By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
Who are those supernatural creatures we refer to as angels? Are they manifestations of God? Intermediaries between humans and God? Figments of humans’ imaginations? Angels appear in the Bible and throughout Jewish literature, with rabbis, historians and many others grappling with their nature and attempting to explain their roles.
The Hebrew word we use for angel is malach, which actually translates to “messenger.” In the Torah, these unnamed creatures were sent as messengers from God to either impart a prophecy to a specific person or facilitate a certain action. Sarah, for example, is told by an angel in human form that she will bear a son. A weeping Hagar is comforted by an angel after she runs away from Sarah. As Abraham is about to sacrifice his son to God (per God’s instructions), he is stopped by a voice from above:
“Then a messenger of God called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.’ ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him.” (Genesis 22: 11-12)
After escaping from his angry brother, Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven with ascending and descending angels. After many years of estrangement and just before the brothers are to reunite, we are told that Jacob wrestled with a creature all night who refused to give his name and is later referred to (in the book of Hosea) as an angel.
In the books of the Prophets and later the Writings, the role of angels expands to include creatures of non-human form. The prophet Ezekiel describes several vivid visions of angels with wings and four faces guarding the chariot of God. Isaiah details being called into service by seeing angels with six wings flying around God’s throne while praising God. (“Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the Earth” – Isaiah 6:3).
Angels figure prominently in the Book of Zechariah (in both human and winged forms); and in the Book of Daniel, we are introduced to the first angels with names: Gabriel and Michael. Gabriel interprets Daniel’s visions, while Michael is said to have been a defender of the people of Israel against her enemies.
In both the Talmud (compilation of rabbinic teachings) and the Midrash (an early form of Biblical interpretation and analysis), Rabbis debated the purpose and origin of angels. Those who appeared as nameless figures in the Bible were now given names and tasks. In the Talmud, for example, four angels — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel — are tasked with guarding the throne of God. Angels are understood to have no free will of their own; they exist solely to praise and serve God.
In later writings, the great scholar Maimonides (12th century) classified angels by their hierarchical position. Works espousing Jewish Mysticism (Kabbalah being the most famous) describe angels as forces of spiritual energy, each with a defined role in the functioning of God’s universe. The prayer Shalom Aleichem — an integral part of our Shabbat evening liturgy — comes to us from these Kabbalistic writings (16th or 17th century). In this prayer, we welcome angels into our home (or synagogue) in peace, ask them for blessings of peace, while also bidding them a peaceful exit at the end of Shabbat.
Even today discussion persists about the existence of angels. When people enter your life at just the right moment, perhaps it is not a fluke. Maybe they can be viewed as angels in human form, bringing you the insight or assistance that you truly need.