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Vayetze: Sulam Yaakov, The Ladder of Jacob

Updated: Jul 11

“A ladder stood on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven…” “This is prayer.” Tikkunei Zohar 43 on Genesis 28:12 Cited at [1]

The book of Genesis allows an amazing glimpse into the spiritual world. It all begins with a dream,

“Yaakov went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place (makom), and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. He took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.” Genesis 28:10-11

Rashi, R’ Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040 – 1105 CE), notes that the word HaMakom, The Place, refers to the Temple Mount,

'And he encountered the place (28:11)' “The place” is Mount Moriah, the “Temple Mount” in Jerusalem, where Abraham had bound Isaac upon the altar and where King Solomon would erect the Holy Temple.” Rashi on Genesis 28:11, cited at [2]

 This is somewhat counter-intuitive because the geographic location seems to be Beit-El, formerly called Luz. The Midrash Rabbah explains,

“R’ Eleazer said in the name of R. Jose b. Zimra: This ladder stood in Beersheba and [the top of] its slope was over the Temple. What is the proof? And Jacob went out from Beersheba, etc. – AND HE WAS AFRAID, AND SAID: HOW FULL OF AWE IS THIS PLACE. R. Judah b. R. Simon said: This ladder stood on the Temple site, while [the top of] its slope was over Beth El.” Genesis Rabbah 69:7, Soncino Press Edition

The term Makom itself also one of the names of HaShem,

“And he arrived at the place. Why is G-d called Makom? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place.” Yalqut Shimoni Vayetze, Remez 117, cited at [3]

This illustrates something important. HaShem is not contained or localized within the universe. The universe is contained within Him. The debate about the exact location is irrelevant in this passage, because Jacob in this passage is experiencing something beyond time and space. Chazal, our sages of blessed memory, say that the entire land of Israel was contracted beneath Yaakov,

“The land whereon you lie down, [to thee will I give it, and to your seed]’ (Gen 28:12). What is the greatness of this? “Said R. Isaac: ‘This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, rolled up the whole of the land of Israel and put it under our father Jacob, [to indicate to him] that it would be very easily conquered by his descendants.” Chullin 91b, Soncino Press Edition

From the site of the Temple Mount, or perhaps the entire land of Israel, Yaakov sees through a window into the spiritual world,

“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven, and behold the angels of G-d ascending and descending on it.” Genesis 28:12

This raises an interesting question: Since angels have wings (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1), and the ability to fly, why would they need a ladder? We’ll explore this interesting question below.

Sulam = Sinai = Temple = Throne of Glory = Voice

Heaven and Earth are intertwined, as in the phrase, “as above, so below” or “on earth, as it is in heaven.” But how is this possible? How is it possible that Infinite Light can connect to finite matter? There must a a Bridge, a Ladder, a Conduit through which all prayers ascend. On Mount Sinai, HaShem tore apart firmaments and descended upon the mountain. At that moment, Heaven and Earth were connected. Incredibly, the gematria of the word “Sinai” is equivalent to “Sulam”, Ladder. Mount Sinai and the Ladder of Jacob are intimately related,

“The Rabbis related it to Sinai. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder symbolizes Sinai; Set upon the earth, as it says, ‘And they stood at the nether part of the mount (Ex. 19:17); And the top of it reached to heaven – “And the mountain burned with fire unto the heart of heaven.” (Deut. 4:11). And behold the angels of G-d alludes to Moses and Aaron. Ascending. ‘And Moses went up to G-d (Ex. 19:3)’; And descending – And Moses went down from the mount. And behold, the L-RD stood beside him – “And the L-rd came down upon mount Sinai (ib. 20).” Genesis Rabbah 68:12, Soncino Press Edition

סלם = סיני = 130

The Midrash Rabbah goes on to connect the Ladder to the Temple. The Temple is the place (makom) where Heaven and Earth connect. Noting the parallels through the principle of gezerah shavah, the Midrash says,

“Bar Kappara taught: No dream is without its interpretation. AND BEHOLD A LADDER symbolizes the stairway; SET UPON THE EARTH-the altar, as it says, ‘An altar of earth you shall make for Me’ (Exodus 20:21); AND THE TOP OF IT REACHED TO HEAVEN – the sacrifices, the scent of which ascended to heaven; AND BEHOLD THE ANGELS OF G-D – the High Priests; ASCENDING AND DESCENDING ON IT – ascending and descending the stairway. AND, BEHOLD, THE L-RD STOOD BESIDE HIM (28:13) – I saw the L-rd standing beside the altar (Amos 9:1)” Genesis Rabbah 68:12, Soncino Press Edition

