The Angel of Death

This concept is a creation of rabbinic literature.

The angel sent by God to bring about death is known as malakh ha-mavet in Hebrew. There are no references in the Bible to a specific angel of death but the concept is found frequently in rabbinic literature and in Jewish folklore.

In the latter, for instance, the practice of pouring out all the water in pots and so forth when a death occurs is said to be based on the belief of that the Angel of Death dips his sword in the water and poisons it. Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed, 3. 22) demythologizes the concept, understanding it as the life-denying, evil force that lurks in the human psyche. Maimonides quotes with much approval the Talmudic saying (tractate Bava Batra 16a) that Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one and the same. In Yiddish slang a man with destructive tendencies or one who is always running down others is called an Angel of Death.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Sign up for a Journey Through Grief & Mourning: Whether you have lost a loved one recently or just want to learn the basics of Jewish mourning rituals, this 8-part email series will guide you through everything you need to know and help you feel supported and comforted at a difficult time.

Discover More

Do Jews Believe in Satan?

In Jewish texts, the devil is sometimes an adversary and sometimes an embodiment of evil.

Yahrzeit: Remembering on the Anniversary of a Death

Lighting candles and saying Kaddish each year in memory of a loved one.

How to Give a Jewish Eulogy (Hesped)

This speech honoring the deceased is an important ancient Jewish custom.

Sheloshim: The Bridge to a New Normal

The ritual of shiva is well known. Why do we mark 30 days of mourning, too?

The Mourner’s Kaddish Is Misunderstood

The prayer does not praise (or even name) God. Here’s why.

When It’s OK To Say Nothing

At shiva, the mourner gets to decide whether or not to initiate conversation.

Readings Every Jewish Mourner Should Know

These are among Judaism’s most comforting words.