Va-yetse

He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. – Genesis 28:12

Having secured Isaac’s blessing, Jacob begins his journey toward mature adulthood and a new identity as Israel. In order to confirm his selection as the sole inheritor of God’s covenant with his immediate forbearers and claim the mantle of patriarch, like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob must physically leave home. He sets out for the home of his maternal uncle as instructed by his father where he will marry. En route, he spends the night in a seemingly ordinary place. While asleep on the open ground, he has an extraordinary dream in which God appears and speaks.

The central image in Jacob’s dream is the sullam (“ladder” or alternately, “stairway” or “ramp”) reaching from the earth to the sky. In his commentary on Genesis, Nahum Sarna observes that Jacob’s ladder was likely inspired by “the ladder of ascent to heaven known from Egyptian and Hittite sources, in which both divinities and souls of the dead are provided with ladders to enable them to ascend from the netherworld.” It might also be based on the external stairway of the Babylonian ziggurat, most familiar as the biblical Tower of Babel.

Jacob’s ladder has inspired artists of all kinds for centuries. Ladder shapes rich in religious meaning are found in Jewish and Christian baking traditions, too. The custom among Jews of crowning round challah with a ladder formed from the same dough was widespread in Europe with regional variations. Hungarian Jews, for instance, prepared it for Rosh Hashanah with the hope that their prayers would ascend to heaven or in recognition that prospects for success in the new year could go up or down. In Ukraine, this special challah was baked for Shavuot. The ladder, with five or seven rungs, represents Moses’ ascent to Mt. Sinai based on the gematria or numeric equivalence of sullam and Sinai. The rungs represent the five books of the Torah and the number of spheres that God descended to meet Moses or the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, respectively.

Examples of Christian ladder breads include Austrian himmelsleiter (“Jabob’s Ladder”) and French fougasse, a close relation to focaccia, traditionally served as one 13 desserts at Christmas dinner in Provence. Bread shaped to resemble a ladder is among a number of breads placed by some Italian Catholics on St. Joseph’s altars. Rural Russians, Latvians, and Lithuanians placed a bread ladder in the grave at a funeral to help the deceased person’s soul to ascend.

What do you know about the inspiration and traditions of using ladders and other symbolic shapes in baking in your family and community? What can we learn from each other?

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