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Coming home with angels on my shoulders

© Eliezer Lorne Segal

Angels on My Shoulders

There is a natural human need to give visual expression to abstract ideas. Towards that end people draw upon a variety of sources of inspiration.

For some of us, religious imagery is defined by the illustrations in our old schoolbooks, while others invoke great masterpieces of painting and sculpture.

The eternal struggle of the "Yetzer ha-tov" and the "Yetzer ha-ra" -- the good and evil urges that compete within each of us -- will always appear in someone imagination like the little angel and imp who hover over the shoulders of animated characters pleading their respective cases, as it have been decisively shaped by the cartoons we used to watch as a children.

The good and bad angels figure in several Rabbinic legends. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbath 119b) tells how they visit Jewish homes on Friday night:

Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Yehudah said: Two angels accompany a person home on Friday night from the synagogue. One is an angel of good and one is an angel of evil. When the person arrives home they go to find if Shabbat candles lit, the table set and the beds made.
If they find the household at peace and everything prepared for Shabbath, then the good angel blesses the family with the assurance that subsequent Shabbaths will be as delightful, while the bad angel reluctantly adds his "amen", stating that he agreed. But if the home is found to be in confusion and disarray, it is the bad angel's turn to wish upon the unfortunate family more unpleasant Shabbaths in the future -- to which the good angel must add his unwilling assent.

The image of the angelic guests is a charming one. It is of course the inspiration for the Shalom Aleikhem hymn chanted in many Jewish homes before the Friday night meal. In this song we greet the celestial visitors, ask for their blessing -- presumably we will be found worthy of the "good angel"'s version -- and then bid our farewells as they return to "King of Kings of the Kings".

By the way: This long and respective title "King of Kings of the Kings" was probably coined in antiquity in order to assert G-d's superiority over the Persian monarch, who proudly called himself the "King of kings" -- as did the Iranian Shahs in our own times.

It is hard to imagine anything more beautiful, or unobjectionable, than the themes evoked by the Shalom Aleikhem. It might therefore come as a surprise to learn that it became a topic of heated controversy from its first appearance in 1641 in a prayer book printed in Prague.

The 18th-century Rabbi Jacob Emden, as well as several other distinguished rabbinical authorities, were especially upset that a prayer was being directed to angels, and not to the Almighty himself. After all, Judaism had always insisted that worshippers address their Creator directly. The essential difference between the Judaism and other religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, etc. is that we are not seeking or relying on intermediaries.

And yet here we are instructed to ask the angelic emissaries for their blessing of peace. There are additional considerations of Halacha (Jewish Law) to keep in mind, such as the prohibition against petitionary prayers on the Shabbath.

A further objection was raised by the renowned Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821): To suppose that angels can respond to our petitions implies a gross misunderstanding of their nature. According to rationalist belief, angels are mere automatons programmed to carry out specific Divine missions. They do not have the freedom of choice or ability to judge that would be required to comply with the human supplication for a favourable blessing.

It was in response to charges of this kind that several prayer books inserted, immediately after the Shalom Aleikhem, two verses from Psalms which state unmistakably that it is G-d who commands the angels, and protects us in our comings and goings.

After all, as we sing the Shalom Aleikhem before Kiddush, where we are pronouncing G-d's greatness for creating the World and sanctifying the day of Shabbath with blessing over cup of wine.

It seems like we hustling the angels in, asking them for their blessing and then hastily sending them on their way back before the meal has even begun! Is this the proper hospitality to show to supernatural guests?

Although some commentators insisted that we are not ordering the angels to depart immediately, not everybody was convinced. An interesting variation on the above theme is found in a note to a prayer book published in 1880 in Lublin: "In cases of domestic disputes, refrain from singing the stanza "Depart in peace". According to a noted Rabbi, this is a certified effective way to soothe the tensions."

Indeed, who would be so rude as to keep on quarreling when there are angels at the table?...

Just relax and enjoy atmosphere of your Shabbath!

If this article raised any of your questions, please fill free to contact us: kehilasmy@yahoo.com.

Eliezer Lorne Segal is Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of Calgary, Canada.
He is having his degrees from McGill University, Montreal, Canada and Talmud Department, Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Last update: November 1, 2002
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