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What Are Angels?

What Are Angels?

''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?'"


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.


8:16, 10:13, and more.




Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:2.


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).


Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:7.


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


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


Vol. I 23b.


Ethics 4:11.


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.


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


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


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).


Iggeret Hakodesh, epistle 23.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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.
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Michael regon November 5, 2017

If Angels do not take on human form, what did they appear as when saving Lot? Reply

Eliyahu Bronx November 1, 2017

In Daniel 8:13 who is Palmoni? An angel? What is is role? Shalom. Reply

Pat October 22, 2017

Does the statement that angels have no free will equate to the angels having no daat? If they don't have daat then that's another difference between them and humans. I wondered about this reading Parshah Noach this week. Thanks. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for October 23, 2017
in response to Pat:

Daat usually means the practical application of an intellectual concept, so yes, that two can be connected. Reply

Anonymous April 3, 2017

It says angels are preprogrammed to serve G-d; this leaves me confused about Satan the fallen angel. How could Satan have left serving G-d of they are pre-programmed?

Can someone help me out? Thank you! Reply

Dave Toronto May 9, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

There is no such thing as "Satan," as the Christians understand the concept, in the Jewish faith. "Satan," from a Jewish perspective, would be the result of a set of mistranslations on the part of Christians. Reply

Akiba Torrance, CA November 2, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

The Christian term Satan for a being of some form is one of many mis-translations of Hebrew terms or words. In Hebrew it is HaSatan, which means "the Advesary". As I was taught it is simply an old term effectively replaced by the (also old) terms the Yetzer HaRa and Yetzer Ha Tov, i.e. the evil inclination and good inclination we have within ourselves. In a sense (only) charcterized by the picture of a devil like figure on one shoulder of a person arguing with a good person on the other. Those are the The Adversarial forces within ourselves. I have also heard it said that HaSatan was an early form of Yetzer Har Ra. There is no Satan in the Jewish belief system. Should one come upon a word translated from Hebrew into English as Satan, from Midrashic writings, keep in mind many of these writings are "fictional" in nature and intended to convey moral meaning, not historical fact. The Talmud tells us the Book of Job is a -- wherein HaSatan plays a prominent role. Reply

Tizla USA April 1, 2017

where they created or always existed as HaShem ? Reply

Jo uk January 3, 2017

to Ewa The initiative is G-d's. They are His messengers. We do not speak to angels, except to reply.
Satan is a fallen angel, according to the prophet Ezekiel 28:14+ so the danger is in trying to contact angels, you will almost certainly get a fallen angel.
That is why it is so vital that you check whatever you hear of scripture, angels, in your spirit, is set against the Bible.

G-d gave His word that "He would not change, so that His people would not be destroyed" the prophet Malachi 3:6

G-d cannot lie, so they only speak what G-d gives them. Reply

Abby October 30, 2017
in response to Jo:

Ezekiel 28 says no such thing.

יא וַיְהִי דְבַר-יְהוָה, אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. 11 Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying:
יב בֶּן-אָדָם, שָׂא קִינָה עַל-מֶלֶךְ צוֹר; וְאָמַרְתָּ לּוֹ, כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה, אַתָּה חוֹתֵם תָּכְנִית, מָלֵא חָכְמָה וּכְלִיל יֹפִי. 12 'Son of man, take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, and say unto him: Thus saith the Lord GOD: Thou seal most accurate, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty,
יג בְּעֵדֶן גַּן-אֱלֹהִים הָיִיתָ, כָּל-אֶבֶן יְקָרָה מְסֻכָתֶךָ אֹדֶם פִּטְדָה וְיָהֲלֹם תַּרְשִׁישׁ שֹׁהַם וְיָשְׁפֵה, סַפִּיר נֹפֶךְ, וּבָרְקַת וְזָהָב; מְלֶאכֶת תֻּפֶּיךָ וּנְקָבֶיךָ בָּךְ, בְּיוֹם הִבָּרַאֲךָ כּוֹנָנוּ. 13 thou wast in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the carnelian, the topaz, and the emerald, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the carbuncle, and the smaragd, and gold; the workmanship of thy settings and of thy sockets was in thee, in the day that thou wast created they were prepared.
יד Reply

Jo uk January 3, 2017

1 I think that the Cherubim, that G-d placed at the entrance to the garden of Eden,[Genesis 3:24] to prevent man's return to take from the tree of life and live forever with sin, are an group of angels. Reply

Anonymous Cahors France August 19, 2017
in response to Jo:

Cherubim with Turning flaming swords stand before the entrance to the Garden of Eden...Only God tells them to let someone enter Eden or not.. Reply

Anonymous Ewa Beach December 29, 2016

How does one get in touch to speak to an angel? And how does one learn the skill or function of that angel? Is an angel allowed to lie? Reply

Yisrael Jerusalem December 29, 2016

angels can attain human form Angels are essentially energy in their raw state, much like a soul. Guess what? You're energy too! Science explains you're made up of atoms/electrons/protons/nuetrons which are not physical! held together by the will of hashem. We also see in the Chumash (torah) that Jaacob wrestles an angel, that 3 angels physically visit Avraham, so yes, they can become physical in nature. But - we also see that they can exist spiritually in our world as in the case of Balak where only his donkey sensed him. May you all make physical the spiritual! Happy Channukah! Reply

Jo uk December 28, 2016

December 4 to Womiegha Ebenezer Shalom. GOD did indeed say, "Let us make man in our own image" But that was not spoken to nor includng angels!
That is Islamic idea, it is not Judasim Reply Staff via December 26, 2016

To W In the text of the article, the author discusses whether they truly adopt human form or not... Reply

Womiegha Ebenezer Shalom Lagos Nigeria December 4, 2016

Are you now telling me that angels have got no human shape or it's likeness? Remember the book of Genesis says: "come,let us create man in our own image".

How do you explain this? Reply

Rivkah Bergman Tiberias, Israel September 12, 2016

Angels My question is do angels have feet? I believe that angels have a form like a human being with wings, but not with feet? Reply

Anonymous Los Angeles May 4, 2015

? You're all serious, right? Reply

Barbara Ellison WISTER April 23, 2015

Thank you. Reply

Uriel December 30, 2014

Question "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)."
How was this possible, seeing that according to what was stated in the article:
"angels are one-dimensional: each angels has one specific form of Divine service." and
"angels have no free-choice and are pre-programmed to serve G‑d."
Wouldn't this mean that G-d programmed the angels which came down in bodily form to commit those acts which are referred to as the "basest"? Reply

Joan Uk August 11, 2014

What about the angels mentioned in Ezekiel? I though that historically he was before Daniel? Reply

Naama Ewa Beach, Ho May 27, 2014

Why would an Angel cry? Reply

Jon Cooper Paramus 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!! Reply

Anonymous Tulare County 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. Reply

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