Last week, we talked about the foundations of Jewish mysticism, the sacred texts that have informed esoteric thought over thousands of years. Here is the link if you haven’t yet checked it out.
This week, we start looking at one of my favorite topics — angels! From the beginning, angels have been part of Jewish tradition, and the source material is incredibly rich and varied. The study of angels is called (and I love this word) angelology.
We are going to explore the world of angels in a lot of detail, so today is another introduction day. In order to talk about angels in different contexts, we need to understand the overall framework of how angels fit into the greater system of esoteric thought. So today, we are going to define some terms, and learn about source materials.
First of all, what is an angel? The word “angel,” malach in Hebrew, means messenger, and first and foremost angels are celestial messengers, bringing vital information from On High. There is a close connection between angels and people, and angels can travel from the celestial to the earthly realm, and provide a personal connection to a higher state of being. Angels provide protection, comfort, and love. They are emissaries of the One Above.
Angels are described and appear in a myriad of texts, some of which I touched upon last week, and others outside the official canon. They appear in different forms, and over time, scholars of angelology have defined many different categories and level of angels.
Let me quickly list here the different sources for knowledge of angels:
The Hebrew Bible
References to angels pop up throughout the Torah and Hebrew Bible. Angels wrestle, cajole, reassure, and save various figures throughout the five books of Moses, the books of the prophets, and the later books such as Psalms, Daniel, etc.
Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
As we discussed last week, the great sages of the Great Assembly sifted through the vast body of oral and written scholarship and history, and made decisions about which works would comprise the official Bible and which others to leave outside the official canon.
The Apocrypha (outside writings) are those books left outside the official Bible canon, and include Apocalyptic works such as the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Levi, and notably the Books of Enoch, which contain a treasure trove of information about angels (we’ll spend some time getting acquainted with Enoch, for sure…)
The Pseudepigrapha is religious literature that is credited to a figure of antiquity, that will give the work more authority than the actual author. Before the canon was set, people received divine communication through prophets and mystics, and as the tradition became overrun with divine prophecy and oracles, claiming that a particular revelation was authored by an “official” prophet made it more likely that it would be believed.
Most of these pseudepigraphic works arose during the Greco-Roman period, after the official canon of the Hebrew Bible was fixed. My favorite work of pseudepigrapha is the Testament of Solomon, and we’ll look into this one in detail.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
These scrolls were found hidden in desert caves by a Beduin boy in 1947. An apocalyptic vision of the world was captured in these writings, most likely set down by an Essene sect, and angels play a central part in the drama contained in these scrolls.
I have been fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls since I was a kid, but never studied them in detail, so let’s do it here together. I know they are the subject of intense debate and speculation, and to this day the implications of these writings are hotly disputed.
Last week, we talked about this massive commentary on the Hebrew Bible in more detail. Angels appear in every part of this holy compendium, and the sages of the Talmud consider their role in prayer, divine revelation, and everyday life.
The Zohar and Kabbalistic literature
These medieval texts are an angelic goldmine, full of esoteric understanding of the role that angels play in the creation and unfolding of the universe. We will definitely spend some time exploring angels in the great mystical texts of Kabbalah.
Books of Sorcery/Amulets
The Book of Raziel, the Book of Secrets, Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) and other documents, are books of mystical knowledge that seek to describe the foundations of creation, and how to tap into the power of creation to grow closer to higher levels of being. These books often supply practical applications of mystical thought, including ways to summon angels, create protective amulets, and even make golems.
Speculation about angels, mystical traditions, and our role in creation has continued up to the present day. Scholars and mystics keep building and integrating these ancient texts into modern thought.
When I look at the breadth of material written about angels over thousands of years, I can’t help but wonder at the deep fascination human beings have for these celestial emissaries. Why are we enthralled, obsessed, by angels?
Maybe it’s because angels seem especially familiar to us, personally. I have heard about angels in the most amazing places — in courtrooms, in prisons, in movie theaters and of course in dreams. Aside from the mystical traditions of angels, I’ve encountered them in daily life, through shared stories of guardian angels, and through personal experience.
Have you ever encountered an angel?
Some folks have, some haven’t. Still other people aren’t sure. Angels play a big role in my family folklore — there’s no way I’d be alive today without the intercession of angels, and miracles galore. I am sometimes rather shy about sharing these stories, both because they are precious to my family, and also because I want to protect them from the harsh, skeptical gaze of mundane, ordinary life. But as the years go on, I find the desire to share these stories increasing. I think they are durable enough to survive contact with the world…
So, I will be sharing some family stories throughout this series, but today I’ll tell you a story about how an angel saved my own life. I was about twelve, and coming back to ballet class with two friends in town. We had gotten an ice cream or something, and had to cross the railroad tracks in town in order to get back to the ballet studio on the other side.
The guard rails were down, and a train went by on the far side. It passed, and I started moving forward…the train was already gone.
But I didn’t see the express train coming on our side of the track, the one that didn’t stop in the station but hurtled past at top speed on its way to New York. I was walking right into the path of a train that was going full speed…
We were already right on the edge of the tracks. It only would have taken a single step more for me to move in the path of the train.
But I didn’t take another step. I felt two strong hands, one on each of my shoulders, pulling me back just as the train screamed past, an inch from my nose.
I thought at first it was my friends who pulled me back. But they were short little ballet dancers like me, and these hands that I felt came from higher up, like a very tall adult standing behind me. And those hands pulled me back in a coordinated way, in a single firm, yet gentle movement.
I remember turning around to see who had pulled me back and saved my life. Couldn’t see anything. But I felt waves and waves of love, and gratitude.
Maybe it was just a figment of my imagination, or both my friends somehow reached up in unison and pulled me back. But I don’t think so…I think those hands were reaching out from a celestial realm.
This is one of the reasons I love learning about angels. Because I do believe they are here with us, as guardian angels, angels of prayer, spirits of nature. I know not everybody has had these kinds of experiences, and cannot believe in the existence of angels. But either way, they are part of a beautiful tradition, no matter what.
If you are interested in learning more about angels in Jewish tradition, there is a huge body of scholarship out there. Here is a mere smattering of accessible sources you can check out:
A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature
By Morris B. Margolies
A wonderful introduction to angels in the course of Jewish tradition and thought, from the Hebrew Bible to the present day. If there’s just one book you pick up to explore this topic, this is the one. Love this book!
A Dictionary of Angels
By Gustav Davidson
This book is a huge compendium of angels, including fallen angels, from A-Z. Includes angels of many different faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Wow.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism
By Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
I mentioned this book last week as a great overall resource for students of mysticism. As part of the greater effort, Rabbi Dennis covers the existence and role of angels in great detail. A great jumping off point for further research
The Legends of the Jews
By Louis Ginzberg
A massive seven book series that translates Midrash on many different subjects, including angels. A wonderful source in English for stories of angels, demons, and other celestial beings.