Baal HaTurim, R’ Yaakov ben Asher, builds upon this idea,

“The gematria of והנה סלם “And behold! A ladder” is equivalent to the gematria of the phrase זה מזבח העולה “This refers to the Altar of the Olah-offering“; the letters of והנה מלאכי, “And behold! angels”, can be rearranged to spell אלו הכהנים, “these are the Kohanim”, for it is they who ascend and descend the ramp of the Altar. . .” Baal HaTurim on Genesis 28:12, Mesorah Publications, ltd. pg. 251

Interestingly, it is also linked to the dream of Nebuchadnezzar and the Four Kingdoms. Each kingdom shall rise and fall, explains the Midrash, but Yaakov-Israel will ascend but not descend. Baal HaTurim writes,

“The gematria of סלם is equal to that of the phrase, זה כסא הכבוד, “this refers to the throne of glory.” Baal HaTurim on Genesis 28:12, Mesorah Publications, ltd. pg. 251


The text of Genesis 28 in Hebrew with ‘bo’ (upon him/it) circled, followed by the English of Genesis Rabbah 68:12. Click for higher resolution.

In English, the Torah seems straightforward and simple. However, in Hebrew, using Jewish principles of interpretation, an entire web of hidden connections begins to emerge. Consider the following example,

”R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Jannai disagreed. One maintained: They were ASCENDING AND DESCENDING the ladder; while the other said: they were ASCENDING AND DESCENDING on Jacob.” Genesis Rabbah 68:12, Soncino Press Edition

To an English speaker, the text of Genesis is clear, the angels were ascending and descending upon the Ladder, not Jacob. In Hebrew, however, the situation is more complex. The passage says that the angels were ascending and descending “BO.” The word ‘bo’ here literally means ‘on him.’ In English and Greek, there is a neuter gender. For example, the word “table” is neither masculine nor feminine. In other languages, like Spanish, the word “table” would be feminine, i.e “la mesa, (literally, the table).” Hebrew is like Spanish in this regard. The question becomes, if the text means ‘on him’ who is the word ‘him’ referring to? By the context, it would be Jacob. The Malbim says,

 “According to the Midrash, this ladder had four rungs. . . Yaakov drew divine energy down through all four hierarchical channels of the upper realms, known in Kabbalah as the worlds of Atzilus (Emanations), Beriyah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation), and Asiyah (Action). With this explanation in mind, an obscure Midrash suddenly becomes clear. The Midrash says that the “angels from G-d were going up and down,” not “upon it” (Hebrew having no gender-neutral pronoun) but “upon him,” on Yaakov himself. Yaakov, through his deeds, regulates the Divine flow from above, the angels go up and down on him, by him and for him. He is the ladder.” The Essential Malbim, Parashas Vayeitzei, Mesorah Publishing, ltd., pgs. 229-230

Jacob in Jewish mysticism refers to the Sefirah Tiferet, which is the heart of Zeir Anpin, the Holy Son. One Midrash says,

“…there were twelve steps leading to the top of the ladder, and on each step to the top there were two human faces, one on the right and on the left, twenty-four faces…Jacob not only saw the ladder and the angels, but when he peered up to the top of the ladder he saw the face of a man, carved out of fire, peering down at him. So too did Jacob see G-d fashioning the heavenly Temple with his own hands out of jewels and pearls and the radiance of the Shekhinah. . . .Then Jacob peered into the highest heaven and saw G-d’s throne. He saw that there was a face carved into the throne, and that face that Jacob saw there was his own…” Tree of Souls, Howard Schwartz, Oxford University Press, pg. 358

As Jacob ascended the ladder, his image became transformed. He became the earthly reflection of the heavenly reality.


The Zohar connects the Ladder of Jacob to Metatron,

וְכֹלָּא חָמָא. חָמָא מַטט-רון, סָבָא דְבֵיתָא, דְּשַׁלִּיט בְּכָל דִּילֵיהּ. דְּאִיהוּ קָאי בְּשָׁלְטָנוֹ עַל עַלְמָא. בְּשׁוּלְטָנוֹ בְּשֵׁם שד”י. וְסָלֵיק לְעֵילָא, בִּסְלִיקוּ דִשְׁמָא דְּמָרֵיהּ הוי”ה, אֲתַר דְּיַעֲקֹב אִשְׁתַּלֵים בֵּיהּ לְבָתָר. וְרֹאשׁוֹ, דְּשֵׁם שַׁדַּי, אִיהוּ י’, וְדָא מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה. כֵּיוָן דְּמָטֵי וְסָלֵיק אָת דָּא, לְהַהוּא אֲתַר, אִשְׁתְּלֵים וְאִתְקְרֵי בְּהַהוּא שְׁמָא דְּמָארֵיהּ הוי”ה

