Angels in Jewish Tradition

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

BY: Rabbi David Wolpe

 

Continued from page 2

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.

Some angels are less beneficent of course, and Jewish tradition is filled as well with dybbuks and demons, and the omnipresent angel of death. Again the theological aim is to distance God from the devastating consequences of tragedy. The Bible depicts God as slaying the first born in Egypt, but rabbinic tradition has long assured us that it was not God directly, but the "mal'ach hamavet"--the angel of death.

Ultimately however, angels have an ancillary role. In both the Bible and later literature, Judaism insists God is initiator and arbiter of what happens here on earth. Rabbi Judan teaches in the Talmud that God wishes to be directly addressed: "If trouble comes upon someone, let him cry not to Michael or Gabriel, but let him cry unto Me (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 9:12)." As Jews recite each year during Passover: "And the Lord brought us out from Egypt--not by an angel, not by a seraph (fiery angel), and not by a messenger, but the Holy One alone..."

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