Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

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Parashat Vayetse--5758 (1997)

The Meaning of Jacob's Dream

Rabbai Jacob Charlap

Department of Talmud

"He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him [or 'upon it']" (Gen. 28:12-13).

The vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending it has been discussed at length by commentators in an attempt to understand its significance. Among the questions asked are: What was the purpose of the dream? To whom does "angels of God" refer? What does "going up and down" signify? Was "the Lord standing beside Jacob, or upon the ladder?

A well-known interpretation is that of the Tanhumah (Va-Yetze, 2), which views the ladder as signifying the history of mankind, its rungs representing the kingdoms that ruled the earth, one succeeding another.

Another interpretation is found in Genesis Rabbah (68,12 [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, II, p.627] ) and cited by Rashi, namely, that the ladder stood on the boundary between the Land of Israel and the Diaspora: "The angels who escorted him in the Land of Israel do not leave the Land but ascend to Heaven, and angels whose domain is outside of Israel descend to accompany him [further]."

A different viewpoint interprets Jacob's ladder as the ascendancy to spiritual elevation. We shall focus on two other interpretations in this vein, one by Maimonides, and the other, a mystic approach taken by some kabbalists, hassidim and other commentators.


According to Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, I.15),[1] the purpose of the ladder is to explain the relationship between two realities, between existence on earth and existence in the "world of heavenly spheres," both of which are set in motion by God. Jacob sees "angels of God" on the ladder. Those "going up and down on it" are the prophets who, from studying the ladder--the connection between the two worlds, i.e., God's providence--are elevated to a higher, heavenly level of understanding. That is why it says "going up and down"; first they ascend and become inspired, then they descend and transmit the understanding they acquired to the world. In addition, "God stands on it," e.g., on the "ladder"; this means God is there constantly, as the Prime Mover, the Cause that governs and is providence over all. According to Maimonides, the dream is a representation of the two worlds, and Jacob, as the person who contemplates the ladder, e.g., the connection between the worlds, attains an understanding of God and of His ways in our world. In the words of Maimonides(Guide, I.15, trans. S. Pines, Chicago, 1963, p.41):

"And, behold, the Lord stood erect on it," that is, was stably and constantly up on it--I mean upon the ladder, one end of which is in heaven, while the other end is upon the earth. Everyone who ascends does so climbing up this ladder, so that he necessarily apprehends Him who is upon it, as He is stably and permanently at the top of the ladder. It is clear that what I say here of Him conforms to the parable propounded. For "the angels of God" are the prophets with reference to whom it is clearly said: "And He sent an angel"(Nu.20:16)... How well put is the phrase "ascending and descending," in which "ascent" comes before "descent." For after the "ascent" and the attaining of certain rungs of the ladder that may be known comes the descent with whatever decree the prophet has been informed of--with a view to governing and teaching the people of the earth.

Moreover, he wrote (Guide, II.38), "Therefore one ought not to pay attention to one whose rational faculty has not become perfect and who has not attained the ultimate term of speculative perfection. For only one who achieves speculative perfection is able to apprehend other objects of knowledge when there is an overflow of the divine intellect toward him. It is he who is in true reality a prophet. This is explicitly stated: 'And the prophet [possesseth] a heart of wisdom(Ps.90:12).' It says here that one who is a prophet in true reality has 'a heart of wisdom.'"

Thus, the dream teaches Man to attain an understanding of the Deity and to reach the level of prophecy.

A different interpretation of the ladder follows from the commentaries of the great hassidic leader R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Hayyim of Volozhin, a disciple of the Vilna Gaon. According to their approaches, the ladder symbolized the stages by which a person ascends in spirituality. The ladder has "angels of God going up and down on it", because the entire universe, including the angels, ascends and descends along the rungs by which human beings ascend and descend, and in their wake. That is to say, everything depends on human deeds, ascending as mankind ascends, and descending as mankind descends. As R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady wrote in Likkutei Torah (Numbers, Naso 2):

Therefore, one must begin from the bottom and work upwards in prayer, which is a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching towards heaven, until it reaches the One. Thereby the angels of god ascend and descend (olim ve-yordim) bo--in man. For man is the root of all; as it is written, "Each of the four had the face of a lion on the right; ... of an ox on the left,"(Ez.1:10) but "each of them had a human face,"(ibid.) so in all they were like human beings comprised of all four creatures, all of them becoming spiritually elevated as the human soul is elevated through its adherence to the Living God...[2]

Likewise, in Nefesh Ha-Hayyim (I.19), R. Hayyim of Volozhin interpreted an idea of the Zohar as follows:

Regarding the vision of the ladder "set on the ground," ... note that it does not say "set in the ground (baaretz), but towards the ground (artzah), to signify that its principal anchoring is in the heavens above, and from there it devolves downward, until it reaches the earth. This signifies the Neshamah in man... From there it descends like a ladder and chain, joining with the spirit (Ruah), then with the soul (Nefesh), until it finally comes down to this world and into the body of man. Divine angels go up and down it, as we said above, along its length which is the living soul of the worlds, the forces and the angels of the upper spheres, whose entire ascent and descent, indeed all their actions at every moment, depend solely on the inclination of the deeds, speech, and thoughts that are in the body of man at every moment. (As for what is written, 'ascending first, then descending', the entire thrust of human life is first to elevate the entire world from below to above, and after that, heavenly lights are drawn from above downwards.)

