Jewish Wisdom

The Mystery of 4:44

In the summer of 2022, I walked into a hospital room and received an unusual request. That summer I was working as a student chaplain at a large Boston-area hospital. I spent most of my time sitting in similar rooms with patients and their families, providing company, comfort, and practical support.

Sometimes I was a welcome distraction from pain or boredom. Sometimes I was a non-judgemental ear for worries and frustration. Sometimes I could bring a patient a pair of reading glasses, or secure a Qur’an. Sometimes I sat silently while a patient cried. I tried my best to radiate loving-kindness.

After just a few weeks, I learned that these kinds of requests — for an extra pillow, for a prayer book, for simple presence — were more common and often more important than theological debates. I had been working on asking questions and holding space, rather than jumping in with answers.

So it was a bit of a shock when I walked into a middle-aged Jewish woman’s hospital room — she had asked for a visit from the chaplaincy team — and heard her exclaim, “You’re the Jewish chaplain? I need you to interpret my dream.”

In the Torah, there are portentous dreams and important interpreters, like Joseph of technicolor dream-coat fame (see Genesis 37). According to the Babylonian Talmud, a dream is one sixtieth of a prophecy (Tractate Berakhot 57b). But I had never tried to make sense of a dream before, not in a particularly Jewish way. Still, as a chaplain I was learning to meet patients where they were. (My college experiences with improv comedy proved most helpful for talking with sick and dying people. Make of that what you will).

“What was your dream about?” I asked the patient, before I could think too hard about my inexperience. The patient smiled and sat up. She was wearing a head covering — this was either part of her religious observance, or she was going through chemotherapy. Experienced hospital chaplains have different approaches to visiting patients. Some look at a patient’s medical file and notes from other team members before meeting them. Others take down a name and a room number, then simply show up with curiosity. I leaned towards the latter. Usually the patient would tell me what I needed to know.

“It wasn’t exactly a dream,” said the woman, trying to adjust herself comfortably into a new position. “For weeks now, I’ve been waking up exactly at 4:44am. I’ll look at my clock and see that it says 4:44. Or maybe I’m dreaming it. I feel like someone is trying to tell me something. Do you know anything about numerology, or Kabbalah? What do you think those numbers mean?”

“I don’t know,” I responded, my mind working furiously. “What do you think it means? Maybe we can think through some possibilities together.” She nodded and gestured for me to pull up a chair. We sat together and talked about Judaism and the number four. We talked about the four corners of the earth, the four rivers that flow from Eden. We discussed traditional liturgy for the bedtime Shema that invokes four guardian angels. We tried to get creative. 4+4+4 = 12, for the twelve tribes of Israel. I learned a little bit about this woman. She did have cancer. Her treatment was going pretty well. She had children. She had pursued Jewish learning throughout her life.

“What about the four matriarchs?” I offered, ticking them off on my fingers. “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” “Yes!” said the patient, her eyes lighting up. “The fours must be for the matriarchs. My mother had this same kind of cancer. And my grandmother has passed away too…4:44.” “4, 4, 4, three generations,” I added, reflecting her realization back to her. I think the best chaplains are mirrors.

A sense of joy and relief seemed to have settled over the woman, and over me as well. We had cracked the code, solved the puzzle! She leaned back on her pillows. “They’re sending me a message,” she said to herself.

I wasn’t sure what message the patient had received, but it seemed to be a comforting one. Perhaps that she was not alone in what she was enduring, that her foremothers were watching over her. I knew that the visit was over. I thanked the patient for telling me about her dream. She thanked me for the interpretation, for the visit — she had been worried there wouldn’t be a Jewish chaplain.

That summer there were some patients I visited multiple times, but the next time I made my rounds, the patient had been discharged. I never saw her again. I wonder if she still wakes up at 4:44am.

I’m not a dream interpreter. I’m not sure if I believe dreams are one sixtieth of a prophecy. But in this one instance, I think we got it right, because we made meaning together.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


The Story of Joseph, My Jewish Learning

Judaism, Dreams, and Dream Interpretation, My Jewish Learning

Jewish Prayers: Bedtime Prayers, Jewish Virtual Library

The Mystery of 4:44
Francesca Rubinson
Francesca Rubinson

Francesca Rubinson (she/her) is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where she focuses on Jewish history as well as the intersections of religion and gender, sexuality, and embodiment. Francesca has worked as an interfaith hospital chaplain and university chaplain.

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