Angels

Messengers of God who appear in traditional texts--but discomfort some Jewish thinkers.

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Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Angels are supernatural beings who perform various functions at God's behest. The Hebrew word malakh comes from a root meaning "to send" and is used both in the ordinary sense of a messenger and in the sense of an angel "sent" by God. (The English word "angel" is derived from the Greek angelos with the same meaning of messenger.) In Genesis 32:2, Jacob meets the angels of God (malakhey elohim) but in verse 4 he sends messengers (malakhim) to his brother Esau, though in a Midrashic fancy it is the angels mentioned in verse 2 that Jacob sends to Esau.

In the Bible

References to angels are found throughout the Bible but with the exception of Gabriel (Daniel 8:16; 9:21) and Michael (Daniel 13; 12:1) in the late book of Daniel, the angels in the Bible have no name. When Manoah asks the angel to tell him his name, the angel replies that it is secret (Judges 13:17-18). The inter­esting observation is found in the Talmud that, in fact, the names of the angels came into the possession of the Jews from Babylon. The word el appended to an angel's name means God; thus Gabriel (from gevurah, "power") means "power from God."angels

In the later Jewish tradition the angel Michael is the angel of mercy; Gabriel the angel of justice; Raphael the angel of healing; and Uriel the angel of illumination. In the prayer before going to sleep the words occur: "In the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, may Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel at my left; Uriel before me; Raphael behind me; and the Shekhinah of God be above my head."

Rabbinic Literature

As in the Bible, there are numerous references to angels in the rabbinic literature. But there is not a single reference to angels in the Mishnah, although it is hard to tell whether this silence is simply because the Mishnah had no cause to refer to angels or whether, as some scholars think, the editor of the Mishnah wishes to discourage belief in angels.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.