Chubby-faced babies, divine beings carrying spears and swords, majestic wings sprouting from their shoulder blades, perhaps even a radiant light shining from within their perfect skin. These are the angels that populate our imaginations. Or perhaps you've spent time on the part of the Internet where a certain type of 'biblically accurate' angel is popular. But 'angel' is a much more complicated classification. Jewish angelology, or the theological doctrine of angels or its study, is, in many ways, to stare into a vast history and to appreciate the many points of evolutionary understanding. Who angels are, where they come from, what purpose they serve–all of these are things that have, over the centuries, evolved within Jewish thought, across the Jewish world. When analyzing much of these works, we must contextualize it across time and space, understanding that it may brush up against or even outright contradict what was earlier or what will later be believed. Jewish angelology, like many Jewish things, exists in a constant state of wrestling with itself: engaging with its own theology, writing, and defining as it evolves.
Like many Jewitches blogs, this will not be an all-encompassing blog, but rather a surface-level explanation to serve as a jumping-off point for further reading, research, and scholarship on the topic of angels, particularly within the esoteric realm. For further scholarly discussion on a specific angel, class of angel, or theological perspective, feel free to peruse the sources below.
"All that which the Holy One, blessed is He! created in His world, is divided into three types: (a) Composite creatures of matter and form; they are beings which undergo constant changes, as the bodies of man, beasts, plants and minerals; (b) Composite beings of matter and form which do not undergo changes of either body or form as the former, but their forms remain forever set in their body unchanged; they are: the planets and the stars around them; their matter is unlike other matter and their forms are unlike other forms; (c) Beings possessed of forms but of no matter whatever; they are the angels; for the angels are incorporeal but varied forms." Mishneh Torah
The Word "Angel"
While we now have a singular umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of beings, its evolution is as important as the evolution of the understanding of the creatures themselves. In modern Hebrew, the term "Malʾakh (מַלְאַךְ), the word most often used, means "messenger" (cf. Ugaritic lak "to send")." ⁷ Through Greek the term angelos is derived; both of which have a variety of meanings, frequently used to human agents or used figuratively.
"Post-biblical Hebrew employs malʾakh only for superhuman messengers, and uses other words for human agents. Apparently for greater clarity, the Bible frequently calls the angel the malʾakh of God; yet the same title is occasionally applied to human agents of the Deity (Hag. 1:13; Mal. 2:7). Elsewhere angels are called ʾelohim (usually "god" or "gods"; Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6), more often bene ʾelohim or bene ʾelim (lit. "sons of gods") – in the general sense of "divine beings." They are also known as kedoshim (qedoshim; "holy beings"; Ps. 89:8; Job 5:1). Often the angel is called simply "man." The mysterious being who wrestled with Jacob is first called a man, then ʾelohim (Gen. 32:24 (25), 28 (29), 30 (31)), but Hosea refers to him also as a malʾakh (Hos. 12:5)." ⁷
Many times within the Tanakh, it is written as though one sees/speaks/interacts directly with the Divine; however, through commentary and scholarship, it is decided upon that these interactions are through the Angels of HaShem, not through HaShem directly. Many scholars cite the later inclusion of angels as a means of consolidating power in the religious literature or correcting an unclear narrative. Theophany, or a visible manifestation to humankind of G-d or a g-d, is widely and hotly discussed and debated within Jewish circles and beyond, with differing conclusions being reached. This will be touched on once again in the section on the appearance of angels.
What are Angels?
Angels have long held many roles within Jewish cosmology, but first and foremost, they are defined as spiritual entities in the service of the Divine³. Understanding Jewish angelology is to comprehend the vastness of their existence and the theology that defines them.
As spiritual beings who serve the Divine, there are certain bounds that have been placed upon them–which are often believed in stringently or utterly disregarded within the Jewish world. It is believed that angels are unable to multitask (Bava Metzia 86b), the impulse of evil has no power over angels (Genesis Rabbah 48:11), angels have no backs and never get tired (Chagigah 15a), angels must not take a step without HaShem's command (Tanchuma, B. Exodus 115).¹⁰
Angels often only serve one purpose, simply ceasing to exist or vanishing back into the universe after having completed their singular task.
Chasidic thought evolved to the understanding that mitzvot or good deeds created good angels, while sinning and bad deeds caused accusing angels to come into existence.
"Angels are not only summoned by our prayers, but actually born by them. Our sages taught that every human deed creates an angel. Good deeds create angels that advocate for us in heaven. Bad deeds create angels that prosecute us in heaven. The Baal Shem Tov took this to the next level and taught that not only our deeds, but the words we speak also create angels. Our words of prayer not only summon angels; they create angels. These angels are not only the carriers of our words; they are our words." ¹³
When you see "Biblically accurate angels" on Tumblr or posted to TikTok in videos "exposing how the Bible lied to you", they are only showing you one kind of angel, when in reality, there are many different classifications, as well as a commonly referenced angelic hierarchy.
