As our family sang Shalom Aleichem this past Friday evening, I began to think about the song. We seem to be greeting ministering angels, welcoming them and then asking them for a blessing. What does this mean? Do Jews believe in angels? Do we think that they can then bestow blessing upon us?
Is there a Jewish understanding of angels?
First, I salute you for taking notice. Many of us are guilty of saying our prayers, singing songs and not really paying attention to the words, their meanings and, especially, not their implications.
Your question, though it is about a well-known familiar song sung traditionally we sit down to Shabbat dinner, raises significant philosophical issues debated among Jewish scholars.
The words to the song come from a Midrash found in the Talmud's tractate Shabbat. We are told that on Friday evenings, two ministering angels follow every Jew home from synagogue. As they arrive at each of our humble abodes, these angels peek through the window, and if they find a peaceful home ready for Shabbat, the 'Good Angel' blesses the family that it should always be this way, and the 'Evil Angel' must respond 'Amen.'
However, if they arrive and the home is not ready for Shabbat and there is an air of discord, the Evil Angel is entitled to express his diabolical desire ' that the home continues on this perilous path and there should be a similar miserable situation pervading the home in the following week. Painfully, the Good Angel must then acquiesce and answer 'amen.'
What does this Midrash mean? Do we believe in good and evil angels? Do angels have power and in this song are we praying to them? This raises more questions, perhaps the most basic ones being: what are angels, what is their purpose, and why do they exist?
Jewish medieval philosophers debated these very same issues. A famous dispute between Maimonides and Nachmanides may be an instructive place to begin. It centers on the Torah passage that relates the episode of Abraham sitting outside his tent at the start of parshat Vayera in Bereshit. As our forefather sits in the heat of the day, he sees three men approaching. Abraham welcomes them, and after a frantic flurry of activity, food preparation and formalities, the men are fed. They then turn to Abraham and unceremoniously and matter-of-factly offer the long-aspired-for tidings, that a son will be born to Sarah by this time next year.
In the next chapter, two of these men move on to their next mission and present themselves to the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are now referred to as malachim ' angels.
Has Abraham interacted with angels? Do angels eat? What happened to the angel that went missing? Maimonides, rationalist, contends adamantly that there are no angels and there were not even any men, but that the entire scene was a Divine vision seen by Abraham. The cooking, the preparations, the feeding, the news of the child to be born, all occurred in his mind's eye.
According to Maimonides, in his work Guide for the Perplexed, angels do not exist per se in any other form other than the prophetic experience thereof.
That Nachmanides takes Maimoindes to task is putting it mildly. In his commentary of the Biblical passages, Nachmanides disputes each part of Maimonides' assertions. To Nachmanides, angels are real beings who actualize God's divine will in this world. Though they have no independent power, they do exist as messengers, which is what the word malach, angel, actually means. Angels carry out missions and behave as go-betweens.
What speaks to me more than this rationalistic versus mystical argument is the issue of why. Why does the Torah introduce a notion of an entity that is not human and not Godly, but dwells in the vast chasm between? Most importantly, what can we learn from the Jewish ideas of angels?
Here are three important lessons that emerge from Jewish manifestations of angels:
1. Consult and confer. The Midrash teaches us that when the verse in the Creation episode says, 'Let Us make humans,' the speaker, God, is consulting with the angels, getting buy-in, if you will ' working with the committee. Even the omnipotent, all-powerful God does not work alone. Though the earth was yet uninhabited, God, using the 'royal we,' teaches us mortal humans not to act alone, but to consult and confer, and if we can find some angels for that committee, even better.
2. Humility. Before bedtime, we recite a prayer that evokes the names of the four most renowned angels: Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. These angels are said to escort us wherever we walk, with the Divine shechinah above us. One stands to the right, one to the left, one in front and one behind.
These positions are not happenstance. They correspond to the quintessence of each angel as reflected by their name: the right, Michael, meaning no one is like God, represents human strength, reminding us not to think we are so mighty. To the left, our side of weakness, is Gabriel, and we are offered the might of God. In front, facing the future, the angel Uriel reminds us that our path must draw its illumination from above. Finally, as we look back in life and ask for healing, Raphael reminds us we cannot change the past but perhaps with the help of God we can experience it in the realm of positive and affirmative.
3. Stretching Beyond. Ironically, angels appear for the first time in a particularly puzzling passage early on in Genesis, Chapter 6. The Nephilim are described as b'nei haElohim, commonly explained as angels that 'fell' to the earth. Plentiful and varied interpretations abound on this diminutive succinct passage. For me the message is clear: if angels can fall, humans can ascend. Moshe, who remained on Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights, did not eat bread or drink water.
Each of us has the capacity to lift ourselves beyond our physical constraints and reach upward. Perhaps each us has an angel raising us heavenward. Hopefully more often than not, they bless us with encouragement, maybe with words such as, 'Next week it should also look just like this ' peaceful and prepared to greet the Divine presence.'
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Judaic Principal at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that's been tickling your brain, send Rivy an email at email@example.com.