According to these interpretations, the dream teaches us Man's centrality in the universe, his responsibility to all God's creatures, and the total dependence of everything, including celestial beings, on humans and their deeds. Although R. Schneur Zalman of Lyady and R. Hayyim of Volozhin represent different schools of Jewish thought, both were influenced by mysticism and both indicate that they viewed human beings as superior even to the angels.


This approach is a matter of dispute among the classic Jewish philosophers and exegetes. Some commentators follow the ideas set forth in various sayings of the Sages, that the world was created for man, and that human beings are the focal point of creation. Others take issue with this approach and do not see man as the ultimate in Creation. Both of these approaches are reflected by Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Exodus 23:20: "I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way..."

I send my critique against the Gaon who was so arrogant as to say that human beings are more noble than the angels of God and that they were created for the sake of man, ... But Scriptures say 'Man is like a breath' (Ps. 144:4), 'Men are mere breath' (Ps. 62:10). If the angels were created for man, why are they lasting and man not? ... and given that man is but empty breath and delusion, then are we to conclude that the angels were created for such nought? -- such 'wickedness' is far from God'...[3]

Maimonides takes a similar approach to Ibn Ezra, as we see in HilkhotYesodei ha-Torah (4.12):

When Man contemplates concerning these things, and perceives all creatures, from angels to spheres to humans, and discovers the wisdom of the Holy One, blessed be He, in all beings and things that He created, ... he is seized by awe and and fear because of his own baseness, shortcomings and levity when measured against any of the great and holy bodies, and all the more so, against one of the pure forms that were never material. He then will find himself likened to a vessel full of shame and disgrace, empty and wanting.

Likewise in Guide of the Perplexed (III.13):

For this reason, to my mind, the correct view according to the beliefs of the Law ... is as follows: It should not be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else... Just as He willed that the human species should come to exist, He also has willed that the spheres and their stars should come to exist; and He also has willed that the angels should come to exist. In respect to every being He intended that being itself...[4]

The other view, that man is the quintessential creature, also finds expression in the works of one of the greatest kabbalists, R. Meir ben Gabbai. In Avodat Ha-kodesh (Part 3, "The End Purpose," chs. 3-10) he wrote:

All that philosophers might deduce about human inferiority and deficiency, and his low standing in relation to the spheres and the stars, and all the more so with respect to the angels, will be correct for them and such is truly their lot, for they have not been illumined by the light of the Torah, whose radiance elevates those who accept it above all other creatures, heavenly and earthly... And this, in our opinion, is the strength of those who believe that the heavenly creatures were made for the sake of the earthly, ... for he who chooses this and believes in it, will believe that the heavenly orders can change since they are created beings and their changing depends on the will of their Creator who entrusted this into the hands of those who keep His Law and perform His will...

The Maharal of Prague also takes this approach (see ch. 4 of his book, Tiferet Yisrael): "The second part is man ... who is in his own right not included in a class with other beings, since everything was created for man. Man reigns, bringing to perfection all earthly beings, for all were created to serve and assist man."

In other words, man is the object of creation, and the perfection of all beings depends on his deeds. Further, Maharal believes that not only earthly beings are dependent on man, but also heavenly forces, as we read in ch. 12:

This is understood from Scriptures (Ps. 91:11): "For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go." Who is greater, the one who guards or the one who is guarded? (Gen. Rabbah 78:1; Yalkut Shimoni 1.133)... Thus the knowledge of the Torah, which is the perfection of Man, the most important and quintessential being, in that he is in the image of God ... as if man is the Image for other creatures... If our Sages had not wished to say that man is more dear than the entire world, even than the angels, they need not have said that man is dear (haviv), for it is clear that man is more dear than all the animals; rather, they wished thereby to say that, insofar as man is in the image of God, he is even more dear than the angels...[5]

In the light of these two points of view, we can now understand the differences between the two interpretations presented at the outset. Given Maimonides' view in Guide of the Perplexed, that man is not the center of the universe, but that everything including man was created and given its own particular role, one could not explain Jacob's dream as signifying that the entire universe depends on the actions of man, as the other commentators did. For, according to their approach, Jacob's dream lends expression to man's centrality, even his superiority, everything depending on him. However, in all the views which we presented here, the role of man is to strive constantly for greater heights, step by step, as understood by R. Schneur Zalman of Lyady, based on Zechariah 3:7, "I will permit you to move about among these attendants": "Man is referred to as moving about, not standing as an attendant, indicating that man must progress from rung to rung, and not stand on the same rung forever" (Tanya, Likkutei Amarim, Part 2, Hinnukh Katan).


[1] Also see the introduction to Guide for the Perplexed, s.v. Omnam dimyon, and ibid., Part II, 10, where this subject is explained in a variety of ways.

[2] A similar view was expounded by his teacher, R. Dov Baer of Mezhirech, in the book, Maggid Devarav le-Yaakov, 79.

[3] Cf. also Ibn Ezra's commentary on Gen. 1:1: "Give no heed to the words of the Gaon that man is nobler than the angels..." On the identity of the "Gaon," (possibly R. Saadiah Gaon), see Karnei Or commentary, 14.

[4] Cf. Maimonides' views in his preface to the Mishnah, indicating that man is the ultimate purpose of the universe.

[5] Cf. also what Maharal has to say in Gevurot Hashem, chs. 66-69.

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