The Angelic Hierarchy
There are various angelic hierarchies cited throughout Jewish historical and contemporary texts. Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis lists: Malach (messenger/angel), Irinim (waters/high angels), Cherubim (mighty ones), Sarim (princes), Serafim (fiery ones), Chayyot ([Holy] Creatures), and Ofanim (wheels)² while Chabad lists Maimonides hierarchy of Chayot Hakodesh, Ofanim, Erelim, Chashmalim, Serafim, Malachim, Elokim, Bene Elokim, Cheruvim, and Ishim; Chabad further explains that this hierarchy references the angels understanding and comprehension of the Divine and the ways of the Divine.¹²
Here are a few deeper looks into various popular classes of angel as a small jumping-off point:
Cherubim are the first angels to appear in the Tanakh. After the banishment of Adam and Chava (Eve) from Gan Eden (the Garden of Eve), Genesis 3:24 describes, "east of the garden of Eden were stationed the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life."
Chizkuni, Genesis 3:24:2 comments, "the cherubs;" who were these cherubs? They were creatures whose very appearance frightened all those who merely looked at them. They carried gleaming swords in their hands. המתהפכת, "these swords exuded flashes of lightning from either side of the blade." ⁶
According to Rabbeinu Bahya, Bereshit 3:24:1-2,
"We also learn from this verse, especially the words, את הכרובים, that these angels are the ones we refer to in our prayers as חיות הקדש. These names of the angels are mentioned in Ezekiel 10,20 היא החיה אשר ראיתי....ואדע כי כרובים המה. "This is the Chayah which I have seen,...and I realized that they are the cherubs." It is a fact familiar to kabbalists that every Chayah has 16 facets, four in each direction of globe, as it is written in Ezekiel 1,6 וארבעה פנים לאחת, "one of them had four faces (facets). Seeing the word פנים consists of the singular פן, the rest is merely a plural ending. Hence four times פן in four directions each time totals 16. These cherubs are something intangible which flashes from the sword which seems in constant motion, turning over and over. This is what is meant by the words ואת להט החרב המתהפכת i.e. G-d's angel Chayah, the one with 16 facets. This angel symbolizes His attribute of Justice" ⁶
Cherubim are described to be upon the tabernacle, hammered gold and facing one another.
Ezekiel described "each of four cherubim as having four wings and four faces (1:6). Two of their wings spread out above touch one another, and the other two cover their bodies. Their four faces include that of a man, a lion on the right side, an ox on the left side and an eagle (Ezek 1:10). Under their wings on their four sides they are described as possessing human hands, while each of their feet are like a calves foot, sparkling like burnished bronze." ¹⁰ Despite this decidedly not chubby, baby face child description, the angelic imagery was created due to an understanding of an interpretation from Sukkah 5b, which interprets "cherub" to mean 'like a child'.
"And Rabbenai said that Shmuel said: It was through a miracle that the cherubs that Solomon placed in the Holy of Holies would stand. Their wingspan was twenty cubits, and since the length of the chamber was the same, there was no room for the bodies of the cherubs." Yoma, 21a:8
Seraf or Serafim, are known as the Fiery Ones; The four Serafim correspond with the four winds.³
"The fifth level of angels are the Serafim. These angels absorb the light that is reflected from the Chashmelim. The word [saraf] can mean to absorb a substance, here the angels are absorbing the remainder of the divine light in order to transfer it to the next level of angels." ¹³
Above it stood the serafim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. Isaiah 6:2
Serafim are described by some as having "an extremely short "life span!" As soon as they are created, they are immediately swallowed up in a fire of reincorporation with HaShem. They flash in and out of existence, and their only purpose in their existence is to be extinguish themselves in a flash of passionate fiery love, ending their own separate existence right after their creation." ¹³ Their placement in the celestial court is also symbolic, "I saw G-d... and the Serafim were standing above Him." The Alter Rebbe explains that [the Serafim are described as being "above" HaShem Himself, as it were,] because their fundamental desire is to grasp the dimension [of HaShem] that transcends all worlds. Hence they stand "above Him," [i.e., above the dimension of G-dliness that has been contracted] to serve as "the L-rd over all worlds," [i.e.,] the source for the Divine life-energy which permeates the worlds. For [since their desire is focused] on these higher realms, it is as if they are standing there." ¹³
The appearance of serafim is described as having six wings: two to cover their face, two to cover their legs, and two to fly with.
