Tag Archives: Guardian Angel

The Guardian Angels of Israel

‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot

This week’s parasha, Vayera, begins with Abraham being visited by a trio of angels. Jewish tradition holds that these angels were Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343)—famous for his numerological commentary—points out that the words “And behold three…” (והנה שלשה), referring to the three angels, has the same gematria (701) as “these are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (אלו מיכאל גבריאל ורפאל).

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchak, 1040-1105) comments that each angel came for a specific mission: Michael to bless Abraham and Sarah with news of their impending child; Gabriel to destroy Sodom (which happens right after in the Torah); and Raphael to heal Abraham from his circumcision (which happened just before). The root of Gabriel is gevurah, “strength” or “restraint”, which is why Gabriel often appears in difficult situations, or acts of destruction. The root of Raphael is refuah, “healing”, so he appears whenever a recovery is required. Michael is the guardian angel of Israel, as we read explicitly in Daniel 12:1.

These three angels regularly appear together. They were originally depicted as the highest of the angels in the Heavens. Later mystical literature would place others above them (namely Metatron). Still, the trio of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael remain the most well-known. What else do we know about them?

Michael: Priest and Saviour

In one mystical passage, the Talmud (Chagigah 12b) outlines the Seven Heavens. The first is called Vilon (“curtain”) and simply refers to the atmosphere stretching over the Earth like a curtain. This is the place of clouds and weather, serving no particular spiritual purpose. Then comes the Rakia, the vast realm beyond Earth’s atmosphere that includes the Sun, moon, and all the stars and planets, ie. outer space. The third Heaven is called Shechakim, which we learn from other sources is the interface between this physical universe and the spiritual realms beyond. The Sages sometimes metaphorically describe it as being composed of millstones, or slabs of pure marble. The Talmud says this is the source of the manna that the Israelites ate in the Wilderness.

The fifth, sixth, and seventh Heavens are called Ma’on, Machon, and Aravot, but it is the fourth Heaven that is of particular interest for the present discussion. Here one will find the illustrious Yerushalaim shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Jerusalem, a spiritual version of the Jerusalem below. Mirroring the one on Earth, there is a Temple up there, too, and there it is Michael who serves as High Priest.

Michael also serves as “Prince of Israel” and our Heavenly Guardian. In this role, he stands opposite Samael, the Heavenly “Accuser” who seeks to harm Israel. Hence, Michael stands at the gates of Heaven, admitting the righteous and guiding their souls. Similarly, he was Israel’s guide during their forty years in the Wilderness, being identified with the “angel that will go before you” (Exodus 23:20, 32:34), as God has promised (Midrash haNe’elam, Beresheet 2).

Naturally, Michael is a great saviour for the Jews. It was he who saved Abraham from the fiery furnace (Beresheet Rabbah 44:16), and protected Sarah when she was abducted by Avimelech (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 26). In one intriguing Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 134), we learn that Michael saved the baby that was born from Dinah’s rape by Shechem. Michael took the baby to Egypt, into the care of a wealthy childless couple. That wealthy man was Potiphar, and the adopted baby was Osnat, future wife of Joseph.

Gabriel and the Founding of Rome

When it comes to Joseph, it was Gabriel that helped him throughout his journey. According to the Talmud (Sotah 36b), Gabriel taught Joseph overnight (or perhaps “uploaded” into his brain) knowledge of the seventy languages, which allowed him to become viceroy of Egypt. Gabriel also taught Joseph all of the esoteric mystical wisdom of the Torah (while Raphael taught the same wisdom to Isaac; see Ravad on Sefer Yetzirah).

The Talmud credits Gabriel with setting the foundations of Ancient Rome (Shabbat 56b). This happened on the very same day that King Solomon married an Egyptian princess. Although Solomon’s intensions were certainly good, his many marriages spiralled out of control, and ultimately led to his downfall. In poetic fashion, King Solomon first builds Jerusalem’s Temple, and simultaneously sows the seeds of its destruction, for Rome would go on to destroy Jerusalem’s Temple for good, ushering in an endless exile which we are still in.

Interestingly, archaeologists have found coins bearing images depicting this version on Rome’s founding. The coins show a divine being of some sort planting reeds in the Tiber River to set the foundations of the “eternal city”, just as the Talmud describes. These coins were minted in the time of Emperor Antoninus Pius. This is most fitting, since the Talmud tells us that a Roman emperor named Antoninus was good friends with Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, and the two engaged in many philosophical discussions.

Coins minted by Emperor Antoninus depicting the founding of Rome.

Guardians and Healers

Gabriel, too, is a guardian angel. It was Gabriel that saved baby Moses when he floated down the Nile and was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter (Sotah 12b). It was Gabriel that helped Mordechai and made sure the miraculously “coincidental” events of Purim took place (Megillah 16a). An alternate tradition has Gabriel saving Abraham from the fiery flames, not Michael (Pesachim 118a). And Gabriel will play a key role in the final events of the End of Days (Bava Batra 74b-75a).

Unlike Michael and Gabriel, we know very little about Raphael. While there are few traditional rabbinic sources, apocryphal texts shed a little more light: The Book of Jubilees (10:10-14) has Raphael teaching all the secrets of medicine and healing to Noah. Apparently, Noah wrote it all in a book, and passed it down to his beloved son Shem. (This may be the same “Book of Remedies” that was hidden away by King Hezekiah, as described in Pesachim 56a). The Book of Enoch (10:4-6) holds that Raphael was the one who defeated and bound the fallen angel Azazel.

The Zohar comments on this week’s parasha that Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael correspond to the mystical Sefirot of Chessed (“Kindness”), Gevurah (“Restraint”), and Tiferet (“Beauty”), respectively. Elsewhere (on parashat Ekev), the Zohar tells us that Israel has three guardian angels: Michael, Gabriel, and Nuriel. The acronym for these three angelic names is magen (מגן), “shield”. This is the secret meaning behind the word magen, which we often invoke in our prayers.

