Sunday, 4 December 2016
104) PRAYING TO ANGELS?
One of the distinguishing features that sets Judaism apart from other religions is its intention to be an absolutely pure form of monotheism. We do not make use of intercessory prayers, and we address G-d directly without having to go through any other person, being or entity.
But is this really the case?
In this article we are going to look at some examples where it does seem as though we do address the angels in a format that closely resembles prayer.
BIBLICAL REFERENCES TO ‘ANGELIC INTERVENTION’:
There are numerous Biblical references to what at face value appears to be acknowledgement of some forms of angelic intercession. The most well known example is probably Yaakov who asked the angel to bless him. Angels are part and parcel of much of the Biblical narrative.
TALMUDIC REFERENCES TO ‘ANGELIC INTERVENTION’:
There are many Talmudic references that seem even to encourage a person to prepare one’s prayers for some form of ‘angelic intervention’. There is a reference to angels giving strength to prayers and protecting them from prosecuting angels. Another source references Israel petitioning the angels to stand by the Gates of Prayer.
This concept of ‘angelic intervention’ was later supported by a number of Rishonim (the rabbinic period spanning 1038 – 1500). Rashi clearly states that one may request the angels to intercede on one’s behalf.
However, one of the strongest opponents against requesting ‘angelic intervention’, was Rambam (1135-1204). He steadfastly maintained that prayer must be directed solely and exclusively to G-d alone. Anything else would be considered no less than heretical.
(It would be interesting to see how he reconciled the earlier Talmudic references which appeared to condone such practices.)
Besides Rambam’s theological difficulties with intercessory prayer he also believed that it is ‘impractical’ to ask angels to intercede on one’s behalf, simply because they have no freedom of choice (something exclusively within the human domain).
Ramban took a similar view to Rambam in this regard. He added that even if we merely request the angels to carry or take our prayers to Heaven - that too would be considered a form of idolatry.
THE ‘SHALOM ALEICHEM’ CONTROVERSY:
Our first example of intercessory prayer is taken from the well known Friday evening Shabbat Hymn known as Shalom Aleichem where we welcome to our homes the angels who accompany us from the Synagogue.
In the third stanza we ask; ‘Bless us with peace you Angels of Peace’. This certainly does appear as though we are asking the angels to bless us.
Some may say that we ask human beings to bless us too - so the request to the angels should not be theologically problematic either.
However many others, like R. Yaakov Emden were so opposed to reciting the verses of Shalom Aleichem that they omitted them from their liturgy (some leaving only the first stanza).
THE ‘MACHNISEI RACHAMIM’ CONTROVERSY:
The second example is taken from a primary Selichot prayer known as Machnisei Rachamim. In this prayer we clearly ask the angels to take our prayers and deliver them to G-d and additionally, to plead for forgiveness on our behalf.
Again, some would say that that we are simply requesting the angels to act for us and that we are not praying directly to them. Their argument is that these expressions are used ‘poetically’ to describe how awkward, inadequate and even embarrassed the worshipper feels when approaching G-d after sinning – so the angels are metaphorically used as symbolic intermediaries.
It is for this reason, they maintain, that Machnise Rachamim is strategically positioned towards the end of the Selichot service, so as to be distinguished from the more formal prayers.
However, the structure, wording and tone of the prayer has raised many a halachic eyebrow over the centuries, leading some to regard this petition as an actual prayer to angels and therefore extremely problematic.
The prayer is found primarily within the Ashkenazi minhag and is not part of the Sefardic liturgy.
No one is sure as to who exactly composed the Machnisei Rachamim prayer, but it is believed to have been written during the 900’s.
The latter Gaonim (of the rabbinic period which spanned from 589 to 1038) generally seemed quite comfortable with this prayer.
Apparently Rav Shrira Gaon had no fundamental issues even with the act of praying to angels (although he technically said that in the specific instance of Machnisei Rachamim, the terms and expressions were considered borrowed or allegorical and not intended as a prayer to the angels).
THE DEBATE OVER 'MACHNISEI RACHAMIM' :
The highly contentious debate over whether this prayer should or shouldn’t be included in the liturgy has raged for centuries:
In Italy during the 1700’s, one of the earliest rabbinic encyclopaedias, Pachad Yitzchak recorded the debate and concluded, based upon earlier sources, that the prayer was acceptable.
This ruling was regarded as highly controversial at the time and the matter was again adjudicated by two leading Italian rabbis (one was R. Shmuel Abaob) and they reached the same conclusion as the Pachad Yitzchak that the prayer was in accordance with Torah values.