“JACOB saw all this IN HIS DREAM. He saw THE ANGEL Metat-ron, the elder in the house OF THE HOLY ONE, BLESSED BE HE, ruling over what is His and governing the world by THE STRENGTH OF his mastery of the name Sha-dai. He rises above with the ascension of his Master’s name, Yud Hei Vav Hei, which is the place in which Jacob was perfected. Afterward, the beginning of the name Sha-dai, which is the letter Yud, reaches heaven. After this letter rises to this place, NAMELY, TO HEAVEN, THE ANGEL METAT-RON is perfected and is given his Master’s name, Yud Kei Vav Kei.” Zohar, Vayetze, [4]

The Zohar continues,

ּוֹסָלְקֵי וְנָחֲתֵי, כַּד אִיהוּ סָלֵיק, סָלְקִין בַּהֲדֵיהּ, כַּד נָחֵית, נָחֲתִין בַּהֲדֵיהּ. מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹקים, תְּרֵיסַר מַרְגְּלִיטָאן טָבָאן, וְאִינוּן: מִיכָאֵל קדמיאל, פדא”ל, גבריא”ל, צדקיא”ל, חסדיא”ל, רפא”ל, רזיא”ל, סטורי”ה, נוריא”ל. יפיא”ל, ענא”ל, אַלְפֵי שִׁנְאָן, שִׁנְאָ”ן: שׁוֹ”ר, נֶשֶׁ”ר, אַרְיֵ”ה, ן’ אָדָם כָּלֵיל דְּכַר וְנוּקְבָא. וְאִינוּן סָלְקֵי, כַּד אִיהוּ סָלֵיק, וְאִלֵּין נַחֲתֵי, כַּד אִיהוּ נָחֵית

“Moreover, through him, THE ANGEL METAT-RON, they ascend and descend. When he rises, THE ANGELS OF ELOKIM rise with him, and when he descends, THE ANGELS OF ELOKIM go down with him. These angels are the twelve precious pearls, known as Michael, Kadmiel, Pedael, Gabriel, Tzadkiel, Chasdiel, Raphael, Raziel, S’turiy-h, Nuriel, Yofiel, and Anael. They are “thousands upon thousands (Heb. Shin’an)” (Tehilim 68:18). They are the letters Shin’an (Shin, Nun, Aleph, final Nun) which consist of the initials of an ox (shor), an eagle (nesher), and a lion (aryeh); the final Nun alludes to a man who includes male and female. They rise when METATRON rises, and descend when he descends.” Zohar, Vayetze, [5]

And in a stunning statement, identifies Metatron as the ‘Gate’,

כָּל אִינוּן דְּשָׁלְטֵי בְּשָׁלְטָנוֹ דְּהַאי עַלְמָא, עַל יְדֵיהּ סָלְקִין, וְכָל אִינוּן דְּנָחֲתֵי עַל יְדֵיהּ נָחֲתֵי, כֻּלְּהוּ בְּהַאי סֻלָּם. הוי”ה שָׁלְטָא עַל כֹּלָּא, דִּכְתִיב וְהִנֵּה ה’ נִצָּב עָלָיו. כַּד אִתְעַר, כְּתִיב, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם. בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וַדַּאי. וְאִיהוּ תַּרְעָא לְאָעֳלָא לְגוֹ, דִּכְתִיב פִּתְחוּ לִי שַׁעֲרֵי צֶדֶק אָבֹא בָם אוֹדֶה יָהּ. זֶה הַשַּׁעַר לַה’. זֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמַיִם כֹּלָּא חַד.  עַד כָּאן סִתְרֵי תּוֹרָה

“And moreover, those who dominate in this world do so through him, METATRON. And those who are prevented from ruling fall through him. They all are dependent on this ladder,

METATRON. Yud Hei Vav Hei dominates them all. As it is written, “And, behold, Hashem stood above it.” When he awoke, it is written, “this is no other than the house of Elokim, and this is the gate of heaven.” Assuredly, METATRON is the House of Elokim, the gate through which one passes to come within, as it is written, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, I will go in to them, and I will praise Kah (Yud-Hei)”‘ (Tehillim 118:19). And “this is the gate to Hashem (Yud Hei Vav Hei)”‘ (Tehillim 118:20) is the gate of heaven. And all is one, which means that the gates of righteousness, the gate of Hashem and the gate of heaven are one, and that one is Metat-ron. End of Sitrei Torah (Secrets of the Torah).” Zohar, Vayetze, [6]

Yeshua identifies himself as the Door or Gate in the book of John,

“I am the Door. If anyone enters in by me, he will be saved, and will go in and go out, and will find pasture.” John 10:9

Mashiach ben Yosef

According to the Kol HaTor, the ladder links to Mashiach ben Yosef,

 “A ladder was set on the Land and its top reached to Heaven” (Gen.  28:12) – This is a quality of Yosef as known.” Kol HaTor 2:97, Translated by R’ Yechiel bar Lev

Yeshua reveals the secret of the word ‘BO’, on him, that is hidden in Genesis. He identifies the word “him” as referring to himself!

