(Salamu Alaikum it seems Jews arent as Monotheistic as they claim!)
Prayers of Jews to Angels and Other Intermediaries
during the First Centuries of the Common Era
It has been claimed that angels with divine power have no place in Judaism, a monotheistic religion, as the strength of such a religion lies in the exclusivity of the divinity. Angels can thus be no more than messengers, fulfilling God’s commandments. Indeed, in traditional Jewish prayer there appears to be no mention of the status of angels in general, nor of their role as intermediaries in prayer in particular. On the surface, the Siddur, or prayer book, would seem to indicate that Jews do not pray to angels or other divine agents, but solely to the Lord.
This, however, is not the case. Extensive analysis of the various sources of Talmudic literature reveals that there is some substance to the polemical claims of early Christians that Jews at that time did pray to angels. The current paper seeks to bring together all the evidence of Jewish prayers to angels and other intermediaries that can be found in sources from the first centuries C.E.
Although no actual prayers have come down to us from this time, a strong indication that they did exist is the fact that a not inconsiderable number are known from a later period, the Middle Ages. We therefore begin with texts from the Middle Ages which are still being recited, and which clearly reveal a relationship to this type of prayers to Angels. In an area as conservative and traditional as prayer, it is more than reasonable to assume that these represent the continuation of a pre-existing convention.
Several examples of post-Talmudic prayers to angels can be found in the Jewish service even today. One such invocation, one of the most famous and most familiar to those who participate in daily prayer, is a piyyut generally included in the prayers for forgiveness (Selihot) recited before and after Rosh Hashana. The precise date of origin of this piyyut is difficult to establish. It is entitled ‘Usherers of Mercy’, and begins with the words:
Usherers of mercy, usher in our [plea for] mercy, before the Master of mercy, You who cause prayer to be heard, may you cause our prayer to be heard before the Hearer of prayer, You who cause our outcry to be heard, may you cause our outcry to be heard, before the Hearer of outcry, You who usher in tears, may you usher in our tears, before the King Who finds favor through tears. Exert yourselves and multiply supplication and petition before the King, God, exalted and most high, etc.
In other words, the petitioner turns to the angels, asking them to pray on his behalf and to intervene for him so that his prayers and outcries come before God, as if the angels were the ‘gatekeepers’ or guards of God’s palace, determining what God should and should not hear. A similar plea is voiced in the song recited in the Ne‘illah service, (the concluding service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement): ‘Angels of mercy, servants of the Supreme, accost God with the best thoughts, perhaps he will show pity to the poor begging people [perhaps he will show pity]’.
Another piyyut, included in the Selihot until the present time, was composed by Amittai, a paytan who lived in Italy (Oria) at the end of the ninth century. It opens with the attributes of the Lord: ‘The Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness,’ and continues with the supplication: ‘Attribute of mercy, turn on our behalf and enter your pleas before your Creator, and ask for mercy on behalf of your people, for every heart is ailing and every head is sick’. From a later period comes a prayer, familiar as well from the prayer book, recited just before the blowing of the shofar (while ‘seated’):
And so may it be Thy will Lord our God and God of our fathers that all the angels appointed to oversee the shofar and its various sounds will ascend before Your Seat of Glory and recommend favorably for us to atone for our sins.
It seems then that prayers to angels are preserved to this day in the Orthodox Jewish prayer service, and for one reason or another, most of them seem to be recited in proximity to the period of the Days of Awe. Not surprisingly, such invocations aroused the rage of halachic authorities, who sought to expunge them from the prayer-book or, at the very least, to disguise their meaning.
As stated above, these prayers, composed over hundreds of years during the Middle Ages, are still being recited while no Talmudic prayers of this kind have survived. However, it is assumed that these late prayers were continuing a tradition from the Mishnah and Talmud periods or the first centuries C.E. (if not earlier). Now we can begin to work backwards, and after having referred to the relatively well-known prayers to angels from “recent” times, we can confront those ancient prayers that have escaped notice since they were somehow “rejected” during the centuries. In spite of the general belief that there were no prayers to angels from these early times, we shall attempt to show, upon closer examination of the sources, various indications of their existence.
