Light of the Guide Series - ''Peace Unto You, Ministering Angels''

Lessons from Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed by Rabbi Dr. Hananel Sari

Translated by Yehudah Barukh Ilan- Article Source

The Gemara (Shabbat 119b) tells of two angels[1] that accompany a person home from the synagogue on Erev Shabbat, one good and one evil. If they arrive and find that his home is ready and set in order for Shabbat, the good angel says, "May it be His will that it will be this way next Shabbat" and the evil angel is forced to answer "Amen." But if they find that his home is not ready, the evil angel says, "May it be His will that it will be this way next Shabbat" and the good angel is forced to answer "Amen."

This section of the Gemara is used as the basis for the famous poem that many have the custom of reciting before kiddush on Leil Shabbat (i.e. Shalom `Alekhem). There are those among the poskim who prefer to omit the third verse of this poem which says to the angels ''barkhuni'' ("Bless me..."). It is brought in the name of the GR''A that Heaven impressed upon him not to say ''barkhuni le-shalom'' ("Bless me with peace...") on Leil Shabbat, nor the prayer Mal'akhei Rahamim ("Angels of Compassion") in Selihot. Their reason for being so careful is that such things appear be acts of petitioning an angel as an intermediary, something which is in direct opposition to the fifth of the thirteen principles of Jewish faith, which also the Rambam brings in the halakhah:

"The essence of the commandment against idolatry is that one should not serve any one of the creations, not an angel...nor anything which is created from them, even though the one who is serving them knows that HaShem is God and he is serving the created thing in the way that Enosh and the people of his generation did at first - behold, such a one commits idolatry."(Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 2:1)

And this appears to be the reason that Rav Saadyah Gaon translated the blessing of Yaakov to the sons of Yosef - who seems to be petitioning an angel - in the following way: "`al yedei mal'akh ga'alni mi-kol ra` hu yevarekh..." ("Through an angel [God] has redeemed me from all evil, may He bless...") The gaon intends to indicate that this is not a prayer by Yaakov to an angel. Rather, this is a prayer to He who sent His angel to save him, and that God will continue to watch over his grandsons with the same Divine Providence as was granted to him (Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam). So we see that the proper sense of these verses is: "The God before Whom my fathers walked...[He is also] the God Whom has shepherded me since the beginning of my life until this day [by sending to help me] an angel who redeems me from all evil. May [that same God] bless [also with that same protection] the youths, and call my name upon them..."

The ministering angels that the Gemara describes as accompanying a person home from the synagogue on Shabbat appear to be the same angels that are mentioned in other places in the teachings of Hazal. They testify to the deeds of a person if he acts in a way that is not appropriate (cf. Taanit 11a), and from them it seems that a person needs to part company before they enter to perform their needs (i.e. use the bathroom) by means of a verbal 'apology' (cf. Berakhot 60b). The Shulhan Arukh writes that today we no longer have the custom to say this apology, called ''hitkhabdu mekhubadim" (cf. OH 3:1), since we are not so strong in our yirat shamayim that angels still accompany us (cf. Mishnah Berurah). In the sefer "Kaf HaHayim" an opinion is brought in opposition to this. It states that there are kabbalists who recommend to say it even in our times since these angels continue to accompany each person still today. This mahloket (i.e. whether or not angels still accompany people in our generation and if it is feasible to turn to them - for the poskim in favor of it comment on their observation that saying it offers not only positive psychological assistance but it is also involved in promoting a more meticulous inspection of ones deeds) is debated due to a conception of angels which is far removed from that of the Rambam.

The Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed (2:6, 3:22), when dealing with the explanation of the nature of angels, mentions that the meaning of the word "angel" is not always consistent, however the basic meaning is always "emissary". Because of this, each prophet is worthy of being called by this name. Even forces of nature through which HaKadosh Barukh Hu manages His world, all of them are properly called "angels" and they are known collectively as the Pamalya Shel Ma'alah (i.e. the ''Entourage Above''). After this introduction, the Rambam brings a passage from Midrash Kohelet that tells how when a person sleeps "nafsho omeret le-mal'akh umal'akh omer le-keruv - his soul speaks to the 'angel' and the angel speaks to the 'cherub'." And from here he explains that in the language of Hazal the creative faculty of a person is called an "angel" and his intelligence is called a ''cherub". The Rambam knew that the majority of people were not accustomed to designating these parts of the soul as angels and would even resist to accept this fact. Therefore he continues and says, "How important this is for the one who knows, and how ugly it is to those who are fools." We find therefore that the angels that accompany a person to every place that he goes are, according to the Rambam, the faculties of a person's mind and it is therefore also clear that in his opinion each person is still accompanied by these angels – even in our times.

Now the only matter that still remains to be clarified is the question as to the identities of the "evil angel" and the "good angel." The question is not so difficult, however, and the Rambam also deals with this, but in another chapter of the Guide (2:12).

[1] The English word ''angel'' is generally insufficient to accurately translate the Hebrew word mal'akh, and its use usually conjures up cultural images that are completely inaccurate and foreign to the Biblical and Talmudic usage of the word. However, since there is not another English word available that both communicates the idea of a ''messenger'' while also evoking the common designation of spiritual beings in the service of the Creator, it has been used in this translation throughout.

23/07/15 ז' אב התשע"ה

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