While Jewish monotheism rejected the polytheistic concept of a specific deity responsible for death on earth (as was popular, for example, among the Canaanites), remnants of the polytheistic influence is evident in biblical descriptions of God's host of angel servants in general, and of the angel of death in particular. The "Angel of the Lord" who smites human beings is called the destroyer and is described as standing between earth and heaven, with a drawn sword in his hand.[1] This angel, however, is a temporary messenger, and even the verses where death is personified do not point to a permanent angel responsible for terminating life on earth.[2]

In post-biblical times the concept of an Angel of Death as an independent being emerged. The Angel of Death came to be associated with not only those episodes of death, cruelty, and wretchedness described in the Bible — such as the plagues in Egypt — but also with the dreadful ogres and demons which make their way into the oral tradition (as in does into the ancient Near Eastern and medieval European traditions). This Angel of Death is an active supernatural being who acts independently of God's will; he fights, harms and destroys man at his own initiative.

And the Angel of the Lord went out and attacked the Assyrian camp;
One hundred eighty-five thousand.
And when they arose in the morning, they were all dead bodies. (Isaiah 37:36)

In the Talmud
While there are numerous allusions in the Talmud to angels of destruction, the most terrible is the mal'akh ha-mavet (the Angel of Death).He is identified both with Satan (Samael) who tempts and accuses, and with the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination that resides in every person.[3]

In rabbinic folklore the Angel is Death symbolizes the demonic forces responsible for Adam's fall and which continue to fight his descendant. He is described allegorically in images common to many traditions:

full of eyes (nothing escapes him);
a diligent reaper;
an old man holding a sword dripping poison into the mouths of mortals; and most often disguised as "a fugitive and wanderer"[4]

Since the Angel of Death is only a messenger in Jewish tradition, his powers are limited and depend on his master's (God's) decrees and orders. Thus there are found in rabbinic literature remedies to overcome the Angel of Death and weapons to use against him. While in general folk literature, magic weapons are used to attain immortality, in normative Jewish legends, the study of the Torah, efficacious prayer, and acts of piety or charity deliver from the Angel of Death.

The Angel of Death is active in both the human and animal realms. Many of the persons who enter Paradise alive "without tasting death" as well as several of the animals that achieve immortality in rabbinic legend, among them the milhas or ziz birds (aggadic equivalents of the phoenix), reached their goal after a successful confrontation with the Angel of Death.[5] There are many legends in the Talmud about the death of Moses (Midrash Petirat Moshe). In another famous passage the Talmud tells of R. Joshua b. Levi who defeated the Angel of Death: "He seized the slaughtering knife and even came close to abolishing death forever. Only God's intervention brought about the sage's surrender."[6]

In another midrash when David asks God when he is to die, God responds that because of David's merit, he will die on a Shabbat in the seventieth year of life. David then spent every Shabbat exclusively in study of Torah, as he knew that the Angel of Death has no power over anyone fulfillling one of the commandments. One Shabbat, however, David heard a strange and wonerous sound in the garden and went to investigate. The steps to the garden collapsed, killing him. It was the Angel of Death who had caused the noise to trick him. [7]

Angel of Death in Folklore


[1] II Sam. 24:16; Isa. 37:36, Ex. 12:23; I Chron. 21:15-16 [back]
[2] Prov. 16:14; 17:11; 30:12; Ps. 49:15; 91:3; Job. 18:14 [back]
[3] BT BB 16a [back]
[4] Jer. 9:20; Av. Zar. 20b; Ar. 7a; Gen. 4:12 [back]
[5] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews 5 (1925) [back]
[6] BT Ketubbah [back]
[7 Louis Ginsberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: JPS, 1937) [back]


Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter Publishign Co.)

Dov Noy, Folktales of Israel (Chicago University Press, 1969)

The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. Eds., R.J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Wigoder (Oxford University Press, 1997)

ANGELS Table of Contents



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