PT Ber 9:1, 13a, cites the following (presumably in the name of the Lord):
If a person faces trouble, he should not cry out to the angels Michael or Gabriel. But he should cry out to me, and I will immediately answer him. In this regard [it says], ‘All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered’ [Joel 2:32].
This is presumed to be the only source in Tannaitic Rabbinic literature from which we learn that Jews had been accustomed to praying to angels, and that the sages prohibited the practice. However, in spite of this prohibition, prayers to angels can still be found in Talmudic texts. In reference to the Midrash of Canticles, for example, Tanya Rabbati, laws of Rosh Hashana, paragraph 72, there is this quotation:
In the Midrash of Canticles on the verse ‘I adjure you’, the community of Israel says to the angels monitoring the gates of prayer and the gates of tears: convey my prayer and tears to the Holy One blessed be He and be you advocates before Him to forgive me the wicked deeds and the unintentional sins.
Although this passage does not appear in the various versions of the midrash available today, it is claimed to be authentic, and if this is the case, the text was probably deleted by internal censorship because of its ‘problematic’ content which did not seem to suit religious teachings. As we shall now see, despite these attempts, Talmudic literature reveals examples of appeals to intermediaries.
II. Prayers To Angels and To Celestial and Earthly Bodies
A. Rabbinical Aggadic Literature
Eleazar ben Dardoya
One of the best-known stories in the Babylonian Talmud describes a prayer to celestial bodies as intermediaries between man and God. It relates the story of repentance of Eleazar ben Dardoya, and appears in BT AZ 17a:
It was said of R. Eleazar b. Dordia that he did not leave out any harlot in the world without coming to her. Once, on hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of denarii for her hire, he took a purse of denarii and crossed seven rivers for her sake. As he was with her, she blew forth breath and said: As this blown breath will not return to its place, so will Eleazar b. Dordia never be received in repentance. He thereupon went, sat between two hills and mountains and exclaimed: O, ye hills and mountains, plead for mercy for me! They replied: How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves... So he exclaimed: Heaven and earth, plead ye for mercy for me... Sun and moon, plead ye for mercy for me!… Ye stars and constellations... Said he: The matter then depends upon me alone! Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed. Then a bath-kol was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar b. Dordia is destined for the life of the world to come’.
Here is a man, not necessarily from rabbinic circles, who, on feeling the need to offer up a prayer of supplication, a heartfelt plea for mercy (just before his death), turns to heaven and earth, and to the sun and the moon, perceiving the celestial bodies as if they were angels mediating between him and the Lord. Moreover, the narrator does not seem to express any objection to this prayer, since it is clear that after praying to the intermediaries, Eleazar b. Dardoya was invited into the world to come, and even granted the title ‘Rabbi’. As we shall see below, however, not only common people prayed to celestial bodies; the elite of Israel did so as well, at least according to the aggadah.
R. Yehuda Hadassi, a famous Karaite scholar of the twelfth century and author of Eshkol Hakofer, cites an aggadic midrash which is not found in Talmudic literature. As part of his criticism of the Oral Law, he claims that when God sought to end the life of Moses, he tried to prevent this from happening:
When Moses saw the situation, he pleaded to the Lord to be a bird in His land... and was refused by the Lord. He went and beseeched the Land of Israel: plead for mercy for me from your Creator… he went and pleaded to Heaven… he went before the stars... he went before the sun and the moon… he went to Mt. Sinai and all the mountains... he went to the sea, the rivers and the lakes... he went to the deserts… he went in the footsteps of Joshua... he went and fell at the feet of Eleazar the Priest... and likewise [he did] to Caleb ben Jepphunne, and likewise to the princes of Thy people Israel...
Although the story of Moses entreating intermediaries to plead for him before God does not appear in any ancient rabbinic source known today, it is likely that the Karaite scholar did not invent the story, but derived it from some type of rabbinic source. This supposition is supported by a seemingly parallel homily preserved only in an obscure Yemenite midrash. According to this source:
Moses raised his voice with cries and pleas, and pleaded to the earth: plead for mercy on my behalf before the Holy One Blessed Be He... Moses approached Heaven and said: I implore you, plead for mercy on my behalf before the Holy One Blessed Be He… He went to the sun and moon and pleaded before them to plead for mercy on him… Moses went to Mt. Sinai and pleaded that it plead for mercy on him… He went to the rivers and pleaded that they plead for mercy on him...