However, the controversy was so intense that they were compelled to repeat their verdict as the ruling seemed incomprehensible to many who clearly regarded the prayer as heretical.
VILNA GAON (1720-1797):
The Vilna Gaon took a similar stance to that of Rambam, maintaining that not only is intercessory prayer forbidden under Torah law – but that practically it has no theological relevance as angels are spiritually incapable of determining the outcome of a prayer.
The Vilna Gaon and his student R. Chaim of Volozhin both removed the controversial prayer from their prayer books.
MAHARAL OF PRAGUE (1520-1609):
The Maharal of Prague took an interesting position in that he decided rather to edit and emend the original text to make it more theologically acceptable and only then did he include it in his liturgy.
CHATAM SOFER (1762-1839):
The Chatam Sofer adopted a different approach in that while he personally refused to recite Machnisei Rachamim, he did not take the extreme view that it should be removed from the liturgy. While the rest of his community recited this prayer, he made himself busy drawing out the previous prayer (nefillat apayim) so that he did not have to say Machnisei Rachamim.
He implied that it is insufficient to emend the prayers (like the Maharal did) because any reference whatsoever to angels acting on our behalf even if we do not technically pray to them, is unacceptable.
R. Akiva Eiger adopted a similar position.
TZEMACH TZEDEK (1789-1966):
The Tzemach Tzedek took a strong stand and wrote that one should refrain from saying any of the piyutim (hymns) that calls on angels to intercede on our behalf.
R. MOSHE FEINSTEIN (1895-1986):
In recent times R. Moshe Feinstein ruled that it is perfectly permissible to recite Machnisei Rachamim and added that this is especially true if one adopts more of a ‘allegorical interpretation’.
We have looked at a seemingly simple and innocuous prayer which sparked a burning theological debate over fundamental questions of theology that has continued for more than a thousand years.
Recently, a stirring song by a popular contemporary artist has brought the words of Machnisei Rachamim to the forefront once again. It’s interesting to see how so many people enjoy the music with no inkling of the theological controversy surrounding it.
Fascinatingly, R. Shlomo Brody writes that he knows of two distinguished rabbis who had never previously recited this prayer but now felt compelled to do so as a consequence of the popularity of the tune and the song.
He asks; “Should a niggun (song) change one’s perspective on this matter?”
This just shows how powerful the social component of modern Judaism has become. We seem to be moved by acceptable trends more than intellectual integrity.
Regarding the ‘perfectly permissible’ ruling by R. Moshe Feinstein to recite the prayer, R. Brody continues rather daringly;
“I understand this argument, but I cannot help feeling this is a horrific way to resolve a long-standing dispute related to central issues of prayer, dogma, and our relationship with G-d. I would much rather leave things at a standstill – reflecting the clash of values at stake – rather than resolve this issue in such an adhoc manner.”
Personally, I certainly do agree with the notion of keeping a core hashkafic and philosophical conflict alive because only then are we afforded an insight into the different facets of a Judaism that predates our current whitewashed and populist social religious culture.
Core debates on matters of raw Torah theology should never ever be ‘resolved’...but rather left open for future generations and different types of personalities under varying circumstances to draw upon.
Classical and elemental Torah theology - no matter how it conflicts or coincides with present trends - should never be allowed to fossilize.
TEXT OF MACHNISE RACHAMIN:
מַכְנִיסֵי רַחֲמִים הַכְנִיסוּ רַחֲמֵינוּ
לִפְנֵי בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים
מַשְׁמִיעֵי תְפִלָּה הַשְׁמִיעוּ תְפִלָּתֵנוּ
לִפְנֵי שׁוֹמֵעַ תְּפִלָּה
מַשְׁמִיעֵי צְעָקָה הַשְׁמִיעוּ צַעֲקָתֵנוּ
לִפְנֵי שׁוֹמֵעַ צְעָקָה
מַכְנִיסֵי דִּמְעָה הַכְנִיסוּ דִמְעוֹתֵינוּ
לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מִתְרַצֶּה בִּדְמָעוֹת
הִשְׁתַּדְּלוּ וְהַרְבּוּ תְּחִנָּה וּבַקָּשָׁה
לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ אֵל רָם וְנִשָּׂא
“Angels of mercies, put our mercies
Before the Lord of mercies
Propagators of prayer, make our prayer heard
Before Hearer of prayer
Propagators of cries, make our cry heard
Before Hearer of cries
Presenters of tears, put our tears
Before King Who gives in to those in tears
Do your best and lift up prayer
Lift up prayer and supplication
Before King high and exalted
King high and exalted.”
