The Torah commands that atop the Holy Ark in the Tabernacle they should make two kruvim (“cherubim”) facing each other. The Talmud explains that kruvim looked like young children. At the same time, kruvim are also the name of certain destructive angels said to protect the path to the Tree of Life (see Rashi to Gen. 3:24). In the following paragraphs we will explore kruvim and other words for angels that appear in the Bible, and try to show how their meanings differ from one another. For those interested, this essay also doubles as a primer on Jewish Angelology.
Maimonides (Laws of Yesodei HaTorah 2:7) writes that there are ten classes of angels. The highest class of angels — above which only G-d stands — are the chayot, or chayot hakodesh. Then come the ophanim, erelim, chashmalim, seraphim, malachim, elohim, bnei elohim, cherubim, and finally, the ishim.
When the Orchot Chaim (Seder Tefillat Shabbat Shacharit §2) and Kolbo (§37) cite this tradition, they write that there are nine types of angels. They differ from Maimonides in that they omit malachim, elohim, bnei elohim, and ishim and instead list galgalim, irin, and kadishin. A Kabbalistic tract known as Masechet Atzilut has a different list of the ten categories of angels, which mirrors Maimonides’ list but replaces chayot and elohim with shananim and tarshishim. Besides all of this, Rabbi Moshe ibn Chaviv (1654-1696) points out that angels are also called abirim (see Ps. 75:25). [Rabbi Dovid Luria (1798-1855), in his glosses to Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 4), understands that that Midrash maintains that ophanim and galgalim are synonyms, and kruvim and chayot are also synonyms.]
What are the meanings of each of these words, and how does each class of angels differ from the others?
The anonymous commentator to Maimonides writes that some explain that the chayot are called so because they appeared to the prophet Yechezkel in the form of “wild animals” (chayot). In This World, animals are not the highest forms of creation. Rather, the human stands at the pinnacle of creation. Consequently, the highest form of angels appeared to Yechezkel as animals in order to teach the prophet that even the highest creature in the Upper Realms is still like an animal compared to G-d — the pinnacle of all existence. The chayot are not the highest of all entities, but only the highest of all created entities in the Upper Realms. Alternatively, the chayot are called so because they are used to provide the life-force (chiyut)to all lower creations.
The word ophan refers to an angel of the second class, and also means “wheel”. If G-d’s glory is likened to a chariot (as it is in Yechezkel’s visions), then the ophan is the wheel which brings that vehicle to other places. In several works ascribed to the school of Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms it is stated that the ophan refers to “the inside of a wheel,” while galgal refers to “the outside of a wheel” (i.e. its spokes).
This anonymous commentator further writes that an erel (Isaiah 33:7) — an angel of the third class — refers to something “strong” or “important,” just like the Holy Temple and its Altar are called Ariel and Harel (Ezek. 43:15). The School of Rokeach teaches that erelim tell the other angels about G-d’s Divine decrees. Bar Kapara, a student of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, is said to have announced his master’s death by proclaiming: “Erelim and the afflicted [i.e. the human righteous] both grabbed onto the Holy Ark [i.e. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi]; the erelim overpowered the afflicted, and the Holy Ark was captured [i.e. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, and was taken away by the erelim, who are charged with carrying out G-d’s decrees, much to the dismay of the righteous humans who now lost their venerated leader].” (Ketubot 104a)
The fourth class of angels, chashmalim, reveal themselves to prophets through fiery flashes of light. The Talmud (Chagiga 13b) explains that the name of this class of angels is comprised of the two words chash (“quiet”) and mal (“speak”), because they sometimes speak of G-d’s glory and they sometimes remain quiet. The School of the Rokeach interprets the word chashmal as a portmanteau of chashuv (“important” on account of their proximity to G‑d’s glory) and mal (“speak” because they speak of G-d’s holiness). In Modern Hebrew, the word chashmal refers to “electricity.”
The anonymous commentator to Maimonides writes that seraphim are called so on account of their appearance, which is so awesome that one who glares upon them will be automatically burned up (saruf).
He also explains that malachim refers to all classes of angels in general, and is also a more specific term that refers to the sixth class of angels. He likens this to Taharot,which is both the name of one of the Six Orders of the Mishna, and the name of a tractate within the Order of Taharot. The Rokeach’s school understands that malachim refers specifically to angels which were sent to Earth for special missions.
The seventh class of angels is called elohim, a term which refers to any entity in a position of power or authority. It is used variously to refer to an angel, a judge, a prophet, and even G-d Himself. A closely-related term is used for the eighth class of angels, the bnei elohim (literally, “sons of elohim”), who are called so because they are secondary to the elohim.
As mentioned above, kruvim (“Cherubim”) are the ninth class of angels. Many commentators explain that the word kruv (“Cherub”) is derived from the Aramaic word ravia (“lad”) found in the Targum to Gen. 21:17 and many other places. The letter KAF at the beginning of the word means “like” or otherwise denotes a simile. This etymology is the basis for the Talmudic assertion (Chagiga 13b and Succa 5b) that kruvim looked like children. (Whether the cherubim atop the Holy Ark were two boys or a boy and girl is subject to dispute.) Other sources say that kruvim were in the shape of birds, or some sort of child-bird hybrid.
The ishim are the lowest members of Maimonides’ angelic hierarchy. They are the angels which communicate directly with human prophets. They are called ishim (literally, “men”) because their level is similar to that of the human prophets with whom they speak. Alternatively, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Movshovitz (d. 1983) explains that they are called ishim because they sometimes act like humans, such as when three angels came to visit Avraham (Gen. 18) they looked like people and acted like people.
Although not on Maimonides’ list of angels, the School of the Rokeach explains the meanings of two more classes of angels: kadishin are angels which are “holy” (kadosh) and “separate” from the others, in that they do not carry out Divine commands, but rather tell other angels what to do. And irin are sent to Earthly cities (ir in Hebrew means “city”) to observe the deeds of mankind, and to give people specific dreams. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that the name irin is derived from the word eir (AYIN-REISH), which means “awake,” because these angels are always “awake” and paying attention to what people do.