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Every Man’s Ladder

by Rabbi Myer Kripke

Our Sidrah includes the famous story of Jacob and the ladder reaching into the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. Involved, of course, is the religious insistence that man can be in touch with God.

The Midrash turned to something else. By an ingenious, anachronistic word play, the rabbis saw the introduction to the story implying a religious setting. The opening words mean little more than “He came upon a place.” But in their word play the rabbis read it as though it said: “Jacob prayed to God.”

And from here, the Midrash goes off into a delightfully anachronistic insistence that the three statutory prayer services of the day, Shaharit, Minhah, and Maariv, go back to the very beginning of Judaism. Historically speaking there is, of course, no basis for this. But the rabbis were not impeded by their lack of historical sense; they were bent on making a point: The required daily services inhere in the very structure of Judaism, and they were present from the very beginning.

They use well-chosen “proof-texts,” verses taken from the life stories of Abraham and Isaac, to show that Abraham instituted Shaharit, the morning service, and that Isaac instituted Minhah, the afternoon service.

And now, Jacob, in his vision of the ladder and in his “prayer to God,” as the rabbis interpreted the text, instituted Maariv, the evening service.
What is to be noted is that the rabbis could not abide the thought that the Patriarchs had a religious life different from theirs. Just as the Bible insists that the Sabbath is as old as creation, part of the very nature of the universe; and just as the Bible assures us that circumcision begins with Abraham, so, too, the rabbis assure us that the three obligatory services each day came from the very beginning of our ancestry.

There is something of the special nature of religion revealed here: religion tends to be conservative. It accepts innovation slowly, reluctantly. It tends to preserve practices from earlier generations. And even when something is really new, like prayer services, there is a tendency to deny their newness and find their beginnings in ancient times and with ancient worthies.