THE PRAYER OF R. YISHMAEL THE KOHEN GADOL:
Translated by Ariel Bar Tzadok.
(Extract follows. Emphasis mine.)
May it be acceptable before you, ministering angels, holy and pure, that you do for
me, and my family a great mercy. For the sake of the holiness of Adonai, and for
the sake of His holy and pure Torah, and for the sake of your holiness, may you
stand before Adonai, G-d of Yisrael, the King who sits upon the throne of Mercy,
with requests and supplications to hear my prayer, and my supplication so as to do
what I ask and request every single day.
I ask of you ministering angels, holy and pure, separate in cleanliness, that you do
for me grace, mercy and great compassion in merit of the great holy name Akatrikel
who sits amongst the praises of Yisrael, and by the merit of the seventy-two holy
and pure Names that you take the supernal keys with the permission of the Holy
One, blessed be He, and open for me the gates of grace, mercy, and compassion....
A POINT TO PONDER:
According to the Zohar:
“ ‘Angel’, is here one of the names of the Shechinah, applied to her when she is a messenger from on high and receives radiance from the supernal mirror, for then she is blessed by the Father and Mother, who say to her: Daughter, go, mind thy house, attend to thy house: go and feed them, go to the lower world where thy household wait for sustenance from thee; here is all which they require. Then she is ‘angel’...When she first appeared to Moses she was called ‘angel’... (Zohar v 187a)
This perspective may change some of the debate in that it re-defines the common perception of an angel being a separate entity from G-d. On the other hand it may raise other issues concerning the oneness and unity of G-d.
R. Shlomo Brody, Theological Truths vs. Spiritual Vibes.
R. Dr. Shlomo Sprecher, The Controversy about Machnisei Rachamim, Yeshurun no.3 p.706-729.
 Shabbat 12b, Sanhedrin 44b and Berachot 60b. For an opposing view see Yerushalmi Berachot 9:1
 Sanhedrin 5.
 Midrash to Shir haShirim.
 These included R. Elazar of Worms and R. Yitzchak Bruna. (See article by R. Shlomo Brody)
 On Sanhedrin 8. Apparently R. Asher Weis uses this Rashi as a basis to permit the recitation of Machnisei Rachamim.
 See the 5th of his 13 Principles of Faith.
 Surprisingly, for some reason the entire hymn is nevertheless printed in most editions of R. Emden’s Siddur. NOTE: R. S.Z. Auerbach rules that one may recite Shalom Aleichem in its entirety because it is not a request but rather a statement of ‘fact’. He likens this to the oseh shalom at the end of kaddish, where we say ve’imru amen (which refers to the angels saying amen). It is not a request or a prayer but simply a statement of ‘fact’ or even an ‘instruction’. (That’s why the last verse is in Hebrew not Aramaic, a language the angels can ‘understand’.)
 Examples of this are found all over the prayers which include phrases like ‘we are ashamed’ ve’lanu boshet ha’panim etc.
 These included Etz Shatul (a commentary on R. Yosef Albo’s Sefer haIkkarim) and Hadrat Kodesh (A commentary on the Machzor).
 This is recorded in Keter Rosh 93, which was written by a student of R. Chaim of Volozhin, who wrote that he spent three years with the his teacher (who in turn was a student of the Vilna Gaon) and knew that the practice of the Vilna Gaon was to omit reciting Barechuni leShalom on Friday evenings. He wrote; ve’ein levakesh me’haMalachim ki ein lahem koach meumah (we do not request from the angels because they have no inherent ability).
 He changed ‘hachnisu’ to read ‘yachnisu’ instead, implying that we are not making a request of the angels but rather stating a fact.
 Netivot Olam 1, Netiv haAvodah ch. 12
 Interestingly, he suggests we remove references to the angels and instead refer to the patriarchs which are mentioned in many midrashim as ‘acceptable’ intermediaries. (This seems to be in accordance to the zechut avot concept.) Nevertheless the custom in Chabad is to recite Machnisei Rachamim. (This may be because he retracted his view later in Derech Mitzvotecha, although it is believed he wrote Derech Mitzvotecha when he was just 16 years old).
 Igrot Moshe OC 5:43. See also R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Heichalot Shlomo; Tefilah.
 From Yeshivat haKotel.
 I thank Kevin Furman for pointing this reference out to me.