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Angels

by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
In Judaism an angel is a spiritual entity in the service of God. Angels play a prominent role in Jewish thought throughout the centuries, though the exact meaning of the word has been subject to widely, at times wildly, different interpretations.

A number of numinous creatures subordinate to God appear through the Hebrew Bible; the Malach (messenger/angel) is only one variety. Others, distinguished from angels proper, include Irinim (Watchers/High Angels), Cherubim (Mighty Ones), Sarim (Princes), Seraphim (Fiery Ones), Chayyot ([Holy] Creatures), and Ofanim (Wheels). Collective terms for the full array of numina serving God include: Tzeva, (Host), B'nei ha-Elohim or B'nai Elim (Sons of God), and Kedoshim (Holy Ones). They are constituted in an Adat El, a divine assembly (Ps. 82; Job 1). A select number of angels in the Bible (three to be precise) have names. They are Michael, Gabriel, and Satan.

Angels can come in a wondrous variety of forms, although the Bible often neglects to give any description at all (Judges 6:11-14; Zechariah 4). They appear humanoid in most Biblical accounts (Numbers 22) and as such are often indistinguishable from human beings (Gen. 18; 32:10-13; Joshua 5:13-15; Judges 13:1-5) but they also may manifest themselves as pillars of fire and cloud, or as a fire within a bush (Ex. 3). The Psalms characterize natural phenomenon, like lightning, as God's melachim (Ps. 104:4). Other divine creatures appear to be winged parts of God's throne (Is. 6) or of the divine chariot (Ezek. 1). The appearance of cherubim is well known enough to be artistically rendered on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25). Perhaps the most ambiguous creature is the Malach Adonai, an angel that may or may not be a visible manifestation of God.

Biblical angels fulfill a variety of functions, including conveying information to mortals, shielding, rescuing, and caring for Israelites, and smiting Israel's enemies. The Book of Daniel includes a number of ideas about angels that would be elaborated upon in post-Biblical tests, including named angels and guardian angels, that all the nations of the world have their own angelic prince, that angels are arranged hierarchically, and that angels have delimited spheres of authority.

Jewish sources of the Greco-Roman period expand on the traditions of angels found in the Hebrew Scriptures. We especially see the first systematic organization of Biblical hosts of heaven into a hierarchy of different castes of angels governing and serving on different levels of heaven. Zechariah's reference to the seven eyes of God (4:10) is understood to refer to either seven archangels, or the seven angel hosts in the seven heavens (I Enoch 61; Testament of the Patriarchs, Levi).

We also see the resurgence of a quasi-polytheistic view of the divine order recast in monotheistic terms. Now instead of having minor gods with specific spheres of power, lists of angels appear, all subordinate to God, but each designated with their sphere of authority (3 Enoch). This is accompanied by a proliferation of named angels. For the first time we hear of Uriel, Raphael, Peniel, Metatron, and many, many others (I Enoch, Tobit, IV Ezra).

There also an increasing awareness of an affinity between angels and mortals. It seems that the boundary between human and angelic states is permeable. Elaborating on cryptic passages found in the Bible (Gen. 5:24; II Kings 2:11), it is taught that exceptional mortals, such as Enoch, may be elevated to angelic status (I Enoch).

A sense of dualism, stronger than what is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, appears in Late Antiquity and leads to angels being divided into camps of light and darkness, as exemplified by the angelology informing the Manual of Discipline found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The mythic allusion to the misadventures of the Sons of God in Gen. 6:2 becomes the locus classicus for this belief. Thus the legend of fallen angels first appears in the pseudo-epigraphic writings (I Enoch 6, from the section sometimes called the Book of the Watchers). It is here also we first see the idea that angels envy humanity. The mythos of fallen angels eventually becomes a major theological motif in Christianity, but remains largely in the background in Rabbinic Judaism, exerting far less influence over subsequent Jewish cosmology (see Demons and Satan). The belief that angels may be invoked and employed by human initiates, later a staple element of Merkavah mysticism, first appears are this time (Testament of Solomon).

Generally speaking rabbinic literature deemphasizes the importance of angels when compared with their role in the Apocalyptic and Mystical traditions. For the first time the idea is suggested that angels have no free will (Shab. 88b; Gen. R. 48:11). But they do have intellect and an inner life; they argue and are capable of errors (Sand. 38b; Midrash Psalms 18:13). Angels exist to do a single task (BM 86b; Gen. R. 50:2) and exalted as they may be, angels are subordinate to humanity, or at least the righteous (Gen. R. 21; Sand. 93a; Ned. 32a; Deut. R. 1).

Still, references to angels in rabbinic literature are almost as vast as the Hosts of Heaven themselves. Many divine actions described in Scripture were now ascribed to various angels (Deut. R. 9; Gen R. 31:8; Sand. 105b). Contrary to this trend, however, the Passover Haggadah pointedly denies that angels played any role in the pivotal event of delivering Israel from Egypt (Magid).

