Rising Up the Ladder of Song

This video is one of hundreds from my virtual library of Master Classes in Jewish Song.

Climb the Ladder of Song at Hadar's Rising Song Intensive on Dec. 22-23, 2021. Options for attending in-person and online. View the schedule and register: hadar.org/programs/rising-song-intensive

The Sulam

(יב) וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹקִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

And [Jacob] dreamt, and there was a sulam standing on the ground, with its head touching the sky, and behold: God’s angels were going up and down.

סֻלָּם (pl. סֻלָּמוֹת, also סֻלָּמִים) ladder (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Gen. 28:12). [Formed from סלל (= to lift up). cp. Arab. sullam (= ladder). Syr. סֶבַּלְתָּא and סֶמַּלְתָּא are Heb. loan words.] Derivative: סלם.

סוּלָּם m. (b. h. סֻלָּם; סָלַל II) 1) ascent, ladder. B. Bath. III, 6, v. מִצְרִי II. Gen. R. s. 68 בו עולים ויורדים בס׳ bo (Gen. XXVIII, 12) , that is, they went up and down the ladder. Ib. סֻלָּם זה סיני sullam (whose numerical value is 110) is Sinai


  • In modern Hebrew, the word sulam means both "ladder" and "musical scale." How does this connection change your understanding of Jacob's dream?

Listen to a parsha playlist for Vayetze, Dreaming Upon the Ladder of Song, on Spotify.

Rising Prayer

From the album Joey's Nigunim,Vol. VII: Songs of Ascent (Rising Song Records, 2019)

יַעֲלֶה תַחֲנוּנֵֽנוּ מֵעֶֽרֶב.

וְיָבֹא שַׁוְעָתֵֽנוּ מִבֹּֽקֶר.

וְיֵרָאֶה רִנּוּנֵֽנוּ עַד עָֽרֶב:

May our prayers rise up from the evening,

and may our cry come from the morning,

and may our song appear till evening.

The Lift of a Nigun

אָמַר: טוֹב לְהָאָדָם לְהַרְגִּיל אֶת עַצְמוֹ שֶׁיּוּכַל לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ עִם אֵיזֶה נִגּוּן כִּי נִגּוּן הוּא דָּבָר גָּדוֹל וְגָבוֹהַּ מְאד מְאד וְיֵשׁ לוֹ כּחַ גָּדוֹל לְעוֹרֵר וּלְהַמְשִׁיךְ אֶת לֵב הָאָדָם לְהַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וַאֲפִלּוּ מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְנַגֵּן, אַף עַל פִּי כֵן בְּבֵיתוֹ וּבֵינוֹ לְבֵין עַצְמוֹ יוּכַל לְהַחֲיוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ בְּאֵיזֶה נִגּוּן כְּפִי שֶׁיּוּכַל לְזַמֵּר אוֹתוֹ כִּי מַעֲלַת הַנִּגּוּן אֵין לְשַׁעֵר

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said: It’s good for a person to accustom himself to reviving himself with a nigun, because nigun is a powerful and mighty tool, and it has the great strength to awaken a person and point his heart towards the Blessed Name. And even one who doesn’t know how to play music [or sing out loud] can sing to himself and through that revive himself. For the “lift” of a nigun cannot be measured.

Exercise & Question:

  • Music can lift us out of a lowly state. Sing a simple melody a few times. How does this experience of singing change you mentally, physically?

The Ladder of Prayers

The Ba'al 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."

[Found in Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 490. For more about the golden dove, see our other source sheet "Bird Songs and Tree Music for Tu Bishvat and Shabbat Shirah"...]

Nigun as Ladder to the Heavens

ר׳ קלונמוס קלמן שפירא מפיסצ׳נה, צו וזרוז, אות לו

האדם צריך לעשות סֻלמות לעלות על ידיהם לפעמים השמימה, הנגון הוא אחד מהסֻלמות, ובפרט כשמרננים אחר שמחה של מצוה, ובלב נשבר

R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piazetsne (b 1889, Poland), Tzav ve-Zeiruz §36

Sometimes, a person must build ladders to climb to the heavens. A nigun is one of these ladders, specifically when we sing after the joy of a mitzvah, with a heart broken open


  • What do you think it means to “sing after the joy of a mitzvah, with a heart broken open”?
  • Why is that time/state perfect for building ladders to the heavens?

Voice = Ladder

ר׳ יעקב בן אשר, פירוש בעל הטורים על בראשית כח, יב

סולם. בגימטריא קול, שקול תפלת הצדיקים הוא סלם למלאכים לעלות בו.

וכן עלה המלאך בלהב הקרבן והתפלה היא העבודה. לכך כל מי שמתכוין בתפלתו הסלם שלם בשליבותיו ויכולים לעלות בו.

Jacob Ben Asher (b. 1269, Germany), “Commentary of Baal HaTurim,” on Genesis 28:12

“Ladder” (sulam) has the numerical equivalence (gematria) as “voice” (kol), since the sound of the prayers of the righteous is a ladder for angels to ascend.

Similarly, an angel would climb the flame of a sacrifice, and prayer is [today’s] service. Thus, when someone is focused in their prayer, the ladder has a complete set of rungs, and one can climb it.

We Rise

"We rise, humbly hearted
Rise, won’t be divided
Rise, with spirit to guide us

In hope, in prayer, we find ourselves here
In hope, in prayer, we’re right here..."

From the album Karov by Batya Levine (Rising Song Records, 2020)

Climb the Ladder of Song at Hadar's Rising Song Intensive on Dec. 22-23, 2021. Options for attending in-person and online. View the schedule and register: hadar.org/programs/rising-song-intensive