The Tisch: On the wings of angels

How many wings do angels have?

The facade of the Jerusalem YMCA (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The facade of the Jerusalem YMCA
How many wings do angels have? According to the prophet Isaiah, angels have six wings – two that cover their faces, two that cover their legs and two for flying (Isaiah 9:2). The prophet Ezekiel had a different vision – he envisioned angels with only four wings (Ezekiel 1:6).
The Talmud notes this contradiction and responds by offering a historical explanation for the different visions. Isaiah lived when the Temple was standing, hence he saw the angels in all their glory – with a complete set of six wings. Ezekiel prophesied after the destruction of the Temple; this exilic state, bereft of holiness, was also expressed by the clipped wings of the celestial beings. Hence, Ezekiel perceived four-winged rather than six-winged angels (B. Hagiga 13b).
A kabbalistic tradition links the number of wings with the sentence, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingship forever and ever” – a line with mythical origins that appears in select places in the prayer service. According to rabbinic tradition, this mysterious verse is actually the property of the angels. Moses, or perhaps even Jacob, surreptitiously took the verse from them and shared it with humankind. The verse is recited as part of the daily Shema, though it said in an undertone so as not to draw attention to the stolen goods.
A kabbalistic notion cited in the name of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, 1534-1572), explains that the mysterious verse with its six Hebrew words corresponds to the wings of the angels: six words for six wings.
This led a hassidic master, Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Opatow (1748-1825), to wonder which two words were missing in exile.
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel is often referred to by the title of his posthumously published collection of teachings, Ohev Yisrael (Zhitomir 1863). The Ohev Yisrael cited his teacher, the famed Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk (1717- 1786), who explained that the two Hebrew words “kevod malchuto” – the glory of His kingship – are the missing words. Indeed, in the festival service we turn to the Almighty and beseech Him to “reveal the glory of Your kingship upon us” – a request for redemption indicated by returning the missing words, and the missing wings.
After quoting his teacher, the Ohev Yisrael offered his own opinion: “And I say that the words that are missing from the time of the destruction of the Temple are ‘le’olam va’ed’ [forever and ever].” The Ohev Yisrael explained that God is called “kadosh” (holy), and the Talmud tells us that in the future, the righteous people will carry God’s name and be called kadosh (B. Bava Batra 75b). What, then, will God be called in the future? God will be known by the name “Kadosh le’olam va’ed” (Holy forever and ever”).
This discussion would appear to be bona fide hassidic Torah: It is printed in a hassidic work; a famed hassidic master is cited by his disciple – another famed hassidic master; and, in classic hassidic fashion, the teaching is a development of an earlier idea that appears in kabbalistic writings.
It may therefore surprise us to find this very idea in an early work written by none other than the arch representative of those who opposed Hassidism: the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu (1720-1797)! In 1799, two years after the Vilna Gaon died, Shenot Eliyahu – his commentary to the first order of the Mishna – was published in Lemberg. In a short passage right at the end of this work, the Vilna Gaon takes the same approach as Rabbi Elimelech of Lezajsk. He cites the talmudic passage, recalls the kabbalistic tradition that the words were actually written “on the wings of the angels,” ponders which wingwords are missing, concludes that the missing words are “kevod malchuto” and mentions the festival service as a proof-text! Who copied from whom? Ohev Yisrael was only published in 1863, while the Vilna Gaon’s Shenot Eliyahu was published many years earlier in 1799. But Ohev Yisrael contains teachings that were offered many years earlier by Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Opatow.
Moreover, while the author of Shenot Eliyahu was quite famous, this work was not particularly popular – it was printed in 1799, not reprinted again until 1832 and to this day, only a handful of editions have been published. There is no evidence to suggest that the Vilna Gaon picked up the question from his contemporary, Rabbi Elimelech.
It seems to me the most likely explanation is that the scholars from different milieux – or even warring camps – independently arrived at the same explanation, which was steeped in rabbinic and kabbalistic ideas.
This reminds us that classification of an idea as “hassidic” or “non-hassidic” may not be as simple as it appears at first blush. The mouthpiece for the idea or the literary sources where it can be found may not be sufficient criteria for distilling which ideas can truly be considered hassidic.
A final twist in the tale: Approximately 100 years after the idea first appeared in print in Shenot Eliyahu, the idea spread its wings in a distant land. The great Baghdadi rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Hayim (1834-1909), better known by the title of his most famous work Ben Ish Hai, cited the Vilna Gaon’s teaching. He began with offering further proofs for the opinion that the words “kevod malchuto” were the missing wordwings.
He then continued to explicate the alternative that the missing words were “le’olam va’ed” – apparently unaware this had been suggested by the Ohev Yisrael.
Thus, the Ben Ish Hai added another stop on the incredible journey of the angels missing wings. 
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and a post-doctoral fellow at Tel-Aviv University’s faculty of law.