Angels are supernatural beings who perform various functions at God’s behest. The Hebrew word malakh comes from a root meaning “to send” and is used both in the ordinary sense of a messenger and in the sense of an angel “sent” by God. (The English word “angel” is derived from the Greek angelos with the same meaning of messenger.) In Genesis 32:2, Jacob meets the angels of God (malakhey elohim) but in verse 4 he sends messengers (malakhim) to his brother Esau, though in a Midrashic fancy it is the angels mentioned in verse 2 that Jacob sends to Esau.
Angels in the Bible
References to angels are found throughout the Bible but with the exception of Gabriel (Daniel 8:16; 9:21) and Michael (Daniel 13; 12:1) in the late book of Daniel, the angels in the Bible have no name. When Manoah asks the angel to tell him his name, the angel replies that it is secret (Judges 13:17-18). The interesting observation is found in the Talmud that, in fact, the names of the angels came into the possession of the Jews from Babylon. The word el appended to an angel’s name means God; thus Gabriel (from gevurah, “power”) means “power from God.”
In the later Jewish tradition the angel Michael is the angel of mercy; Gabriel the angel of justice; Raphael the angel of healing; and Uriel the angel of illumination. In the prayer before going to sleep the words occur: “In the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; Uriel before me; Raphael behind me; and the Shekhinah of God be above my head.”
Angels in Rabbinic Literature
As in the Bible, there are numerous references to angels in the rabbinic literature. But there is not a single reference to angels in the Mishnah, although it is hard to tell whether this silence is simply because the Mishnah had no cause to refer to angels or whether, as some scholars think, the editor of the Mishnah wishes to discourage belief in angels.
Angels are never the objects of worship. This is severely condemned by the rabbis as idolatry. The Palestinian Talmud remarks that there is no need for Jews to pray to God through the mediation of the angels, but in the Babylonian Talmud it is implied that one of the angelic functions is to bring the prayers of Israel to the throne of God. Some later rabbis disapproved of the few passages in the liturgy in which angels are invoked, but others defended these prayers on the grounds that the angels are only entreated to be the messengers of Israel as they are the messengers of God.
A device found in a number of Talmudic passages is to place apparent moral objections to God’s conduct of the world into the mouths of the ministering angels, as if to say that these objections seem to be weighty and have spiritual force, although eventually, God provides the answer. Good men are said to be higher in rank than the angels. The angels are not allowed to sing their praises of God on high until Israel has done so on earth.
Philosophers, Kabbalists and Modern Jews
The medieval thinkers, though, believing in the existence of angels as found in the Bible and the rabbinic literature, tend to interpret the whole subject of angelology in a highly spiritual and more or less rationalistic manner. According to Maimonides, angels are creatures possessing form without matter. They are pure spirits differentiated from one another not by any bodily distinctions but solely by spiritual form and purpose.
For Maimonides, the angels are only seen in the Bible as creatures of fire and human form with wings as a feature of the prophetic vision. Wherever it is said in the Bible that angels appear to men in human guise, the meaning is that they so appear in a dream, which leads Maimonides, to the consternation of Nahmanides and others, to explain away some biblical passages as relating not actual events but dreams. Jacob did not really wrestle with the angel (Genesis 32:25-30 ), but only dreamed that he did so. Other commentators take the biblical passages literally, accepting that the angels actually become men when they appear on earth.
The Zohar adopts a compromise position. For the Zohar the angels are pure spirits and in their natural form they cannot appear in the natural world, for the world could not contain them if they did. They are obliged to assume the garments, as the Zohar puts it, of this world.
The Kabbalah as a whole is full of references to angels and in the practical Kabbalah names of angels are used in amulets. Interestingly, Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 1:49) quotes a Midrashic comment on the words (Genesis 3:24): “the flaming sword that turns every way” which suggests that this refers to the angels who change constantly, sometimes appearing as men, at other times as women.
In one passage in the Talmud it is said that angels accompany a man wherever he goes except when he goes to relieve himself. Before a man enters the privy he should address a special apology to the angels for his having to take leave of them.
Among many modern Jews, belief in the existence of angels is very peripheral. Even when those parts of the liturgy referring to angels are still maintained, they are understood more as sublime poetry than as theological statements. However, there are comparatively few outright denials of the actual existence of angels and some Jews, even today, look upon belief in angels as an important part of the religious life.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Pronounced: kah-bah-LAH, sometimes kuh-BAHL-uh, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish mysticism.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronounced: ZOE-har, Origin: Aramaic, a Torah commentary and foundational text of Jewish mysticism.