jacket pocket all along.
In the beginning of this dream, Nessa wanders through a mundane landscape full of concrete until her friend, a musician, sends her to the No. 13 bus. Thirteen recalls the 13 moons of the year, and is a sacred number to the Goddess in some traditions. It is clear this is no ordinary bus. As the No. 13 bus heads for greener landscapes, dotted with images of ancient goddesses, we can feel ourselves going deeper.
When I ask Nessa what she feels about the bus, she says: “It’s a soul bus, a bus that’s bound for glory.” The “soul bus” is bringing her where she needs to go: deep under the earth, into the underground temple.
Deep inside a tunnel, the driver begins to sing in his “earthy” voice, joined by the other passengers. This song is the moment of beauty in the dream that indicates the dreamer has come to a portal, a place to go deeper. It is not an accident that this place is underground; we are once again under the conscious mind and embedded in the earth. And the bus driver is the guardian of this portal to Presence.
When I ask Nessa to feel what it is like to hear the song, she says: “I am in the presence of something powerful and connected that I don’t understand. I am in awe of it. I want to be a part of it but it’s big and beautiful and terrifying, like the experience of the infinite.” This is a perceptive knowing of the Presence, the elemental reality of Being.
In the dream, Nessa’s response to the singing is to want to sing, too — and then to feel that her voice isn’t good enough. She becomes distracted by her self-doubt and loses her sense of connection to the music. This self-deprecation seems like the blockage in the dream. When I ask about this, Nessa agrees that self-consciousness is an issue that’s manifested in her life before. The dream, I suggest, has come to diagnose this blockage and help clear it. That Nessa finds her phone at the end of the dream suggests she has been able to “record” — remember — the song all along.
I ask Nessa to go back into the moment of making the ahhh sound. She makes the ahhh for me: a sad and tentative ahhh. When I ask how it feels, Nessa says: “It’s pretty vulnerable. There’s so much of me that is scared that I am not making the right sound. My voice doesn’t really belong with all these people. I wish I could make strong harmonizing notes with all the other people. This feels sad and frustrating.”
I ask Nessa to become her dream again, but this time sing a full ahhh with the driver and the passengers, without worrying about how it sounds. She sings again. This sound is completely different than the first: a full, loud, long note. Nessa feels in her power and in her joy. I can tell by the smile that something is different. “I feel like a channel,” she says. Nessa is discovering her song — the elemental power of air within her own body.
I ask Nessa to make the ahhh sound or imagine it whenever she feels doubt about sharing the fullness of her voice. I invite her to see the bus driver as a companion — to imagine him listening carefully to her song and supporting her in singing. I ask her what the bus driver is saying to her, and she replies: “If you think you have something to sing, you should sing it. Don’t listen to the voices that tear you down. Listen to me.”
The next time I see Nessa, her voice has become more confident and powerful. Two years later, she sings a solo at a bonfire ritual that stuns the whole community with its beauty. The bus driver who brought her into the tunnel of song has invited her into the power of her voice.
 Hirsh Loeb Gordon, The Maggid of Caro: The Mystic Life of the Eminent Codifier Joseph Caro as Revealed in His Secret Diary (1949; reprint, Whitefish, MT: Literary Licensing, 2013).
 Kat Duff, The Secret Life of Sleep (London: Oneworld, 2014), p. 152.
 Gnomes for earth, undines for water, sylphs for air, and salamanders for fire. For example, see The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, ed. Arthur Edward Waite (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2009); Edmund Siderius, “Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals,” The Starry Messenger, March 8, 2011, https://edmundsiderius.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/knowledge-in-nature-knowledge-of-nature-paracelsus-and-the-elementals/.
 Robert Moss, interview by Rodger Kamenetz, The Shift Network’s Dreamwork Summit (online conference), Oct. 29, 2019.
 Likutei Moharan 2, p. 63.
 Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. 92.
 Catherine Shainberg refers to dreams that diagnose blockages and attempt to remove them as “clearing dreams” — that is, they “clear” an obstacle.