For as long as I can remember, I have believed in guardian angels. Although such belief wasn’t part of my religious school education or something that my parents or grandparents taught me, since I was a child I’ve thought that I, like everyone else, had someone watching over me, offering guidance and protection. I don’t think that I confessed this belief to anyone. The theology that I was taught by my rational, childhood rabbi did not include angels, much less the reality of a supernatural God. I knew of angels from Christmas movies and from the New Testament, when the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is about to have a child. But other than the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:25-30), a figure whom Jacob recognizes to be God, I didn’t know of Jewish texts that describe angels as engaging us in conversation, individual struggle, or prayer. While Jewish tradition did in fact develop the belief “that each person has a protecting angel, even as the people Israel had theirs in the wilderness” (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [NY: URJ Press, 2005], p. 308), such belief wasn’t part of any Jewish traditions that, as a child, I either learned or inherited.
And then I read Parashat Va-y’chi, in which after Jacob blesses Joseph he turns to “the angel who has rescued me from all harm” to bless Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. He says to the angel: “Through them let my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac be recalled, and let them greatly multiply within the land” (Genesis 48:16). W. Gunther Plaut maintains that the angel to whom Jacob cries out “may well be a poetic substitute for God,” (ibid., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed.). However, unlike the episode in which Jacob wrestles with an angel, Jacob does not here identify the angel as God. Rather, it appears that the angel to whom Jacob turns is his own guardian angel. By Talmudic times, this blessing became the last piece of the Sh’ma recited before going to bed.
One can have several guardian angels, as in the bedtime prayer that asks for God’s presence, along with the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. Or one can have only one, who may or may not be of biblical or Rabbinic origin. Such an angel need not always be the same, nor might he or she have a name. Thus, for example, the anonymous author of a 17th century Yiddish collection of tkhines (petitionary prayers primarily said by women) creates a prayer in which, when a woman puts the Sabbath loaf (challah) into the oven, she should ask God to “send an angel to guard the baking, so that all will be well baked, will rise nicely, and will not burn” (Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, eds., Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook, Lebanon, NH: Brandeis University Press/UPNH, 2009), pp. 79-80). Such an angel is envisioned not as a singular “angel of baking” but as the personal guardian of the woman reciting this prayer.
Guardian angels can be personal angels of protection or protectors of a specific group. Thus, for example, “Shalom Aleichem,” a Hebrew liturgical poem written by Jewish mystics in the late 16th or 17th century in Safed, is sung on Friday night before Kiddush (the blessing over wine). It begins with the words: “Shalom aleichem, malachei ha-sharet, malachei elyon” (May peace be upon you, angels of service, angels of the most high). These are God’s angels, but they are not God. Rather, they are guardian angels, watching over and caring for the Jewish people. According to a teaching in the Talmud, two ministering angels accompany a man home from synagogue on Shabbat evening: one a good angel, the other bad (or evil). If the house has been prepared for the Sabbath, with a lamp lit, the table set, and the couch or bed covered with a spread, all done presumably by his pious wife, the good angel exclaims: “’May it be even thus on another Sabbath.’” But if none of these things has been done, the evil angel is the one who utters this sentiment, with the good angel “unwillingly” responding “Amen” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b). Guardian angels, it seems, can pray to God to the good of those who fulfill God’s commandments and to the misfortune of those who do not.
A post-Talmudic liturgical poem (piyyut) familiar to Jews who participate in daily prayer, generally included in the Selichot (forgiveness) prayers recited before and after Rosh HaShanah, begins:
Usherers of mercy, usher in our [plea for] mercy, You who cause prayer to be heard, may you cause our prayer to be heard before the Hearer of prayer. You who cause our outcry to be heard, may you cause our outcry to be heard, before the Hearer of outcry. You who usher in tears, may you usher in our tears, before the King Who finds favor through tears. Exert yourselves and multiply supplication and petition before the king, God, exalted and most high (cited in Meir Bar-Ilan, “Prayers of Jews to Angels and Other Intermediaries during the First Centuries of the Common").
Here, the petitioner clearly asks ministering angels to intervene with God on his or her behalf. A similar plea can be found in the traditional N’ilah service, the concluding service on Yom Kippur. There are times when we are reluctant, unwilling, or unable to turn directly to God. Perhaps those are the times when we need to remember most, as did the biblical Jacob, that there is always an angel to care for us, protect us, and help bring us closer to God.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies. She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.
For as long as I can remember, I have not believed in guardian angels. Whether it is the result of hyper-rationalism or simply a lack of imagination, I am sadly not a believer. And for a long time, I assumed I was the only one.
As it turns out, however, I am not the first rabbi to struggle with the role of angels in Judaism. Indeed, throughout the middle ages, some of the great commentators such as Maimonides, Abravanel, and Joseph Kimchi voiced their discomfort with the growing presence of angels in the liturgy and their prescribed role as interlocutors with The Divine, on our behalf. As the great rabbi Joseph Kimchi writes in the 12th century: "true penitence does not stand in need of intervention by the saints; feigned penitence will not be helped by either the dead or the saints, by man or angel" (Sefer ha-Berit in Milḥemet Ḥovah, p. 33a).
I can certainly understand how believing in angels brings a great deal of comfort, especially in challenging times. When we feel alone, scared, uncertain, or ill it’s consoling to believe that we need only call out to the angels Michael, Gabriel, Uziel, and Rafael for help. There is no question it is a beautiful image, but there is something about this dynamic that has always bothered me (and apparently, Rabbi Kimchi as well): it is one thing to believe in angels, it is another thing entirely to rely on them to do our work, for us.
We are currently living in a world that is frustratingly intent on its own destruction. It is all too easy to throw up our hands and pray for an answer to come from the heavens; but this is not enough. The angels of our tradition are messengers, not problem solvers; they appear not in place of God, but in service to God. They are bringers of wisdom, compassion, strength, and love not as a reward, but as a reminder. A reminder of the Divine Presence in this world and, more importantly, our responsibility to revere and protect it, in all its forms.
I may not believe in angels, but I do believe deeply in what they represent. And while I will not pray for them to save me, to heal me, or to protect me, I do pray to be more like them: to be more compassionate, more patient, and more loving.
Rabbi Daniel N. Geffen is the rabbi at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, NY.
Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304
Haftarah, I Kings 2:1–12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 359–360; Revised Edition, pp. 323–324