In various translations, that something is called a staircase, a ladder. The problem is, we don't really know what it is. What would angels of G"d require to transport themselves to and from Heaven? Why would they need to do that in the first place? Of course, that's reading too much into the text. It's just a dream, and a a metaphor within it.
According to the Etz Hayim commentary (which is based on the JPS commentary) the angels of G"d "play no role in the dream and probably reflect the notion of angelic beings who patrol the earth and report back to G"d." Well, not to disagree with Mssrs. Sarna, Levine, Milgrom and Tigay, respected scholars all, but, well, I disagree! I don't think the angels in Jacob's dream are at all insignificant. To put it in Freudian terms, I don't think these cigars are cigars at all. To simply toss off these angels and their mode of conveyance as unimportant and irrelevant is a somewhat unusual way to approach the text of Torah - at least as far as our tradition has done. If something is in the Torah, surely there's a reason it's there. So I'm going to explore it.
The word variously translated as staircase or ladder, is sullam--סלּם--samekh, lamed, mem-sofit. And it is what scholars refers to as a hapax legomenon--from the Greek--άπαξ λεγόμευου--[something] said once--a word that occurs only once in the written records of a language, an author's works, or a single text. Sullam appears only once in all of Torah and Tanakh.
It's derivation is uncertain. Some scholars argue that it derives from the Hebrew root samekh, lamed, lamed - meaning "to rise up," which is linked to the Akkadian word sullu, meaning highway. (In turn, scholars argue, the word "selah" is derivative from the same source, and where it is used in the Psalms, probably means a musical direction to raise the voice higher--though we can;t be sure if that means volume or pitch.) Other scholars believe sullam derives from the Akkadian word simmiltu which means steps or stairs.
Why does it matter? Well, what got me started on this was wondering about the difference between a ladder and stairs, and how that might play into what Jacob visualizes in his dream. Stairs are generally easier to negotiate than ladders. Ladders tend to be steeper, and they don't have as much of a resting place for ones feet. One the other hand, stairs (until the invention of the stair railing) are devoid of anything to help the person climbing them pull themselves along with their hands. On a ladder, one almost has to use their hands to assist in climbing both up and down.
And then, in the midst of all my efforts to determine just what this sullam was, I was hit - bam! - (or as some prefer, "duh!") with my answer.
We're not meant to know what this word sullam means. It's a hapax legomenon purposefully. We cannot fully fathom G"d and G"ds ways, so there is no need for us to know what conveyance for the angels Jacob saw in his dream. For purposes of telling the tale, of revealing the dream, we had to give that thing a name. Perhaps sullam doesn't mean anything. Or perhaps a sullam is exactly what it is, it is just something beyond our understanding (or that we are simply not meant to understand.)
OK. That revelation and explanation ought to hold me. For at least a minute or so. And then I am once again urged by that voice of human hubris inside me to say that I just can't live with that as an answer. This Shabbat, I have choices. I can simply accept that I will never know what a sullam is, and why it is in Jacobs dream and why angels of G"d are going up and down upon it. Perhaps that will bring me Shabbat peace. It might also give me Shabbat fits, and the only way I will find Shabbat peace is to not be content with the answer "it is not for you to know." That is another choice. Perhaps this is a third alternative? Maybe that's what I should spend Shabbat contemplating.
May this Shabbat be unique-one of a kind-for you. A Shabbat hapax legomenon--(something) said only once. Well, perhaps more sui generis. No, Shabbat is a word, and G"d did create the universe with words. So *this* Shabbat could indeed be something akin to something said only once. Or maybe just need a nonce for the occasion. How about a Googlewhack Shabbat?
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
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