Thus the text in Eshkol Hakofer is an adaptation of an ‘original’ homily preserved in Yemen without the benefit of editing or ‘improvement’ by internal Jewish censors. It would appear, therefore, that according to this tradition, even Moses prayed to intermediaries, including the heavens, the sun and the moon, Mt. Sinai(!), rivers, some other “cosmic beings” and even to humans, such as Joshua, Eleazar and other leaders of Israel. Clearly, then, a Talmudic source (which was probably censored in a later period) reflects the belief that Moses prayed to various intermediaries, both celestial and human, to intervene on his behalf and ask the Lord to have pity on him.
B. Tannaitic Halachik Texts
The issue of appealing to intermediaries is addressed in M Hul 2:8:
If a man slaughtered [an animal] as a sacrifice to mountains, hills, seas, rivers, or deserts, the slaughtering is invalid.
This mishnah is cited in BT Hul 40a, where it is discussed in respect to a baraita found more concisely in T Hul 2:18:
He who slaughters for the sake of the sun, for the sake of the moon, for the sake of the stars, for the sake of the planets, for the sake of Michael, prince of the great host, and for the sake of the small earthworm – lo, this is deemed to be flesh deriving from the sacrifices of corpses.
The Babylonian Talmud sought to comprehend the difference in the terminology of the Mishnah and Tosefta, i.e., the “unfit slaughter” of the Mishnah and the “sacrifices of corpses” (=for the dead) of the Tosefta. Abbaye explains: ‘One refers to the mountain, the other to the divinity of the mountain’. More plausibly, however, the disparity seems to reflect different textual versions without any real difference in substance. Thus, uttering the name of one of those ‘intermediaries’ in connection with a ritual slaughter makes it void.. It was, therefore, the intent of both the baraita and the Mishnah to ban sacrificial slaughter in which the slaughterer invokes an intermediary, either by name or by uttering the name of the angel appointed over it.
Clearly then, although the sages had established that the blessing recited at the time of the slaughter should be addressed to God, some Jews continued to invoke the names of angels, such as Michael, or those of specific mountains, lakes, and the like. Similarly, in M Hul 2:9 the sages state: ‘One may not slaughter [in such manner that the blood runs] into the sea, or into rivers…’ and the Talmud explains: ‘Why is it that a person may not slaughter into the sea?… because it might be said that he is slaughtering to the deity of the sea?.’
We might relate this answer back to the story of Moses appealing, for example, to Mt. Sinai. The appeal is not made to the inanimate object itself, but to the angel appointed over it, not to the earth of the Land of Israel but to its appointed angel. For instance, when offering a sacrifice to the sea, a person would say: ‘god of the seas (Poseidon, servant of the Lord) save me from this storm’.
In the same context, we might consider another law associated with this issue. BT AZ 27a cites a baraita dealing with the laws of circumcision, and states:
Surely it has been taught: An Israelite may perform a circumcision on a Cuthean but a Cuthean should not [be allowed to] circumcise an Israelite, because he performs the circumcision in the name of Mount Gerizim, this is the opinion of R. Judah. Said R. Jose to him: Where is it at all to be found in the Torah that circumcision must be performed specifically for its purpose? But he may go on performing it even though he expires in the act.
Thus, R. Jose differs with R. Judah by saying that the lack of intent does not nullify the circumcision (as it does in the case of sacrifice, for example). Indeed, we learn from this that in the second century, at least, it was the Samaritan custom to invoke the name of Mt. Gerizim when circumcising, similar to Moses appealing to Mt. Sinai in the Aggadah, or to the likelihood that some Jews regularly called on Mt. Moriah in their prayers. It is assumed that the Samaritans appealed to the angel appointed over the mountain not only at circumcisions, but also in the course of ritual slaughter, as Jews were accustomed to do, a practice condemned by the sages. This may very well explain why the sages taught in Mishnah Ber 9:2 that anyone seeing a mountain, ocean, or something similar is required to recite a blessing such as ‘Blessed be He Who created the Great Sea’. In other words, one should not invoke or be awed by the angelic officer appointed over these natural phenomena, but offer thanks only to God.
