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What Are Angels?

What Are Angels?

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''Jacob's Ladder'' by David Brook
"Jacob's Ladder" by David Brook

The Jewish belief in angels goes as far back as the Book of Genesis, where we read about angels calling out to Abraham at the binding of Isaac, angels appearing in Jacob's dream, Jacob fighting with an angel, and many more accounts of angelic activity.1 Angels are then mentioned numerous times throughout the other books of the Torah, Prophets, and Scriptures.

According to Jewish tradition, an angel is a spiritual being and does not have any physical characteristics. The angelic descriptions provided by the prophets – such as wings, arms etc. – are anthropomorphic, referring to their spiritual abilities and tasks.



Angel Names

The first angels mentioned by name in the Bible are Gavriel (Gabriel) and Michael, in the Book of Daniel.2 In earlier books of the Torah, when people asked angels to disclose their names, they refused; such as in the abovementioned encounter of Jacob with the angel,3 and the story of the angel who appeared to Samson's parents in the Book of Judges.4 The Jerusalem Talmud comments5 that reference to angels by name only became common in the period following the return of the Jewish people to Israel in 348 BCE. In the Talmud and Kabbala many more angels are identified by name. Some other commonly known names of angels include Uriel, Reziel, Metatron, and Laila.6

Maimonides explains7 that all angels fall under one of ten ranks. Namely: Chayot Hakodesh, Ophanim, Erelim, Chashmalim, Seraphim, Malachim, Elokim, Bene Elokim, Cheruvim, and Ishim.8 These ranks refer to the degree of the angel's comprehension of G‑d; some have a greater understanding of G‑d and His ways than others.

Angel Functions

The Hebrew word for angel is "malach," which means messenger, for the angels are G‑d's messengers to perform various missions. Every angel is "programmed" to perform certain tasks; such as Michael who is dispatched on missions which are expressions of G‑d's kindness; Gavriel, who executes G‑d's severe judgments; and Rafael, whose responsibility it is to heal.9 Some angels are created for one specific task, and upon the task's completion cease to exist. According to the Zohar10 one of the angels' tasks is to transport our words of prayer and Torah-study before G‑d's throne.

Another type of angels are those that are created through the deeds of man. In the words of our Sages: "He who fulfills one mitzvah, acquires for himself one angel-advocate; he who commits one transgression, acquires against himself one angel-accuser."11 These are formed from the (intellectual and emotional) energy which one invests in the performance of a mitzvah, the study of Torah, or in prayer—or, conversely, energy applied in the execution of a sin.

According to some schools of thought, the term angel in Jewish literature can also refer to the rules of nature, which – though ostensibly "natural" powers – are also G‑dly endowed powers; His messengers that perform His will.12

In our daily prayers we refer to the songs of praise which the angels sing before G‑d. The angels have "shifts," singing at designated times of day or night. The type of praise they sing reflects the particular angel's spiritual status. The angels' singing is alluded to in the abovementioned story of Jacob's fight with the angel, at the end of which the angel pleaded with Jacob to free him "for the dawn has risen."13 According to the Midrash, the angel's rush was because his shift to sing before G‑d had arrived. Similarly, according to the Midrash, when Moses spent forty days studying with G‑d, he knew what time of day it was based on the changing shifts of the angels' singing.

Assuming Human Form

There is some debate among the great Jewish philosophers whether the angels that the Torah describes as appearing actually assumed a visible physical form,14 or they appeared in the course of a spiritual vision or prophecy—in which the angels appeared as physical beings.15 According to all approaches, however, seeing an angel requires extra-sensory perception, as the bodies of the angels are not comprised of all the basic elements of a physical being.

Angels vs. Humans

Notwithstanding the great spiritual level of the angels, the holiness of the Jewish soul supersedes that of the angel. Only the Jewish soul has the ability to descend to this physical and corporeal world and refine and elevate it.16 For the human's divine soul is a "veritable piece of G‑d Above," a "piece" of the Creator; as opposed to the angels which are creations—albeit very holy ones.

This reflects itself in that fact that angels are one-dimensional: each angels has one specific form of Divine service. The human soul, on the other hand, serves G‑d in many different ways, expressing itself through love, awe, etc.

In the Tanya,17 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes that he heard from his masters that "if one angel were to stand in the presence of a gathering of ten Jews, even if there were no words of Torah [being discussed] between them, such a boundless and infinite terror and dread would then befall him on account of the Divine Presence that abides over them, that he would become utterly nullified!"

Furthermore, angels have no free-choice and are pre-programmed to serve G‑d, whereas the human is entrusted with the mission of serving G‑d—but is given the freedom to choose to do otherwise. As such, the mitzvot performed by the human are of much greater value than the angels' service, and propel him or her to infinitely greater spiritual heights, as opposed to the angels who are "trapped" in a consistent level of spiritual consciousness.

Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch once described the feelings he experienced while reciting the daily morning prayers: "When I recite the part of prayer which describes the praise that the angels sing before G‑d, I envy them. But when I read the Shema, the praise that the Jew sings before G‑d, I wonder: 'Where have all the angels gone?'"

FOOTNOTES
1.

The first explicit mention of angels in the Torah is in Genesis 16:7, when an angel appeared to Hagar when she was fleeing her mistress Sarah's home. In the Midrash, however, angels appear much earlier in history. According to differing Midrashic accounts, angels were first created either on the second or fifth day of creation.