The Sefirot of mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.

The earlier Sefer HaBahir (ch. 108), one of the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts, states that God has three major camps of angels. The one on the right is led by Michael, the one of the left by Gabriel, and the one in the middle by, not Raphael or Nuriel, but Uriel. Here on Earth, however, God had appointed four angels to watch over the four Israelite camps in the Wilderness: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:10). The Arizal has the last word, bringing together a variety of sources to describe seven major angels, corresponding to the seven lower Sefirot, or Middot: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Nuriel, Akatriel, and Metatron (see, for example, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). All of these serve as Heavenly princes and guardians of Israel.

With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle? The Surprising Identity of Jacob’s Angel

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Gustave Doré (1855)

This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, begins with the famous story of Jacob’s brawl with the angel. This occurred during Jacob’s return to Israel after twenty years living with his father-in-law Laban in the land of Charan. Upon his return, Jacob knows that his brother Esau is waiting for him, and looking for revenge. After all, Esau was the main reason why Jacob left the Holy Land to begin with, having heard that Esau intended to kill him for “stealing” their father’s blessing.

Now, Jacob is journeying back home and receives word that Esau is on his way with four hundred soldiers. The Torah goes on to describe how Jacob prepared for the encounter in three ways. First, he devised a battle strategy and divided his camp into two. Then, he prayed fervently to God. Finally, he sent messengers with very large gifts (over five hundred animals from his flocks) to appease Esau. This in itself is a beautiful lesson. When coming up against conflicts, we too should have these three considerations in mind: trying foremost to solve the issue peacefully, praying to God for some Heavenly assistance, and in case all else fails, carefully preparing for battle.

The Nighttime Brawl

After setting up the narrative with this introduction, the Torah goes on to state that Jacob was left alone that night, and “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). The story ends with Jacob being renamed “Israel” by his adversary. Despite the fact that most people immediately recall that this “man” was actually an angel (as Rashi comments), there is no explicit mention in the Torah that this figure was indeed an angel. The angel interpretation is derived indirectly from the fact that the adversary later says of Jacob that he “struggled with God, and with people, and prevailed” (v. 29). Furthermore, after the battle is over Jacob says that he “saw God face-to-face, and my soul was saved” (v. 32).

However, a careful reading shows that neither of these two verses suggests that he battled an angel. The first simply states that Jacob had struggled in his life both with people and in his service of God. The second verse says that Jacob saw a vision of God during the fight, and praised God for saving his soul; it does not say that he wrestled an angel!

On top of this, many more difficulties arise with the angel version. For one, how is Jacob, a mere mortal, able to physically defeat an angelic entity that is not even limited by physical dimensions? The angel surely could have “flown away” at will! Secondly, Jacob’s adversary is fearful of the coming dawn, and begs Jacob to be freed before sunrise. Third, when Jacob asks the name of his assailant, the latter does not want to divulge this information. Rashi dispels with this last problem by saying that angels don’t have permanent names. But we know that they certainly do! For example, Michael is considered the “guardian angel” of Israel, Gabriel is an angel of justice, while Raphael is described as the angel of healing. Funny enough, Rashi himself identifies these angelic names in Genesis 18:2 and 37:15!

So, if it was not an angel, with whom did Jacob do battle?

Identifying Jacob’s Adversary

After the narrative of the brawl ends, the Torah states, “And Jacob lifted his eyes and saw that Esau was coming…” (33:1).That was fast! Shortly after the “angel” is gone, Jacob only has to lift his eyes and Esau appears. Most surprising is what Jacob later tells Esau: “…I have seen your face, which is like the face of God, and you have accepted me” (v. 10). The striking parallel is impossible to miss. After battling the “angel”, Jacob says he saw the face of God (“ki ra’iti Elohim panim al panim…”) and now he tells Esau that Esau’s face is like the face of God (“ki ra’iti panecha kir’ot pnei Elohim…”) – the Hebrew wording is nearly identical! It appears that Jacob is giving us a big clue, and he is also hinting something to his brother: Jacob knows that the supposed “angel” who battled him not long before was none other than Esau himself!

This explains why the “angel” snuck up on Jacob in the darkness of the night, and feared the rising sun so that his identity would not be revealed in the light. This is why the “angel” could not reveal his name to Jacob. And this is why the “angel” gave Jacob a new name:

After Jacob took the blessing from Esau, the Torah records how Esau asked: “Is it because his name is Jacob that he has deceived me…?” (Genesis 27:36). This is a play on words in Hebrew, since Jacob is Ya’akov, and “deceived me” is ya’akveni. The root of Jacob’s name shares the root with the term for trickery and deception. Esau wondered then whether Jacob’s name alluded to his deceptive nature. Now, having battled Jacob and seen that he is truly a great and powerful man—deserving of their father’s blessing—Esau admitted that he is not at all “Jacob”, a name which denotes trickery, but rather, he is the mighty Israel, a true warrior.

One-on-One

If we can conclude that Jacob’s adversary was indeed Esau, another beautiful dimension is added to the story. We saw how Esau was racing towards Jacob with a fierce contingent of four hundred armed men, while Jacob prepared his own sons, workers, and followers into a defensive battalion. Ultimately, instead of starting a war where potentially hundreds of innocent people might perish, the two found each other at night, alone, and faced each other one-on-one, face-to-face, panim al panim. They put to rest their personal issues, ending the animosity between them, and so the next morning they embraced and wept on each other’s shoulders. The two brothers had finally made peace.

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Update (April 9, 2015): This cool video takes a similar approach to Jacob’s brawl with the angel: