I heard an interesting insight from a rabbi friend today on the 17th-century hymn “Shalom Aleichem,” sung on Friday night before the Sabbath dinner. The song welcomes “ministering angels, angels of the Most High” and asks them, “Bless me with peace, angels of peace,” before, in the very next stanza, bidding them farewell, “Go in peace, angels of peace.” Doesn’t this seem a bit rude? The angels are understood as accompanying us home from the synagogue.* We welcome them, they bless us, and just one in-take of breath later, we are showing them to the door.
The explanation seems to be that there are weekday angels and Sabbath angels. We are first welcoming the latter and then bidding farewell to the latter. There’s a parallel from Scripture.
In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob famously saw angels ascending and descending a ladder with its apex in the heavens. This was on his journey from Beersheba to Haran — that is, he was leaving the holy land. As Rashi explains, angels accompanied him on his way to the border where, however, there was a changing of the guard. The angels of the land of Israel departed from him, ascending the ladder, to be replaced by angels who operate outside Israel, whom he saw descending the ladder. When he returned to the holy land years later, he had the experience again but in reverse: “And Jacob went on his way and angels of God met him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp,’ and he named the place Mahanaim [two camps]” (Genesis 32:2).
By the same token, the Talmud indicates that two ministering angels accompany us on Friday night. The insight that was new for me was that there must be here, as well, a changing of the guard. Just as there are different perils and rewards associated with the land of Israel than with the world outside, requiring unique angelic contingents to guide our way, so too on the Sabbath in contrast to work days. Existentially, they are just very different frames of reference and of reality. There are angels of the Sabbath and angels of the rest of the week.
*In all honestly, I often don’t make it there on Friday night when the sun goes down so early and my family is so rushed to get kids etc. in order.