The Bible and prayers mention angels, but Jews differed in the past and still do today on the existence of angels. Should we interpret these allusions symbolically, and deny the existence of angels? Or, should we take these references literally, and insist that not only do angels exist but that they are involved in and impact upon our lives?
Angels visiting Jewish homes on Friday night
The popular and melodious Friday evening song Shalom Aleichem is an example. Sung jointly by the family, it unambiguously welcomes angels into the Jewish home on the Sabbath. According to tradition, two angels join the worshipper and accompany him from the Synagogue on Friday evening. One angel wants to do good and the other is bent on mischief. If, upon reaching the home, the first sees that the home has been prepared in an exemplary fashion for the Sabbath, with warm lights and delicious food, the family dressed in their finest, the wine bottle next to a lovely kiddush cup, the braided challah covered by a decorative cloth, he blesses the home, “may it be so next week.” If the home is ill prepared, if little or no attention has been given to the Sabbath, the other angel expresses his choice that it continues in disarray.
Rational Jews understand the story as a symbolic lesson to organize our lives suitably for the Sabbath. They know that proper preparation will aid in assuring future delights. The non-rationalist accepts the tale literally, and anxiously hopes that the bad angel will not harm him and his family.
Jacob and angels
In Genesis 28:12 one can find one of many instances of biblical references to angels. Jacob abandoned his family home fearing the revenge of his brother Esau for taking the blessing his father Isaac intended for him. He has a dream on the first night away from home in which his fear is expressed. He sees a ladder reaching as far as heaven with angels ascending and descending its steps.
The episode is easy for rationalists to understand. The Bible is stating that the angels were symbolic figures in his dream, not actual beings. It is obvious to rationalists that Jacob understands that the angels are assurances of his security and his fear is assuaged. The non-rationalist sees the dream as biblical confirmation of his belief in the existence of angels.
What is an angel?
The term malakh, which is frequently translated “angel,” literally means “messenger.” The rationalist understands the term as a metaphor for the acts of God and the forces of nature. The non-rationalist, on the other hand, is convinced that it is a noun describing a supernatural being that is superior to humans in power and knowledge, but not as powerful as God. Some nonrationalists also believe in the existence of incorporeal life forms that perform evil act, frequently contrary to God’s will. They may name them demons or evil angels.
Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) and Moses Nachmanides (1195–1270) express polar opposite beliefs regarding angels, although there are many other intermediate ideas. Maimonides totally rejected the literal notion that angels are divine-like almost human-like beings that perform missions for God.
Maimonides was certain that it is inconceivable that God would need help from independent forces. God created the laws of nature that accomplished all that God wanted, all that was needed, and all that was good. Furthermore, it is impossible to understand how such divine-like body-less spirits could be seen by man. Just as God lacks any body form, and therefore could not be seen, so, too, angels, who are said to be incorporeal, would be unseeable.
Maimonides discusses angels in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:6. He states there that angels certainly exist, after all the Bible mentions them, but the word should be understood figuratively. An angel is the various forces of the laws of nature: “every act of God is described as being performed by an angel.” The word “angel means messenger; hence everything that is given a certain mission is an angel.” The book of Psalms 104:4 makes it clear that even the “elements are called angels, ‘who makes winds, His angels.’”
Maimonides explains that when Scripture mentions that someone saw an angel, it simply means that he had a dream or vision. In short, Maimonides maintains that his view is identical “with the opinion of [the Greek philosopher] Aristotle. There is only a difference in the names employed.” Aristotle taught that the world functions according to the laws of nature and so did Maimonides.
Nachmanides disagreed entirely. He was convinced that the world does not function according to the laws of nature. God is directly and daily involved in every occurrence on earth, even the most mundane, such as a leaf falling from a tree. He frequently discusses the ramifications of his belief in his Bible commentaries, in Genesis 17:1 and 46:15, Exodus 13:16, Leviticus 26:11, and other places. Thus, for example, only God and not doctors can heal people (Exodus 21:19).
Nachmanides argued that people can see angels. This happened in Genesis 16:11 when Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, saw an angel. It occurred also to Abraham when he saw three of them in Genesis 18:2. Jacob wrestled with one in Genesis 32:25. Balaam encountered one in Numbers 22:31. Isaac was saved by one who appeared to his father Abraham in Genesis 22:11. These are just a few of many examples cited by Nachmanides.
He was also convinced that demons exist and that they interact with people. Since they can harm people, he outlined a method to avoid their harm in Leviticus 16:7.
Nachmanides view also appears in such mystical works as the Zohar. The Zohar pictures Abraham accompanying the angels for part of their journey when they left him. “But, if Abraham knew they were angels,” asks the Zohar, “why did he accompany them? Because he treated them like human beings.”
One may believe as one chooses. Virtually any idea that one has about angels can find support in the view of some ancient sage. However, one should remember that ideas can have a significant impact upon human lives. They can encourage people to develop intellectually and motivate them to act properly. Alternatively, a wrong belief can give people the assurance that they are surrounded by protective supernatural forces. Such a notion stifles their thinking and induces them to be passive and indifferent, vegetating, instead of living in this world and contributing to the improvement of mankind.