In general, then, we can say that the halachic midrashim cited here appear to reflect not only theoretical laws, but a reality in which the rituals of certain Jews included reference to a variety of servants and attendants of God, such as angels, seraphim, and the like. While the sages of the Mishnah considered this custom disgraceful and banned it, for other Jews it was apparently common practice. Such a case is seen with the author of Sefer Harazim who writes of purity on the one hand, but on the other hand refers to prayers to Helios (the sun) or to consulting with a ghost, practices already prohibited in the Pentateuch. In other words, the doctrine of the sages alludes to Jews whose religious views were considered objectionable, as they were (in the opinion of the sages) syncretistic, that is, they implied serving God in partnership.
It is interesting to note that certain examples of the Judeo-Christian polemic from the fourth century onward reveal that the Jews condemned the Christians for worshiping objects, trees, and stones, and that certain Christians of that era construed these items to be sacred and viewed them more or less on the order of angels. However, it would appear that these later views rebuked Christians for the very type of practices that had existed among the Jews themselves centuries before.
Just how commonplace the appeal to angels was is demonstrated by a baraita in BT Ber 60b (Dereh Eretz 11; Kalla Rabbati 9:13):
On entering a privy one should say: ‘Be honoured, ye honoured and holy ones the minister to the Most High. Give honour to the God of Israel. Wait for me till I enter and do my needs, and I return to you’.
Presumably, then, several times in the course of an ordinary day, a Jew would turn to angels and ask them not to accompany him to the privy. This custom, too, was later abolished because of objections to praying to angels.
III. Prayers To to Saintly Individuals in Tannaitic Texts and Later
The custom of appealing to a revered holy person, whether a sage or prophet, is well known from Scripture. The luminary would serve as an intermediary between those in need of divine help and God by soliciting divine intervention and praying on their behalf. Thus, for example, the people turned to the prophet and pleaded (Jer. 42:2): ‘Pray for us to the Lord your God.’ From the context it is clear that the Lord was their God as well, but they were apparently too timid to appeal to him directly. Similarly, the people begged Samuel (1 Sam. 12:19): ‘Intercede for your servants with the Lord your God that we may not die’, behavior that is explained by the verse immediately preceding this: ‘And the people stood in awe of the Lord and Samuel.’ Every charismatic is typically assumed to have been granted the power to mediate between his disciples and the divinity, and it seems obvious that a prayer could only be effective if the individual to whom the supplicant turned for help was someone the Lord was likely to listen to.
A key religious (and charismatic) figure whose concern for the people was expressed not only in his dealings with them, but also in his appeals to the Lord was Hanina ben Dosa. M Ber 5:5 states:
It was related of [R.] Hanina ben Dosa that he used to pray for the sick and say, this one will live. They said to him: how do you know? He replied: If my prayer comes out fluently, I know that he (= the patient) is accepted, but if not, then I know that he is rejected.
An expanded version appears in a baraita cited in BT Ber 34b:
Our Rabbis taught: Once the son of R. Gamaliel fell ill. He sent two scholars to R. Hanina ben Dosa to ask him to pray for him. When he saw them he went up to the upper chamber and prayed for him. When he came down he said to them: Go, the fever has left him; [by the sun]. They said to him: Are you a prophet? He replied: I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I learnt this from experience. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that he is accepted: but if not, I know that he is rejected.
The baraita goes on to refer to another incident of interest:
On another occasion it happened that R. Hanina ben Dosa went to study Torah with Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. The son of R. Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He said to him: Hanina my son, pray for him that he may live. He put his head between his knees and prayed for him and he lived.
The extraordinary figure of R. Hanina ben Dosa has already been discussed by many scholars who study the world of the sages, and there is no need to expand. What is relevant, however, is the fact that some (although not all) of the Tannaim, viewed as authorities passing down the traditions of the Torah, sought a distinguished or saintly individual to intervene with God in some way on behalf of the ill. Even the greatest of the Tannaim, such as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, appealed to such people. This was accepted practice not only among the Tannaim, but among the Amoraim in Palestine as well. This might be understood from the following: ‘R. Phinehas b. Hama gave the following exposition: Whoever has a sick person in his house should go to a sage who will invoke [heavenly] mercy for him; as it is said (Prov. 16:14): “The wrath of a king is as messenger of death; but a wise man will pacify it”.’