Referred to as [Holy] Beasts, Chayyot are responsible for drawing the Divine Chariot. "Ezekiel sees God appear with four polymorphous winged beings called chayot (חיות), "living creatures," each with four faces (that of a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle) and four wings." ¹⁴
"Two of the creatures' wings in Ezekiel's vision are spread out to touch the wings of the neighboring creature, suggesting that they are standing in a circle. The second pair of wings covers their bodies, just as Isaiah's serafim do, but unlike Isaiah's serafim, these creatures do not have a third pair of wings to cover their faces." ¹⁴
Ezek 1:24 When they moved, I could hear the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the sound of [HaShem], a tumult like the din of an army. When they stood still, they would let their wings droop. ¹⁴
Wheeled ones, or spheres, Ofanim are also known as Galgalim. According to some understandings, "it is the revolving ofanim that creates thunder and lightning (Chag. 12b-14b, PdRE 4)." ³
In the Guide For The Perplexed, Maimonides describes the Ofanim:
Next comes the description of another part; for the prophet relates that he saw a body beneath the Hayyot, but closely joining them. This body, which is connected with the earth, consists likewise of four bodies, and has also four faces. But no distinct form is ascribed to it: neither that of man nor that of any other living being. The [four bodies] are described as great, tremendous, and terrible; no form is given to them, except that they are covered with eyes. These are the bodies called Ofannim. The prophet therefore says: "Now, as I beheld the Chayyot, behold one wheel upon the earth beside the living creatures, with his four faces". He thus distinctly states that the 0fannim form a body, of which the one part touches the Hayyot, and the other part the earth; and that the Ofan has four faces. But he continues --" The appearance of the Ofannim (wheels) and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness". By speaking of four Ofannim, after having mentioned only one Ofan, the prophet indicates that the "four faces" and the "four Ofannim" are identical. These four Olannim have the same form; compare, "And they four had one likeness". The Ofannim are then described as partly inter-joined; for "their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel"...The Hayyot are partly joined, according to the words, "they were joined one to another": whilst in reference to the Ofanim it is stated that they are partly intermixed, "as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel". The body of the Olannim is described as being covered with eyes; it is possible that a body covered with real eyes is here meant, or a body with different colours ['ayin denoting "eye", also "color"], as in the phrase "the color thereof ['eno] as the color (ke'en) of bdellium": or a body filled with likenesses of things. In this latter sense the term ayin is used by our Sages in phrases like the following:Like that [ke'en] which he has stolen, like that [ke'en] which he has robbed; or different properties and qualities are meant, according to the meaning of the word 'ayin in the passage, "It may be that the Lord will look (be'enai) on my condition" So much for the form of the Ofannim." ¹³
What Do Angels Look Like?
While we have discussed the specific descriptions given for the named classes of angels above, there are many other appearances that exist outside of that hierarchy. Angels appear in many forms throughout Jewish history: as messengers, angels have appeared in the form of humans–indistinguishable from true humans, others as extraordinarily lovely people, winged humans, or beings wielding weapons like massive swords or carrying an inkhorn by their side. Angels can also appear in non-human form: like the burning bush of Moses, which is, according to some sources, an angel–identified by various scholars as either Gabriel or Michael. Also identified as an angel by some scholars but not others is the pillar of fire and clouds which travels with the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. The RASHBAM states that it is an angel, while other scholars believe that it is HaShem directly, while others still name the pillars as manifestations of HaShem outside of HaShem. Other citations include angels appearing in animal form as well.
"According to one source, Michael is made entirely of snow and Gabriel entirely of fire, but despite their proximity they don't harm one another — a symbol of God's power to make peace in his lofty heights." ⁵
Angels were not simply associated with singular affinities: strength, grace, etc, but also existed at times with correspondences to the world at large. The Sefer Yeztirah, or Book of Creation, lists a number of correlations between angels and planets, as well as months, astrological signs, and days.
According to Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs, Ascending Jacob's Ladder: Jewish Views of Angels, Demons, and Evil Spirits, the apocryphal works, the Book of Enoch, also lists correspondences; as well as numerous other angelic correspondences and duties. This is not a full list.
