The Talmud prescribes a statement to be made before one enters the rest room to relieve himself: "Be ennobled, O noble ones, holy ones, servants of the supreme one; render honor to the God of Israel, disengage yourselves from me until after I enter, do what I will and return to you" (B. Brachot 60b) - a request that the angels that accompany us leave while we momentarily attend to our bodily functions.
One talmudic sage - Abbaye - objected to this formula: One should not tell the angels to leave, lest they indeed leave and do not return. The danger of the angels deserting the person when he enters the rest room was reason enough for Abbaye to suggest an alternative text: "Guard me, guard me; aid me, aid me; assist me, assist me; wait for me, wait for me - while I enter and exit, for such is the way of people."
What is the charge of these angels? In this passage their function is unclear, yet elsewhere their task is apparent (B. Ta'anit 11a): Our sages tell us that whoever suffers along with the community when the community is faced with tribulations will merit to witness the consolation of the community. The Talmud notes that a person may wonder: Who will testify that I did not share in the community's anguish? According to one approach, the two angels who escort a person may serve at witnesses.
From another talmudic passage, it appears that the angels do not always stand by and watch (B. Shabbat 119b). At the end of the Friday night service, we recite vayechulu, the biblical verses describing the completion of creation (see Genesis 2:1-3). Our sages tell us that after reciting vayechulu, two angels place their hands on the head of the reciter and bless him.
That may not be all the angels say: Two angels, one good and one bad, escort a person from the synagogue to his home. When the threesome finds the home lit specially for Shabbat, the table set and the bed made, the good angel says: "May it be the will [of God] that it should be this way next Shabbat." Hearing this blessing, the bad angel has no choice but to answer "Amen" against his will.
If the troika finds the home unprepared for Shabbat, the evil angel says: "May it be the will [of God] that it should be this way next Shabbat." This time the good angel has no choice but to answer "Amen" against his will.
These tasks of the accompanying angels may not seem so desirable: Do we really want someone looking over our shoulder at every moment and commenting on the condition of our homes? Why would Abbaye be so concerned about the angels deserting us after we go into the bathroom? we might be glad to dispense with prying eyes.
Perhaps the explanation for Abbaye's concern lies in a different job description that appears in a biblical verse: For He will charge His angels for your benefit, to guard you in all your ways (Psalms 91:11). The accompanying angels are there to protect our every move. If this is their purpose, who would want to lose these bodyguards?
What power are these angels endowed with, these companions who accompany us, only giving us privacy in the privy after we urge them to leave for a moment, and hopefully affording us a measure of protection in this world fraught with pitfalls and challenges?
In some customs, the biblical verse that mentions these accompanying angels is recited as part of the Wayfarer's Prayer. Understandably, as we set out on a journey beyond the safe confines of the known, we recall the angels that have been assigned to protect our every step by the Almighty.
In most Jewish homes, on Friday night as we gather around the Shabbat table before we recite kiddush over the wine and begin the festive meal. we sing "Shalom Aleichem," the poem welcoming the angels that have accompanied us from the synagogue. Immediately following this song, in some rites, the verse recalling the protective task of the angels is added.
In both cases - on a journey and on Friday night - the recitation of the verse is immediately followed by another biblical verse: God shall watch over your going out and your coming in from this time and for evermore (Psalms 121:8). The juxtaposition of the biblical verses reminds us: There are angels who are assigned to accompany us through the vicissitudes of life, charged with protecting our every step. Lest we be misled into thinking that the angels are to be lauded or even worshiped for their service, we quickly add that it is truly the Almighty who looks out for us, watching our comings and goings, from this time forth and for evermore.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.