Angels in Jewish Tradition

What the Hebrew scriptures and commentaries say about the role of heavenly creatures in a monotheistic faith.

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Angels are God's entourage. In the famous scene of Isaiah 6, God is seated on a throne with the angelic host arrayed on the right and the left. But developing hints from the Bible, later Jewish literature ascribes to the angels their own characteristics and personalities.

Angels often appear in the apocryphal literature, books written by ancient Jews which were not made part of the Bible, such as the books of the Maccabees. In that literature and the Pseudepigrapha--literature written in the name of an ancient and important character--angels grow in stature. Enoch 3 explains function of various angels in a long list (e.g., "Ram'amiel, who is in charge of thunder; Ra'asiel, who is in charge of earthquakes; Shalgiel, who is in charge of snow" and so forth). Apocalyptic writing, which deals with the end of days, is filled with the doings of angels. The same is true of the Dead Sea Scrolls where, for example, The Manual of Discipline speaks of an angel of light and an angel of darkness.

Although these texts did not become normative in the Jewish tradition, they do reflect what ancient Jews were teaching and learning. And many of the views in texts that did not become part of the Bible endure in rabbinic literature.

Judaism is given shape by the writings of the rabbis. The Talmud, rabbinic commentary encompassing both Jewish law and legend written in the years between 50 BCE and 600 CE, is full of speculations and stories about angels. In rabbinic literature, angels sometimes show a little independence of mind. They even argue with God, making a persuasive case that human beings should not be created. The angels argue that people will commit offenses against truth and peace. Since the angels' arguments are not refutable--human beings do indeed sin continually against both truth and peace--God dashes truth to the ground, and creates human beings in spite of their deficiencies (Genesis Rabbah 8:5).

Angels of folklore


Jewish folklore sees angels as guardians. A famous passage reproduced in many prayerbooks asks for the aid of Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Each has a certain guiding function, although their roles vary. Michael, "Merciful and forbearing" commander in chief of angelic host, is guardian of Israel. Raphael is the healing angel. Gabriel is the master of courage. Uriel is the angel of light, whose name means "God is my light." The Rabbis teach that two angels, one good and one bad, follow us home on Shabbat. If all is prepared--candles, challah, wine--the good angel exclaims: "May it be this way next Shabbat as well" and the bad angel responds, "Amen." If the house is not prepared, the bad angel exclaims: "May it be this way next Shabbat" and the good angel, in spite of himself, says, "Amen."(Shabbat 119b). We may think of ritual observances as the force of habit, but the rabbis portray it as the force of angels.

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