2.

8:16, 10:13, and more.

3.

Genesis 32:30.

4.

13:19.

5.

Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:2.

6.

It is important to note that we are discouraged from unnecessarily pronouncing the names of angels (unless they are common Jewish names—such as Michael and Gabriel). When G‑d created the angels, He instructed them to go to a person who calls their name. As such, we do not want to "disturb" them unnecessarily (see Taamei Hamitzvot of the Arizal, end of Parshat Vayechi).

7.

Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:7.

8.

Zohar II, 43a has a slightly different list: Malachim, Erelim, Seraphim, Chayot, Ophanim, Chashmalim, Elim, Elokim, Bene Elokim, and Ishim.

9.

These aforementioned angels are actually archangels, employing countless "underling" angels that assist them in fulfilling their duties.

10.

Vol. I 23b.

11.

Ethics 4:11.

12.

Guide for the Perplexed 2:6.
This view is not at odds with the traditional understanding of angels as spiritual beings existing on a different plane of reality. According to the Kabbalah, every physical being and energy evolved from - and is influenced by - an analogous spiritual energy. The forces of nature are, therefore, called angels, referring to their spiritual antecedent. e.g. the healing power of nature is called "the Angel Rafael," whose responsibility it is to heal. In some instances, the spiritual antecedent itself, i.e. the angel, "descends" to do its work, and in other instances it works through a proxy. Likutei Sichos vol. 5 pp. 82-83.

13.

Genesis 32:27.

14.

This is the opinion of Nachmanides, Genesis 18:1.

15.

The opinion espoused by Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 2:42.

16.

The Midrash relates an incident that occurred during the times of Enosh (Adam's grandson), when angels assumed human form and descended to this world—in an attempt to demonstrate how they would remain holy and spiritual and unaffected by this world's temptations. Instead, they plunged to the basest levels, and brought the world down with them (see commentaries and Midrash on Genesis 6:4).

17.

Iggeret Hakodesh, epistle 23.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a member of the Chabad.org Ask the Rabbi team.
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations. To view or purchase David’s art, please visit davidasherbrook.com.
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Discussion (34)
August 11, 2014
What about the angels mentioned in Ezekiel? I though that historically he was before Daniel?
Joan
Uk
May 27, 2014
Why would an Angel cry?
Naama
Ewa Beach, Ho
February 28, 2014
Angels
My experience with angels has been simply remarkable.I've been on the wrong side of life,in dangerous situatons,run over at 2mph by a truck.The angels helped me escape my pursuers,&..I believe lifted the weight of the truck up just enough off my waist that I was able to not only not die but have an operation for a broken pelvis that I recovered from!! They have protected me ad infinitum&I have changed most of ways so I'm not i.n those situations anymore. Simple?-yes.Deep?-absolutely!!
Jon Cooper
Paramus
December 25, 2013
angels
All the information you need is in the Bible..Spend time with God and he will reveal to you what you want, God created the heavens and the earth. He holds power over everything. Yes even satan.
Anonymous
Tulare County
December 25, 2013
You got half of what angels are and what they do.
Sti
February 25, 2013
Abraham was visited by three angels?
Abraham sees three men walking towards him. They had feet, legs, hands, mouths,and as far as Abraham was concerned they were men.

Gen 18:8 And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set [it] before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

So we know that these angels came to destroy Soddom but also predict Sarah's
pregnancy.
How do you explain away the physical attributes of the angels who ate Abraham's food ?
For many have entertained angels unawares. They can look just like us.

May Hashem bless your study of Torah.
Craig Elvis Scott
Hamilton Ont Can
December 28, 2012
I read your answer to Anon front Lagos if October 2006, just a question: is your answer about angels lack of free will and its consequences in the way they behave ob earth pshat or drash?
Gershom
hk
December 23, 2012
they do indeed exist
This article is perhaps one of the most accurate that I have read.
I claim to be no expert on angels or the divine but I've had some personal experiences that back this article.
1. Angels are spiritual forms of energy. I guess it's possible for them to take corporeal forms but I don't know how or if it happens. As such, it is possible to communicate with angels but I figure only a few to no humans have this ability (essentially a sixth sense), you would need to use a medium of some sort to use energy to communicate.
2. In my opinion, they do have missions however it's important to understand they also have their own conscious (they aren't robots). Many were humans at one point.
Good Article!
VKB
Oakland, CA, USA
October 4, 2012
Fallen Angels
Y'huda,

Two angels approached Hashem and asked why He paid so much heed to mankind since mankind's actions always seemed to be full of error. Hashem responded that it isn't easy being human. The two angels asked permission to descend to the earthly realm to see for themselves. Hashem granted them permission and the two did so, taking a group of angels with them. These are the ones who fell in love with women and whose children are referred to as the Nephilim.
Sruly
St.Louis
June 24, 2012
RE; Angel's and Satan
You must first understand that G-D created the Satan. In the Christian religion the Satan is G-D'S adversary but in truth he is really man's adversary, trying to prove to G-D that man who is higher than angels to G-D is not worthy of that title. Look around everyday life, whether you believe or not the Satan is all around still tripping people up with drugs, greed, killling, lust, ect. You also have angels. Before you study on angels prepare yourself for a long journey. You must not just put your foot in the water, you must know the ramifications of delving into the unknown. I know...I did it!
Fishel Brodsky
Yonkers, NY
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