Gabriel: Angel of Fire
Ruchiel: Angel of Wind
Ra'amiel: Angel of Thunder
Salgiel: Angel of Snow
Matariel: Angel of Precipitation
Lailiel: Angel of Night*
Galgalliel: Angiel Overseeing Sun's Orb
Opaniel: Angel Overseeing Disk of Moon
Barakiel: Angel of Lightning
Baradiel: Angel of Hail
Jeremiel: Angel in charge of the seeds of the netherworld
Kategor: Accusing Angel in charge of calling to attention the transgressions of the people
Kokabriel: Angel of the Stars
Malach HaMavet: Angel of Death
Metatron: Angel of the Presence
Ra'asiel: Angel of Earthquakes
Raquel: Angel who takes revenge on world of lights
Raphael: Archangel who brings prayers to HaShem, healing
Ruziel: Angel of Magic
Sanegor: Defending Angel Who defends people in the heavenly court
Uriel: Prince of Archangels, thunder, and earthquakes. Warned people about the end of the world
Za'amiel: Angel of whirlwinds
Za'apiel: Angel of hurricanes
*Lailah, while not mentioned in the cited work, is the only suggested feminine angel and is also associated with the night. She is also associated with conception and intercourse, as well as guiding souls to their bodies.
While this term is highly popular today, it does not exist in the original Jewish thought, though it has now become well understood. There are varying numbers according to various sources and definitions. Because archangel is not a specific listing, numerous angels fall within its realm at various times and by various Jewish thinkers.
"A group of seven angels is frequently described as heading the world of angels; also designated as "archangels," they have "entry to the presence of the glory of the Lord". They are Uriel, whose function is to lead the angelic host and guard Sheol; Raphael, who is in charge of the spirits of humans; Raguel, who takes revenge upon the world of lights; Michael, who watches over Israel; Sariel, whose duties are not defined; Gabriel, who rules Paradise; Jeremiel (IV Ezra 4:38), who according to a later apocalyptic composition (Apocalypse of Elijah ; Ger., ed. by Steindorff, p. 10) guards the souls of the underworld (I En. 20). These seven angels are always in the proximity of God and are the ones that are always called upon to carry out tasks of special significance for world history, such as the punishment of the fallen angels, or of the 70 angels who act as princes of the peoples of the earth (I En. 90:21 ff.), the elevation of Levi to the priesthood (Test. Patr., Levi 8), the transmission of heavenly wisdom to Enoch (I En. 81:5 ff.), etc." ⁵
Chabad, for example, identifies only Michael and Gabriel as archangels, pointing to the Midrash wherein the former is called the "prince of kindness (chessed) and water" and the latter "the prince of severity (gevurah) and fire". "Thus, Angel Michael is dispatched on missions that are expressions of G‑d's kindness, and Gabriel on those that are expressions of G‑d's severity and judgment." They further explain that angels are not capable of multi-tasking and so beneath each of these two archangels are many angels that they direct in order to represent theri services in the world. "Thus, Michael and Gabriel are referred to as "archangels." since they are at the head of these differing groups of angels, which are known as "hosts (tzvah)," "camps" *machaneh) or "banner" (degel) of angels." ¹¹
However, other sources very often include Rafael and Uriel in the four archangels. Rafael being an angel associated with healing and fire, Uriel with light. Metatron is also commonly referred to as an archangel.
These are but a few of the named angels, with the vast majority of angels remaining unnamed.
The concept of a guardian angel, as a singular figure who stands between one and harm, is not found within mainstream Jewish theology. However, based on Pirkei Avot 4:11, "Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said: he who performs one commandment acquires for himself one advocate, and he who commits one transgression acquires for himself one accuser. Repentance and good deeds are a shield against punishment."
The "advocate" and "accuser" are both translated to angel by some theologians and scholars.
"Rabbi Eliezer ben (son of) Yaakov said: One who fulfills one mitzvah (commandment) acquires himself a single defending angel. One who commits one transgression acquires one accusing angel. Repentance and good deeds serve as a shield before retribution."
According to common teachings, particularly within movements like Chabad, these angels testify on your behalf before the Celestial court.⁸
In the name of [HaShem]
the G-d of Israel:
May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael
and above my head
This is not the only case of personal angelic protection:
Psalm 91:11 states, "For He will instruct His angels in your behalf, to guard you in all your ways"
"It was taught in a baraita: Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda says: Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his home, one good angel and one evil angel. And when he reaches his home and finds a lamp burning and a table set and his bed made, the good angel says: May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat. And the evil angel answers against his will: Amen. And if the person's home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the evil angel says: May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat, and the good angel answers against his will: Amen." Shabbat, 119b.
This, like the above quotation, highlights an interesting duality within the nature of 'personal' angels.
A fascinating discussion on whether or not one should beg angels to wait for them while defecating provides a basis for the idea that angels do, at all times, accompany humans:
"One who enters a bathroom says to the angels who accompany him at all times:
Be honored, honorable holy ones, servants of the One on High, give honor to the God of Israel, leave me until I enter and do my will and come back to you. Abaye said: A person should not say this, lest they abandon him and go. Rather he should say: Guard me, guard me, help me, help me, support me, support me, wait for me, wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way of man." Berakhot 60b.
