Shachris: The Four Ladder Movement, Upward and Inward

Prayer is likened to the ladder in the dream of Yaakov. As the Book of Genesis relates (28:12), in his dream, Yaakov saw “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven.”

The Hebrew word for “ladder”—sulam—is comprised of three Hebrew letters totaling 130: samach equaling 60; lamed equaling 30; and mem equaling 40. This is the same numerical value as that of the word Sinai: samach equaling 60; yud equaling 10; nun equaling 50; and yud equaling 10. This implies that the peak or ultimate experience of prayer is mystical union with God, such as the Jewish people achieved at Mt. Sinai.

If the word sulam is spelled with an additional letter vav (equaling 6), its numerical value is 136, which is the same as kol meaning “voice.” This suggests that the means of travel on the ladder of prayer is through the vocalization of our prayers. We need to include all levels of our being on this inner journey of prayer, most importantly our humanness, which is distinguished by our ability to speak, an ability not shared by any other creatures.

On Rosh Hashanah, there are many additional prayers and the prayer service is much longer than on Shabbat or other holidays, so clearly the verbalization of these prayers is very important.

It is no accident that Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the first human being—Adam. Describing the creation of Adam, the Torah says: “And He [God] blew into his nostrils nishmat chayim,” a phrase which can be translated as “breath of life” or “a speaking soul.” Our capacity to communicate and structurally verbalize our feelings or thoughts is fundamentally a human ability, and thus expresses our humanness. Speech is our means to communicate and it allows us to build our civilization; additionally, our individual humanness is expressed in our distinctive voice—as unique to each person as a fingerprint.

And so, on Rosh Hashanah we go about verbalizing holy words of prayer and demonstrate our uniqueness as human beings—and what better way to do so than by using the highest form of speech we know.

Four Stages of Prayer

The Midrash Tanchuma says that there were four steps to Yaakov’s ladder, and the Zohar teaches that these four rugs parallel the four main stages of morning prayer, beginning with earthly reality and slowly moving upward and inward to a higher, deeper level of connection and unity with God. At the outset of prayer, we begin by standing on the first rung, and through the course of the prayer service, we climb the ladder toward spiritual perfection and elevation.

The four stages of morning prayer are as follows:

  1. Morning Blessings (Birchat Hashchar), which reflect the dawn of our awareness.
  2. Verses of Praise (Pesukei DeZimrah), which cut away any negativity and awaken our emotions.
  3. Reading of the Shema (Keriat Shema), which internalizes our emotions.
  4. The Silent Standing Prayer (Amidah, also known as the Shemonei Esrei), which is a deep encounter with the Divine in a quiet space of union, ultimately reaching a place of oneness.

The stages of prayer parallel the worlds of creation as well as the levels of our soul:

  1. the world of action (asiyah) and the soul level of physical/functional consciousness (nefesh)
  2. the world of formation (yetzirah) and the soul level of emotional consciousness (ruach)
  3. the world of creation/context (beriah) and the soul level of intellectual/cognitive ability (neshamah)
  4. the world of unity (atzilut) and the soul level of transcendental consciousness (chayah), which is reflected as our inner most deepest will and desire.
Rung of Ladder Prayer World Soul
#4 The Silent/Standing Prayer Atzilut
World of Unity
Transcendental Consciousness
#3 Recitation of the Shema Beriah
World of Creation
Intellectual Ability
#2 Verses of Praise Yetzirah
World of Formation
Emotional Cosnciousness
#1 Morning Blessings Asiyah
World of Action
Physical Consciousness

As we climb the four levels of prayer upward and inward, we come more in touch with our deeper levels of soul, and they become our internal reality.


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