In the Talmud and Midrash, the rabbis accepted the existence of angels as supernatural beings and created fanciful stories about their creation, their roles in biblical stories, and their behavior in the divine world. Angels speak Hebrew, fly, foretell the future, and control prayer, hail, rain, anger, and birth, among other things. They look human; they are made of fire, or of fire and water divinely harmonized; some are transitory and live only to sing a single hymn of praise to the Creator, others are eternal, a few are of cosmic proportions, even attaining the size of one third of the world. The main function of these angels — even the evils ones, such as mal'akhei habbalah (angels of destruction) — is to praise God and to mediate between the human and divine worlds.

Despite their "humanization," these rabbinic angels still have no will of their own other than to loyally carry out the divine commands and to glorify His name. Mostly they seek the good for pious men and the well-being of Israel in particular, sometimes interceding on behalf of humanity, other times carrying out God's judgments. Wherever no personal agent is mentioned in the Bible, the aggadah tends to fill the vacuum with angels. Thus, they are given an important role in the creation of man, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the story of Esther.

The universe, as envisaged in the Talmud, is inhabited by two classes of beings: the Elyonim (the higher beings), i.e., the angels, and the Tahtonim (the lower beings), i.e., the human race, denizens of the earth. In the sanctuary on high, the mal'akhei ha'sharet (ministering angels) perform the priestly functions, with the angel Michael acting as a kind of high priest. There are seven heavens, each in the charge of an archangel; of special eminence is the mal'akh ha-panim (angel of the presence). The diverse pantheon of angels in the heavens (such as Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael) assume roles as personal guardians and as patrons of individual nation. According to the Rabbis, every Jew is also assigned one angel with the fulfillment of each commandment, and two accompany each him at all times. On Sabbath eve, a good and evil angel accompany each worshiper as he returns from the synagogue.

From every utterance that issues from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, an angel is created.   
—BT Hagigah 14a

It must be noted that the scene of a celestial court, with god as King and a host of ministers surrounding Him, does not originate with the Rabbis; we find several such references in the Bible, [1] which — despite it monotheistic thrust — was touched by foreign mythological influences. Drawing upon traditions in Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian folklore, the Rabbis, however, developed an ever more elaborate demonology.

Perhaps in an attempt to reconcile proliferating Magian, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic influences (such as dualism) with the biblical monotheistic worldview, angels who had been originally conceived as messengers of God's justice and mercy, gradually became divided into two camps: angels of Light and Darkness, of good and of evil. Legends arose about the Fallen Angels who come to earth to consort with the daughters of men and fall into sin (the Book of Enoch). There are rabbinic legends of Satan's rebellion and fall at the creation of human beings. The most terrible of the angels of destruction is the mal'akh ha'mavet (the angel of death), who waits at the bedside of the sick, a lethal drop of venom at the tip of his sword; this angel of death, who, like other angels, originally personified a function of the divine will, gradually acquires a definitely demonic individuality. He is linked and at times identified with Satan (who tempts and accuses), the evil inclination, and Samael, the prince of demons.

Despite the deep-rooted belief in angels among the Jews of the Talmudic period and the elaborate attention to angels in the Talmud the rabbis were careful not to approve their worship. There is evidence that attempts were made to weaken faith in them and belittle their importance. In particular it was urged that man, when he is God-fearing, is superior to the angels. Thus we find the following declaration: "When Adam was in the Garden of Eden (and sinless), he used to recline while the ministering angels roasted flesh and filtered wine for him." [2] It was likewise taught, "Greater are the righteous than the ministering angels;"[3] and "If a man abstain from practicing magic, he is introduced into a division of heaven which even the ministering angels cannot penetrate."[4] This teaching reaches its climax in the declaration, "The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the Hereafter make the division of heaven in which the righteous dwell within that of the ministering angels."[5] They will consequently stand nearer to the throne of God.

FAQs: Ask the rabbis of the Talmud        Four angels of the Presence as described in the Talmud


[1] I Kings 22; Isaiah 6:1, Job 1:6 [back]
[2] BT Sanhedrin 59b [back]
[3] BT Sanhedrin 93a [back]
[4] BT Nedarim 32a [back]
[5] BT Shabbat 8b [back]

ANGELS Table of Contents



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