According to Professor of Jewish Folklore Dov Noy, three different types of rabbinic and post-rabbinic presentations of the Angel of Death reflects man's ambivalent attitudes toward death:

According to Professor of Jewish Folklore Dov Noy, three different types of rabbinic and post-rabbinic presentations of the Angel of Death reflects man's ambivalent attitudes toward death:

Narratives in which the Angel of Death is defeated mainly by means of deception. In these mostly humorous legends, the fooled Angel of Death appears as a grotesque and stupid character.

Narratives in which the appears as a cruel and stubborn hero; in these tales of horror and magic, fearful mortals submit passively to the authority of the terrible Angel of Death.

Narratives in which the Angel of Death, although inherently cruel, can be moved to mercy and concession by the exceptional deed of a human being. Clearly, this narrative is an expression of man's optimism and wishful thinking.

The following tale, The Town that Had Faith in God was recorded by David Alkayam from Rafael Uhna (born in Morocco) and transposed by Prof. Noy. In this tale, the Angel of Death is in fact neither grotesque, cruel nor compassionate. He is functioning as a servant of God, fulfilling His will, more along the lines of the earlier conception of angel as messenger.


This is a story of a town whose inhabitants were pious and had faith in God. Not one of them used to save, not even a penny, because they said, "We must eat and drink today, and as for tomorrow, we will trust in God." Therefore there was not a rich man among them.

One of the inhabitants, named Meir, was a watchman. He carried out his work diligently and wholeheartedly. But he had an evil wife, and she did not trust in God. Day and night she used to nag her husband, "Let us save money for our old age." But Meir always answered, "I trust in God, so we should not be afraid."

The woman was barren, and since they had no children, she was very concerned about their old age. "Who will sustain us tomorrow?"

"Confidence in God's power is a great thing," her husband used to say. "So do not fear."

The Almighty, blessed be he, looked on and said to the Angel of Death, "Go and fetch the soul of Meir from the town of my faithful ones, because he no longer trusts in me."

When Meir returned from work, the Angel of Death awaited him, disguised as a porter and carrying two sacks of flour. He said to Meir, "A rich man sent me with flour for the inhabitants of this town; so you distribute it, but forego your own portion:"

Meir did as he was bidden. He wept from house to house with the flour. However, the inhabitants refused to accept it saying, "Today we have food, and as for tomorrow, we trust in God."

Meir returned to the porter and related all that had happened. The porter disclosed the truth: that he was the Angel of Death and had come to take away Meir's soul because he no longer had faith in God. Meir pleaded with the angel, "Promise not to take away my soul until I have prayed the Shema prayer: `Hear, O Israel."'

The Angel of Death agreed and said, "I shall be damned if I take your soul before you have prayed the `Hear, O Israel."'

Meir began the prayer but interrupted it and said, "I shall be damned if I ever complete this prayer." The angel realized that Meir had deceived him; whereupon he disappeared.

Meir related to his wife everything that had happened. She said, "Come, let us escape from the Angel of Death to another town." And so they did.

After some time the Angel of Death disguised himself as a rich man. He went to the same town and asked if he could be a guest in Meir's home. The town notables informed him, "This Jew, Meir, is a poor fellow. There are many benevolent and rich people who would like to entertain you. Would you not prefer their hospitality?"

However, the guest would agree to stay with no one else but Meir. The couple was very pleased with the guest, who did not spare money on their account.

Whenever Meir prayed, the rich man listened to him. He noticed that every time Meir reached the prayer "Hear, O Israel," he used to skip the end, and never once did he complete it. So it went on day by day.

One morning Meir's wife entered the rich man's room to awaken him, as was her daily custom. Imagine her shock when she saw that he was dying. Hastily she went to call her husband, "Come quickly to recite `Hear, O Israel' over the dying man. Then we shall bury our guest in secret, and all his wealth will remain with us." At first Meir refused to fulfill his wife's request, but at last he gave in to her pleading and nagging.

Meir finished the shema prayer, and the Angel of Death jumped out of his bed and seized his soul.

Angel of Death in Bible and Talmud

  • This story combines several classic folkloristic motifs: "The Lord's Prayer"; "Death avenges itself by tricking the man into finishing the prayer"; "Trying to save provision for another day"; "Lack of trust in God is punished"; "The devil as a well-dressed gentleman."
  • The first cultural hero in Jewish tradition who tried to prolong his life by studying holy scripts when he was about to die was King David, as described in the midrash.
  • In his foreword to Folktales of Israel, Richard Dorson writes: "The folklore of Israel refers both to the oral legend and to parable and metaphor which express many facets of the Jewish popular faith and to the avariegated bodies of tales and songs, customs and beliefs brought into Israel by her immigrants."
From: Dov Noy, Folktales of Israel (translated by Gene Baharav) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969

ANGELS Table of Contents




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