Angels are supernatural beings that appear widely throughout Jewish literature.
The Hebrew word for angel, mal’ach, means messenger, and the angels in early biblical sources deliver specific information or carry out some particular function. In the Torah, an angel prevents Abraham from slaughtering his son Isaac, appears to Moses in the burning bush and gives direction to the Israelites during the desert sojourn following the liberation from Egypt. In later biblical texts, angels are associated with visions and prophesies and are given proper names.
Later rabbinic and kabbalistic sources expand on the concept of angels even further, describing a broad universe of named angels with particular roles in the spiritual realm.
Angels in the Bible
Angels appear throughout the Bible. In their earliest appearances, they function as bearers of information. In Genesis, an angel appears to Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and informs her that she will bear a son whose descendants will be numerous. A similar encounter happens later with Sarah herself, when three visitors bring the news that she will give birth the following year. When Abraham sets out later to sacrifice that child, his son Isaac, it is an “angel of God” that cries out to him and instructs him not to harm the boy.
Among the most famous stories of angels in the Bible is the encounter between the patriarch Jacob and an angel with whom he wrestles all night. In the morning, when Jacob asks his adversary to identify himself, the angel admonishes him not to ask. Afterwards, Jacob names the place P’niel — literally “face of God.” In explaining this choice, the Torah makes plain that the wrestling adversary was an emissary of God: “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
In the books of the prophets, angels continue to carry out their function as messengers, but they are also associated with visions and prophecies. One particularly detailed account is recorded in the first chapter of Ezekiel. The prophet encounters four creatures (chayot in Hebrew) that resemble human beings, but each has four faces (human, lion, ox and eagle), four wings and their legs are fused into a single leg. A parallel vision is recorded in the 10th chapter, only there the angels are described as cherubs.
Not all the angelic figures in the Bible are identified as such. The three visitors who came to Abraham and Sarah are described in the text as “anashim,” or men, though rabbinic sources indicate they were angels . Likewise, the angel that appeared to Jacob is described merely as “ish,” or man. When biblical angels are asked to identify themselves, they refuse. In the Book of Judges, Manoah, the father of Samson, asks the name of an angel who had prophesied a child for his barren wife. The angel declines, saying his name is unknowable. The Book of Daniel is the first time in the Bible where named angels appear: Gabriel and Michael.
Angels in Early Rabbinic Literature
Rabbinic literature expounds significantly on the nature of angels and their roles in biblical stories. The Midrash identifies Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael as the four chief angels who surround the divine throne, each of whom has particular attributes. The Talmud identifies Michael, Gabriel and Raphael as the three angels who visited Abraham to deliver the news that his wife will bear a son. Though the Bible records that the men ate a meal that Abraham had prepared for them, the rabbis stipulate that the trio only appeared to eat — since, being angels, they are not physical beings, but merely resemble them.
The Midrash includes many fanciful portrayals of angels. According to one source, Michael is made entirely of snow and Gabriel entirely of fire, but despite their proximity they don’t harm one another — a symbol of God’s power to make peace in his lofty heights. Multiple midrashic sources identify Michael as the heavenly defender of Israel at odds with the demon Sama’el. And another Midrash describes a debate among the angels over whether human beings should be created. In this debate, the angel of love is in favor of creating humans, because of the human capacity for expressing love, but the angel of truth disagrees, fearing that humans will be prone to falsehoods. In support of creating humans, God shows the angels examples of righteous people from the Bible, but the angel of earth rebels and denies the angel Gabriel the dust he needs for the creation of people, fearing that humans would wreak devastation on the earth. The angel of Torah argues against human creation too, contending that people should not be created because they will suffer.
The Talmud records a teaching that two ministering angels — one good and one evil — accompany a person home from synagogue on Shabbat evening. If they find the person’s home prepared for Shabbat, the good angel declares: “May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.” And the evil angel answers against his will: “Amen.” If the home is not prepared, the reverse happens: The evil angel voices a wish for it to be this way for another week and the good angel responds “Amen.”
Shalom Aleichem, a liturgical song welcoming angels into the home before the Sabbath meal, is inspired by this teaching.
As in the Midrash, angels in the Talmud occasionally argue with God, affording them a degree of independent agency that complicates the notion of angels as mere messengers carrying out divine objectives. The rabbis of the Talmud may have been concerned that angels would become the objects of worship in and of themselves, a concern that some understand to be behind various talmudic texts indicating that righteous people can equal or even surpass the holiness of angels. In Tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud states that righteous people are greater than the ministering angels.
Maimonides’ Angelic Hierarchy
Maimonides, the 12th-century scholar, devotes a section of his Mishneh Torah to the nature of angels. They are incorporeal beings, he writes, possessing form but no substance. Descriptions of angels as winged or made of fire, Maimonides says, are merely “enigmatical” prophetic visions — that is, inevitably inadequate attempts to describe the formless and the spiritual within the confines of human language.
Maimonides describes a 10-level hierarchy of angels, with different types such as holy creatures (chayot hakodesh) flying serpents and chariot bearers. All of these forms are alive and know God intimately, Maimonides writes, but while they all know God more deeply than human beings do, even the highest among them, knowing more than all those below, cannot know the full truth of God.
Angels in Kabbalah
The Jewish mystical tradition expounds even further on the nature of angels. Kabbalistic sources portray angels as forces of spiritual energy. Rabbi David Cooper, who has written extensively about Kabbalah and Jewish meditation, has described angels as “invisible metaphysical energy bundles” that act like magnets, causing physical changes by means of forces that are invisible to the eye.
In Kabbalah, angels reside in the worlds of beriah (creation) and yetzirah (formation) — the middle two of Kabbalah’s four worlds, which represent the spiritual stages through which divine energy is conducted down to the material world. In his classic work on Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes that human behavior can create angels. In a counterpart to the way biblical angels bear messages from the divine realm down to humanity, the angels created by human actions carry the energies of humankind upwards into the higher spiritual realms.
Angels are singular and unchanging in their essences, Steinsaltz writes, and can be either good or evil (demons), the latter the product of human beings doing the opposite of a mitzvah — harboring evil thoughts or committing acts of wickedness. Like good angels, evil angels also act in a dual fashion — bringing evil from the spiritual to the material world by inspiring sin or causing suffering and punishment, while also receiving energy from the misdeeds of human beings. “To be sure, were the world to root out all evil completely, then as a matter of course the subversive angels would disappear, since they exist as permanent parasites living on man,” Steinsaltz writes. “But as long as man chooses evil, he supports and nurtures whole worlds and mansions of evil, all of them drawing upon the same human sickness of soul.”
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.