Angelic functions are revealed to be even more varied and their role in the operation of the universe even more pervasive. For the first time the figure of Mavet (Death) in the Bible is identified as the Malach ha-Mavet (the Angel of Death). The Early Jewish concept of personal angels, of melachei sharet, and memuneh, "ministering" or "guardian" angels and "deputies," also comes to the fore in rabbinic literature. The idea that the angels form a choir singing the praises of God also captures comment and speculation by the Sages (Gen. R. 78:1).

While rabbinic writings offer no systematic angelology comparable to that coming out of contemporaneous Christian and magical circles, certain parallel notions can be seen. Thus we learn in Talmud that Michael, the angelic prince over Israel, serves as High Priest in Yerushalyim shel malah, the heavenly Jerusalem (Chag. 12b). Legends concerning the prophet-turned-angel Elijah become one of the most commonplace angelic tales. Elijah frequently appears among mortals, bearing revelations from heaven and resolving inscrutable questions.

That all angels (and not just seraphim and cheruvim) have wings is first mentioned during this period (Chag. 16a). The size of angels may vary from small to cosmic (Chag. 13b).

There also emerges a fundamental disagreement about the nature of angels. Some consider angels to God's "embodied decrees," elementals made of fire, like an Islamic ifrit, or from an impossible combination of fire and water (Sefer Yetzirah 1.7; S of S R. 10; T.Y. Rosh. H. 58). Others regard them as immaterial, disembodied intellects.

Unlike the Biblical writers, the Sages allow themselves to speculate on the origins of angels. They teach, for example, that angels did not pre-exist creation, but were formed as part of the heavens on the second day (Gen. R. 1:3; 3). Another Rabbi posits they came into existence on the fifth day, along with all winged creations.

In late antiquity angelology becomes a major element in Merkavah mysticism. Any adept wishing to ascend the palaces of the heavens and achieve a vision of the Divine Glory needed to know how to get past the angelic guardians (usually by knowing and invoking their names) at each level. Perhaps even more important to this mystical tradition, angels can be summoned and brought down to earth to serve a human initiate. Many rituals and practices devoted to this end have been preserved in the Hechalot writings. Starting in late antiquity, angels are increasingly related to and bound up with the everyday life of individuals.

Medieval Midrash reiterates and further develops earlier teaching about angels, but it is during this period that individual philosophers start to offer systematic and idiosyncratic interpretations of angels. Maimonides, for example, talks about them at length in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yisodei HaTorah (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah). While he meticulously classifies angelic rankings (there are ten), in his rationalistic system Maimonides equates them with the Aristotelian "intelligences" that mediate between the spheres. As such they are conscious and govern the spheres in their motion, but in his Aristotelian context Maimonides is saying they are forms of natural causation rather than supernatural beings. He also expands his definition to include natural phenomenon and even human psychology (he refers to the libidinous impulse as the "angel of lust"). Based on his he concludes there are two types of angels, eternal and ephemeral, the latter of which constantly pass in and out of existence. He also denies that angels ever take corporeal form; the encounters described in the Bible are only the dream visions of the patriarchs and matriarchs. By contrast other thinkers, like the German Pietist Eleazer of Worms, adhere to esoteric and unapologetically supernatural angelologies. Because of the exalted status of Torah study among Ashkenazi Jews, rituals for summoning angels, especially angels who could reveal secrets of the Torah, like the Sar ha-Torah and Sar ha-Panim (The Prince of the Torah and the Prince of the Presence), became widely known.

The early Medieval magical work Sefer ha-Razim catalogues hundreds of angels, along with how to influence them and to use their names in constructing protective amulets, throwing curses, and otherwise gaining power. Zohar, along with continuing the tradition of angelic taxonomy, sorting them into seven palaces and ranking them according to the four worlds of emanation (1:11-40), assigns angels feminine as well as masculine attributes (1:119b).

Visitations by angels were widely reported among kabbalists. The mystic-legalist Joseph Caro wrote of his maggid, the genius of the Mishna, who visited him in the night and taught him Torah ha-Sod, the esoteric Torah.

The main contribution of Chasidic thought to angelology was a distinctly anthropocentric, even psychological, interpretation of angelic nature. Specifically, early Chasidic masters held that ephemeral angels were the direct result of human action. Goodly deeds created good angels, destructive behavior created destructive angels, etc. In other words, most angels are ontologically the creation, really a byproduct, of humans rather than God! Thus the balance between the angelic and demonic forces in the universe is a direct result of human decision and action.

In the last quarter of the 20th Century, there has been renewed interest in angels is evidenced throughout the Jewish community.

Magical uses: The names of angels have apotropaic properties and frequently appear on amulets, magical inscriptions and formula. In the bedtime ritual Kriat Sh'ma al ha-Mitah, the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael are invoked for protection through the night. Angels have areas of specialization and can be summoned to assist mortals in these areas, such as learning and memorizing Torah.

Greek: angelos, messenger. Hebrew: Malach, Irin, Cheruv, Seref, Ofan, Chayyah, Sar, Memuneh, Ben Elohim, Kodesh.

Article copyright 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.


Article details:

  • Etymology:
    Messenger.

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