In most modern communities, angels are invoked not as a means of praying towards the angel, but invoked while praying towards HaShem, the Divine Source of power behind all angels and their angelic actions. When invoking angels and the specific realms they rule over, most modern Jews are careful not to worship the angel, but merely see them as the chosen representative of the vastness of HaShem.
As mentioned in the introduction, Jewish angelology is not inherently consistent or linear, as it developed over thousands of years, spanning multiple continents, communities, and religious periods of enlightenment. Certain concepts rose and fell from popularity, much like the concept of fallen angels. In its essence, the fallen angel mythos embodies the idea that angels were cast out or rebelled and fell from heaven. The results of this literature vary wildly. Some cite that these fallen angels mated with human women to create giants, others believed these fallen angels taught women witchcraft, astrology, and the lunar calendar.³
In many writings, however, they do not retain their angelic status but become demonic and known as forces of impurity.
When humankind began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, he [males among the] divine beings*divine beings Others "sons of God." saw how pleasing the human women were and took wives from among those who delighted them.—HaShem said, "My breath shall not abide*abide Meaning of Heb. uncertain. in humankind forever, since it too is flesh; let the days allowed them be one hundred and twenty years."—It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when divine beings cohabited with the human women, who bore them offspring. Such were the heroes of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1)
While most fallen angels are unnamed, some are and have become synonymous with the idea of Satan, the adversary. However, due to the pervasiveness of Christian mythology (both official and unofficial doctrine), the idea of The Devil and Satan as a singular being existing as a fallen angel has taken hold in some contemporary Jewish spaces.
Important Stories of Angels
Within the Tanakh, there are many important stories of angels, some of which have been quoted or alluded to above. Some major ones include the angel of Balaam, Joshua's angel who instructed him to remove his sandals, the angel of Gideon, an Israelite Judge, the angel who foretold the birth of Manoah, the father of Samson, Jacob, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah's angels, and the story of Hagar. ¹⁰
"The Ramban is interested in making a radical distinction between prophecy and visions, including the vision of an angel. Not only can one "see" an angel without being a prophet, but the converse is also true - prophecy is not ever the experience of seeing or communicating with an angel. Angels are not prophecy and prophecy is not a matter of angels." ¹
"Rabbinic literature expounds significantly on the nature of angels and their roles in biblical stories. The Midrash identifies Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael as the four chief angels who surround the divine throne, each of whom has particular attributes." ⁵
In the story of Rabbi Asnat Barzani, a Kurdish woman often believed to be the first female rabbi, born in 1560. She saved a synagogue from burning by summoning angels using a Divine Name, and said angels are described as using their wings to beat the flames out until they disappeared to ash before the angels ascended to Heaven.
Angels Versus Demons
The Sages taught: Six statements were said with regard to demons: In three ways they are like ministering angels, and in three ways they are like humans. The baraita specifies:
In three ways they are like ministering angels: They have wings like ministering angels; and they fly from one end of the world to the other like ministering angels; and they know what will be in the future like ministering angels. The Gemara is puzzled by this last statement: Should it enter your mind that they know this? Not even the angels are privy to the future. Rather, they hear from behind the curtain when God reveals something of the future, like ministering angels.
And in three ways they are similar to humans: They eat and drink like humans; they multiply like humans; and they die like humans.
Six statements were said with regard to humans: In three ways, they are like ministering angels, and in three ways they are like animals. The baraita explains: In three ways they are like ministering angels: They have intelligence like ministering angels; and they walk upright like ministering angels; and they speak in the holy tongue like ministering angels.
In three ways humans are like animals: They eat and drink like animals; and they multiply like animals; and they emit excrement like animals.
In many Jewish esoteric and mystical texts, there are writings regarding the summoning of angels. These rituals can be extraordinarily complex as well as difficult to complete. Some might argue that any prayer or song sung to an angel might count within the realm of invocation or summoning, however, specific rituals meant to summon angels to learn secrets of Torah exist specifically within Jewish mystical spheres.
Henoch, C. J. "THE RELIGIOUS THOUGHT OF NACHMANIDES — FROM HIS EXEGESIS OF THE MITZVOT." Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 11, no. 1, 1970, pp. 64–83. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23256305. Accessed 10 Aug. 2022.
The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
A Gathering of Angels: Angels in Jewish Life and Literature; Morris B. Margolies
Ascending Jacob's Ladder: Jewish Views of Angels, Demons, and Evil Spirits. Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs