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

Print this page Print this page

Angels are never the objects of worship. This is severely condemned by the rabbis as idolatry. The Palestinian Talmud remarks that there is no need for Jews to pray to God through the mediation of the angels, but in the Babylonian Talmud it is implied that one of the angelic functions is to bring the prayers of Israel to the throne of God. Some later rabbis disapproved of the few passages in the liturgy in which angels are invoked, but others defended these prayers on the grounds that the angels are only entreated to be the messengers of Israel as they are the messengers of God.

A device found in a number of Talmudic passages is to place apparent moral objections to God's conduct of the world into the mouths of the ministering angels, as if to say that these objections seem to be weighty and have spiritual force, although eventually, God provides the answer. Good men are said to be higher in rank than the angels. The angels are not al­lowed to sing their praises of God on high until Israel has done so on earth.

Philosophers, Kabbalists, & Modern Jews

The medieval thinkers, though, believing in the existence of angels as found in the Bible and the rabbinic literature, tend to interpret the whole subject of angelology in a highly spiritual and more or less rationalistic manner. Accord­ing to Maimonides, angels are creatures pos­sessing form without matter. They are pure spirits differentiated from one another not by any bodily distinctions but solely by spiritual form and purpose.

For Maimonides, the angels are only seen in the Bible as creatures of fire and human form with wings as a feature of the prophetic vision. Wherever it is said in the Bible that angels appear to men in human guise, the meaning is that they so appear in a dream, which leads Maimonides, to the con­sternation of Nahmanides and others, to ex­plain away some biblical passages as relating not actual events but dreams. Jacob did not really wrestle with the angel (Genesis 32:25-­30 ), but only dreamed that he did so. Other commentators take the biblical passages liter­ally, accepting that the angels actually become men when they appear on earth.

The Zohar adopts a compromise position. For the Zohar the angels are pure spirits and in their natural form they cannot appear in the natural world, for the world could not contain them if they did. They are obliged to assume the garments, as the Zohar puts it, of this world.

The Kabbalah as a whole is full of references to angels and in the practical Kabbalah names of angels are used in amulets. Interestingly, Maimonides (Guide of the Perplexed 1:49) quotes a Midrashic comment on the words (Genesis 3:24): "the flaming sword that turns every way" which suggests that this refers to the angels who change constantly, sometimes appearing as men, at other times as women.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.