“He said to him, “Amein, I tell you, hereafter you will see heaven opened, and the angels of G-d ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1:51

It is Yeshua who is the Gate, the Conduit, the Ladder, the Connection between Heaven and Earth, the Link between Infinite Light and Finite Matter.

The Tzaddik

R’ Yossi Goldman tells a story,

“When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: “If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?” The class thought it was a pretty dumb question — until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.”, A Ladder to Heaven, R’ Yossy Goldman [7]

In our world, when we think of a tzaddik, a righteous person, sometimes translated as ‘saint’, we think of a spiritual superhero of sorts who never makes any mistakes. Then we contrast this with our own lives, which are seemingly riddled with failures and sin. Incredibly, the Bible defines a tzaddik as the nearly exact opposite of what modern society would have us believe,

כִּי שֶׁבַע יִפֹּול צַדִּיק וָקָם

“…for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises up again.” Proverbs 24:17

R’ Shraga Simmons says,

“The Tzaddik falls seven times and gets up.” The definition of a Tzaddik is not someone who never makes a mistake, but rather someone who, although he may fail, does not give up . . .” R’ Shraga Simmons, Make the Omer Count, [8]

He continues,

“In Jacob’s famous dream, G-d shows him a vision of a ladder reaching toward heaven. Spiritual growth, like climbing a ladder, must be one step at a time . . . spiritual growth is “two steps forward and one step back.” We will inevitably have setbacks. What's important is that we’re heading in the right direction.” R’ Shraga Simmons, Make the Omer Count, [9]

Angels need the Ladder because ascending to heaven happens one step at a time. We need the Ladder too.

The Golden Dove

R’ Yitzhak Breiter, in his incredible work, The Seven Pillars of Faith, writes that through the Soul of the Messiah, the Ultimate Tzaddik, “all devotions rise up to Heaven.” He writes that the Tzaddik reveals prayer, as he is the embodiment of prayer,

“He reveals prayer, as it is written: “And I am prayer” (Psalms 109:4).” R’ Yitzhak Breiter, Seven Pillars of Faith, Seventh Pillar: The Tzaddik, [10]

As the Zohar says, the Ladder is “prayer” which is the connection between Heaven and Earth.  This is illustrated by a story of the Besht,

“The Baal Shem Tov was once praying with his Hasidim. That day he prayed with great concentration, not only word by word, but letter by letter, so that the others finished long before he did. At first they waited for him, but before long, they lost patience and one by one they left. Later the Baal Shem Tov came to them and said: “While I was praying, I ascended the ladder of your prayers all the way into Paradise. As I ascended, I heard a song of indescribable beauty. At last I reached the palace of the Messiah, in the highest heavens, known as the Bird’s Nest. The Messiah was standing by his window peering out at a tree of great beauty… I followed his gaze and saw that his eyes were fixed on a golden dove, whose nest was in the top branches of that tree. That is when I realized that the song pervading all of Paradise was coming from that golden dove. And I understood that the Messiah could not bear to be without that dove and its song for as much as a moment. Then it occurred to me that if I could capture the dove, and bring it back to this world, the Messiah would be sure to follow. So I ascended higher, until I was within arm’s reach of the golden dove. But just as I reached for it, the ladder of prayers collapsed.” Tree of Souls, The Ladder of Prayers, Howard Schwartz, Oxford University Press, pg. 490



  1. Tikkunei Zohar 43, cited at Vayeitze: Parsha in Depth,

  2. Rashi on Genesis 28:11, cited at Vayeitze: Parsha in Depth,

  3. Yalqut Shimoni Vayetze, Remez 117, Cited at

  4. Zohar, Vayetze,

  5. Zohar, Vayetze,

  6. Zohar, Vayetze,

  7. R’ Yossy Goldman, A Ladder to Heaven,

  8. R’ Shraga Simmons, Make the Omer Count,

  9. R’ Shraga Simmons, Make the Omer Count,

  10. R’ Yitzhak Breiter, The Seventh Pillar: The Tzaddik

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