Sotah 33

Angelic limitations.

Sacha Lamb’s wonderful novel When the Angels Left the Old Country tells the story of an angel and a demon who leave their small shtetl and go to America. While the demon (“Little Ash”) can speak many languages, at the beginning of the novel the many-named angel can speak only Hebrew and Aramaic. This limitation is a sign of its closeness to God, who spoke the world into being in Hebrew. But it also limits its ability to understand what is going on in a world where the humans around it speak Yiddish and eventually English. Of course, hijinks ensue. 

On today’s daf, we find a teaching that suggests angels are even more linguistically limited than they are in Lamb’s novel. Rav Yehuda states:

A person should never request in the Aramaic language that his needs (be met), as Rabbi Yohanan said: Anyone who requests in the Aramaic language that his needs (be met), the ministering angels do not attend to him, as the ministering angels are not familiar with the Aramaic language.

Rav Yehuda believes that the angels speak only Hebrew. It is a sign of their profound holiness that they speak only the language with which God created the world. But it is also a real limitation — the angels are unable to help, or even know about it, when a non-Hebrew speaking person wants their support in their prayer request. Theirs is a life of holy isolation. 

Also, is it even true? The Gemara suggests it might not be.

Isn’t it taught in beraita (Tosefta 13:5): Yohanan the high priest heard a divine voice from the house of the holy of holies that was saying: The youth who went to wage war in Antokhya have been victorious. And another incident involving Shimon Hatzaddik, who heard a divine voice emerging from the house of the holy of holies that was saying: The decree that the enemy intended to bring against the Temple is annulled, and Gaskalgas (Caligula) has been killed and his decrees have been voided. And they wrote that time, and it matched (his time of death). And it was speaking in the Aramaic language.

Twice, high priests heard a divine voice make a proclamation about something that had happened far away. Both times, the proclamations were proven true, so they were authentic. And both times, apparently, the voice was speaking Aramaic. So how could it be that angels don’t speak Aramaic?

The Gemara offers two possible resolutions to this challenge: 

If you wish, say a divine voice is different, as its purpose is to communicate. 

And if you wish, say it was Gabriel, as the master said (with regard to Joseph): Gabriel came and taught him 70 languages.

Either a divine voice is not actually an angel, but something else with a specific task that requires being understood by humans. Or it is Gabriel, the one and only angel who tradition says was fluent in 70 languages.

The potential challenge is thus resolved, but I am left feeling grateful not to be an angel. Ignorance might be bliss, but it is also a way to be disengaged, outside the community and unable to care for others. Language may not always be holy, but it’s how we connect with other people.

Read all of Sotah 33 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 1, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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