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Torah Commentary
Va-y'chi (January 7, 2012)
 
Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

[…]

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

[…]

— From Questions About Angels Copyright © 1991 by Billy Collins




Rabbi Yael Shmilovitz,
Program Director,
Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El

MANY PEOPLE THINK Jews don’t believe in angels. Jews don’t have guardian angels; angels just aren’t a very Jewish thing. Borscht? Sure, very Jewish. Skepticism? Absolutely. Argument as sport? Jewish, without a doubt. But angels?

And yet angels are very much a Jewish “thing” — maybe not celestial beings draped in white robes or the cute cherubic cupid with his pointed bow and arrow, but angels (malakhim) are, in fact, mentioned many times in the Tanach, in midrash, in the Talmud and in the traditional prayer service.

The prevalent Jewish understanding of angels is either as human messengers (malakh is from the Ugaritic lak meaning “to send”) or as stand-ins for God (such as when Jacob wrestles with a mysterious “man” who we then learn is, in some form, God [Genesis 32]). Sometimes, interestingly, angels appear as intermediate beings between man and God, invoked, perhaps, when the immeasurable distance between man and God must somehow be traversed.

An example of angels as intermediaries who may help traverse that distance can be found in the daily bedtime Sh’ma prayer, which is in essence a collection of prayers said as one’s final words of the day. In it angels are invoked two times. Once:

May the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.

You will note that this is taken right out of our parashah, at the instance where Jacob is about to bless his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob invokes a protective angel as he prays for protection for his offspring, and that same sentiment is carried over into the daily bedtime Sh’ma; the prayer helps us address a sense of impending danger as we venture into the unknown world of altered consciousness in our sleep.

Note the interesting parallelism in the original verse on top of the page: First addressed is “the God who has been my shepherd” and then “the angel who has redeemed me from all harm.” What need is there for Jacob to mention both God and an angel? Is the angel separate from God? Are they the same? And why is it that only the second part of Jacob’s blessing — the part about the angel — found its way into the bedtime Sh’ma prayer?

In that light, the second time angels are invoked in the bedtime Sh’ma is even more interesting:

It is customary to repeat three times, like an incantation, the following –

In the name of Adonai, God of Israel:
May Michael* be at my right hand,
Gabriel, at my left;
In front of me, Uriel,
Behind me, Raphael;
And above my head the
shekhina [presence] of God.

*Angels Gabriel and Michael are first named in the biblical book of Daniel; Uriel and Raphael in various apocryphal writings such as Tobit, Enoch and the Qumran scrolls.

So, do Jews believe in angels? Well, it depends on the Jew. One thing is for sure: Whether you regard angels as human agents, supernatural beings or stand-ins for God, angels are very present in the Jewish tradition — despite being given only sporadic attention.

Let’s not let the metaphorical medieval theologians “control the court,” as in the poem above. The questions about angels are ours to ask, ours of which to conceive. What do angels mean to us? If we should happen to pray, invoking an angel, what would that angel be like for us? Who are our Michael and Gabriel? What do Uriel and Raphael bring to us? What would we like to leave off with them?


WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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