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Acute Angles: Prayers Directed to Angels

Dear Rabbi. As you once taught me, the fifth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith declares we must pray only to G-D – “not to angels and not to the dead” were your words. How then can we in, all conscience, intone every Friday night at our dinner-tables barkhuni le-shalom, “bless me with peace, you angels of peace”? I look forward to your answer. Yours, J. M.

Dear J. M.

This stanza bothers me too. Even though the stanza concludes “angels of the Exalted One, from the King over kings, the Holy One Blessed is He,” what need is there to request blessing from heavenly intermediaries? Angels are but lesser manifestations of the Divine. They have no independent existence and no bekhira  (freedom of choice). They are created by G-D at will. It is clearly not permitted, according to all opinions, to pray directly to an angel.

The well-loved poem Shalom Aleikhem, of which this stanza is a part, is inspired by the famous passage in the Talmud which states (Shabbat 119a) that two angels escort us home from shul on a Friday night. This is a homiletic way of declaring that when we welcome Shabbat, we receive an “additional soul” (neshama yeteira) facilitating a heightened sensitivity to the Heavenly realms. Thus we are able to “perceive angels”! We courteously greet these heavenly beings, welcome them into our home and bid them farewell when they depart. (Rabbi Yosef Yitschak of Lubavitch explains the last stanza “depart in peace” by cutely observing that it  would be in bad taste to commence eating with the angels still present!) In stanzas 1, 2 and 4, we address the angels without actually requesting anything from them.

However, the third stanza, as you say, appears to beseech the angels to bless us with peace! How can such a sentiment be sanctioned?

The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) relates that if the angels are pleased with our Shabbat preparations they extend to us the b’rakha that it may be equally so in successive weeks. Perhaps it may be said that this is not a blessing in the sense that our destiny will be in any way altered – this, only G-D has the power to grant – but more in the form of a “good wish” for the future – see Siddur Beit Yaakov of R’ Yaakov Emden. Or perhaps it is no different from the Kohanim serving as the conduit for G-D’s blessing in the birkhat kohanim. Thus those who say bar’khuni appear to have sources on whom to rely.

However, this same R’ Emden, the Yavets, (1697-1776) whose Beit Yaakov we cited just above, ultimately declares himself, together with R’ Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), among the chief opponents of the recital of bar’khuni, declaring that angels – unlike the kohanim – have no free-will, nor do they possess independent power to confer b’rakhot. Yes, the angels may wish us well, but that is not the source of blessing. Only man’s deeds can create “angels” for good or ill. More recently, R’ Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) testified (Igros Moshe O.C 5:146) that his father omitted the bar’chuni stamza when singing Sholom Aleikhem as it is highly questionable whether we should even be praying for angels to intercede on our behalf.

Famed Judeo-Spanish exegete and statesman Don Yitschak Abarbanel,(1437-1508) cites Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachot 9): “If Jews have hardship, they should not cry out to the angels Michael or Gavriel, rather I (G-D) should receive their outcries!” It is for this reason that many congregations omit Makhnisei Rakhamim (“Angels of mercy usher in our petition”), a prayer to be found near the end of the penitential selikhot. The Maharal of Prague (Netiv Haovoda 12) objects to the recitation of this prayer because it appears as if we are praying to the angels and not to the Almighty. He therefore amends the text from makhnisei rakhamim hakhnisu rakhameinu (“angels of mercy, usher in  our plea for mercy”) to makhnisei rakhamim yakhnisu rakhameinu (“allow the angels of mercy to usher in our plea for mercy”) so that G-D is being directly addressed. The Chatam Sofer, (1762-1839) records his personal practice to skip the makhnisei rakhamim  prayer altogether. (Orach Chaim 166)

At home, I skip bar’khuni. When I run a Shabbat evening gathering or communal dinner, as I did last week, I have found a novel way, when leading guests in singing Shalom Aleikhem, to be faithful to my own scruples while not imposing them on others. When we arrive at the third stanza I start everybody off by singing the words bar’khuni le-shalom then let the participants continue until they reach Melekh malkhei ha-melakhim HaKadosh Barukh Hu where I re-join the lusty chorus of voices, so that I am in fact proclaiming: Bless me with peace, O Supreme King of Kings the Holy One blessed is He! I haven’t been “caught out” yet!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation
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