Ask the Rabbi: Do angels exist?

In the Bible, the term most frequently used to connote an angel is “malach.”

Abraham and angels (photo credit: Illustration)
Abraham and angels
(photo credit: Illustration)
The Bible and Talmud are replete with discussions of angels, with subsequent Jewish literature naturally assuming their existence. Yet the definition of these entities was highly disputed, and gave rise to extremely different interpretations.
In the Bible, the term most frequently used to connote an angel is “malach.”
Like its Greek equivalent “angelos,” the term malach can refer to a human messenger or supernatural entity, sometimes creating ambiguity as to the intent of the text. Indeed, in a few biblical stories, some characters initially struggled to comprehend whether they were interacting with a worldly or supernatural entity.
In any case, the shared use of the term reflects the belief that angels are supernatural entities that serve as messengers or servants of God. In a number of passages, the Torah interchangeably refers to the angel with the term Elohim, a name also used for God, thereby highlighting the notion that angels are manifestations of divine will and power, not independent entities. That said, the Torah definitively distinguishes angels from God, as seen through His declaration at Sinai and in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf that He will send a malach (as opposed to Himself) to guide the nation.
While angels are found throughout the Bible, their presence is particularly felt within books of the later prophets like Zechariah and Ezekiel, in which angels perform varying tasks including delivering messages and serving as celestial figures that sing God’s praises around His throne. In the Book of Daniel, angels receive names such as Gabriel and Michael, while developing distinct identities and roles.
The Talmud greatly elaborates on these trends and includes many passages that depict the works and deliberations of various angelic characters, as well as a debate regarding when the angels were made during the six days of creation. Talmudic sources also highlight the intervention of angelic figures within individual lives (as opposed to national events or historic figures), and include instructions on how to gain protection from the celestial realm.
Many Talmudic and later figures seemingly adopted a more or less literal interpretation of the biblical passages regarding angels, including their corporeality. Yet some medieval Jewish figures interpreted the concept of angels in light of their metaphysical schematics, which were greatly influenced by major trends in Greek philosophy. For example, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, under the influence of Platonic thought, proposed a complex threefold cosmology of the universe that included elements of astrology. He believed that rational souls can purify themselves and ascend to the upper realms of angels, thereby avoiding the harmful decrees of the lower astral realms.
The most controversial interpretation of the concept of angels was proposed by Maimonides, who naturalistically equated types of angels with Aristotle’s notions of separate intellects or allegorically interpreted them as psychological forces. He further asserted that the appearance of angels in biblical stories were mere images within prophetic dreams. These assertions drew sharp responses from critics like Nahmanides, who affirmed that there was some reality to angelic apparitions, even as they required a unique and acute perspective to be seen.
While many accused Maimonides of distorting Jewish ideas with Aristotelian notions, Maimonides believed that his position was not only genuine but also necessary to prevent forms of idolatry from corrupting Jewish practice. In his Thirteen Principles of Faith, he asserted that Jews may not worship angels or even use them as intermediaries in their service of God. Given his definition of angels, of course, the notion of employing “separate intellects” or psychological forces as an intermediary seems farcical.
Yet many other figures who disagreed with the Maimonides’s notion of angels, including Nahmanides, shared his opposition to intercessory prayer. They believed it only makes sense to petition the entity (i.e. God) who holds the power to grant a request – whereas angels, who do not possess free will and do not determine anything on their own, are not worthy of being involved in this process.
Despite this opposition, other scholars defended the recitation of hymns that include intercessory prayers, largely because the Talmud itself seems to advocate for it in a few passages. They rebutted the theological objections by contending that intercessory prayers affirm that God is the exclusive sovereign of the world, whom even angels must beseech. Angels may serve as mere intermediaries, but nothing more.
To my mind, these debates highlight the larger phenomenon regarding the strong positive or negative feelings that many people have toward angels. For thinkers like Maimonides, popular notions of angels are mythological distractions which obfuscate the distinctiveness of God and pose a threat of idol worship. For others, however, angels symbolize God’s manifestation in this world and His interests in our needs. The existence of Gabriel and Michael are the greatest proofs that we can reach out to God, even when He appears distant.
The writer teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars, and is a junior scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute.