Magic Stones (Vayetze)

640px-callanish-circleJacob sets out from Beersheva towards Charan. He encounters a place, and sleeps there, because the sun has set. He takes from the stones of the place, puts it by his head, lies down in the place and dreams (Gen 28:10-12).

He wakes and says, “Wow! God is in this place and I, I did not know! How awesome is this place! This is the house of God! This is the gateway to heaven!” In the morning, he gets up early, takes the stone he put by his head, sets it as a pillar, and pours oil on its top (Gen 28:16-18).

What kind of stone is this? Is it simply a stone Jacob found at ha-makom, the place? Or is it a stone from HaMakom, the Omnipresent God? Could it be a stone Jacob brought with him, perhaps a family keepsake, a gift from his father? Could this be implied in the Hebrew word for stone, aven, a combination of the words av, father, and ben, son?

What does Jacob do with this stone? Place it under his head as pillow? Or by his forehead as an anti-homesickness keepsake? As a dream-stimulating energy source?

What shape is this stone? A pebble, a round rock, or a tall, narrow standing stone? Has Jacob come upon an ancient sacred circle of stones – a makom dedicated to HaMakom? Does Jacob lay a standing stone flat for sleep, and tip it back up for a monument? Does he anoint it with oil stored at the sacred site, enacting a customary pilgrim’s ritual of gratitude?

Today, I am wearing my medieval Jewish commentator hat. In a way, we’ve inspired modern historical Biblical criticism – and in a way we haven’t. We don’t doubt accounts of miracles. We just want to know exactly how they happened!

Image: Callanish, Scotland. Insights: Thanks to students Stacy Grove, Alan Levin, and Kirstin Autio.

For more reflections on Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3), click here.


  1. Or perhaps he did nothing at all and there was nothing special about the spot or the stone? In fact, he says, “God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” There was nothing special about the place to him and nothing special about the stone, otherwise he might have anticipated a “vision.” We would expect angels to be descending the ladder (from Heaven), then ascending. But in his dream, he sees them ascending first, then descending! On waking, he realized that he’d been given a deep spiritual insight: Angels are messengers, and God’s angels “descend” in response to the thoughts and actions that we “send up.” God’s response starts with us! Jacob is further surprised that such teaching came to him outside the home of Isaac — his father and teacher. God’s responsiveness, Jacob realized, was with him wherever he was.

    1. A wonderful teaching, Rabbi Eli! A focus on something that could happen to any of us, any time.

  2. Did you ever try to sleep with a stone for a pillow? Our patriarchs had strong heads!

  3. A good reminder that God is with us, we just have to be open.

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