A similar statement is found in BT AZ 8a: ‘[So also] said R. Hiyya b. Ashi in the name of Rab: Even though it has been said that one should pray for his needs only at “Who hearest prayer”, still if [for example] one has a sick person at home, he may offer [an extempore] prayer at the Benediction for the sick’. In other words, a person is permitted to pray for a sick member of his household (his wife or children), and indeed to this day Jews are accustomed to doing so. If this was accepted by the sages and their disciples, who were familiar with the theological problems of such a prayer, then it must certainly have been the norm among the simple folk.
This notion of appealing to a distinguished individual to intervene with the Lord is also reflected in the people’s plea to Honi the Circle Maker (Hameagel), another charismatic figure (M Taan 3:8), ‘to pray for rainfall’. We learn in BT Taan 23a that the sages also asked Abba Hilkiah, the son of the daughter of Honi, to pray (on their behalf) for rainfall, as it happened with Hanan the Hidden (BT Taan 23b), and the Gemara cites a number of similar examples in the same place.
Clearly, then, sources in Talmudic literature provide a wide range of instances of human intermediaries in prayer, from the legend of Moses appealing to Joshua bin Nun, Eleazar the Priest, and the nobles of Israel, and to the petitions to Honi Hameagel and to other ‘distinguished figures’. These sources clearly demonstrate what we are seeking to prove here, a fact which is not generally recognized: Jews in the period of the Mishnah and Talmud (like those who came before them) prayed not only to the Lord, but also to intermediaries.
IV. Prayers to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Legend
Since contact with the dead was considered to contaminate the living, in Biblical times, as in the tannaitic period, there were some people who took care not to be rendered impure in this way. Consequently, any appeal to the dead was prohibited (who said ghosts contaminate ??????), and so the woman with the familiar spirit had good reason to be afraid to raise the ghost of Samuel (1 Sam 28) (because of impurity, maybe she was not among those who cared and in any case, all this here can be cut down to a half a sentence). However, the gradual disappearance of the laws of purity and impurity enabled the people to begin to visit graves and solicit the help of the deceased. This practice is first related by Rava in Babylon, according to whom the spies went up to Hebron to prostrate themselves on the graves of the patriarchs (BT Sot 34b). Similarly, one of the Palestinian Amoraim of the third century believed in visiting cemeteries on fast days, ‘so that the dead shall plead for mercy on us’ (BT Taan 16a). Once the practice became widely established in popular circles, community leaders seem to have followed in their wake, also visiting graves and pleading with the dead to bring their prayers before the Lord. The custom is described in greater detail in Lamentations Rabba (Buber) Petihta 24:
The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Jeremiah: Today I resemble a man who had an only son for whom he prepared the bridal canopy and the son died under the bridal canopy. And you feel no pain for Me or for my son. Go summon Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses for they know how to weep.
In other words, the prophet Jeremiah is sent by God to summon the Patriarchs, that is, to visit their graves and ask them to weep before him Him. The preacher in Lamentations Rabba depicts a rather dramatic scene in which the Patriarchs ‘tore their clothes, placed their hands on their heads and shouted and wept up to the doors of the Holy Temple’. In contrast, the preacher in Genesis Rabba, apparently earlier than Lamentations Rabba, speaks not of the Patriarchs, but of the Matriarch Rachel:
‘So Rachel died and she was buried on the way to Ephrath…’ Why did Jacob bury Rachel on the way to Ephrath? Jacob foresaw that the exiles would pass by there [en route to Babylon]. Therefore he buried her there, so that she should seek mercy for them: “A voice is heard in Ramah… Rachel weeping for her children... Thus says the Lord, ‘Keep your voice from weeping… and there is hope for your future’…(Jer. 31:15-16).
Another reference to Rachel’s burial place appears in Pesikta Rabbati 3, and focuses on why she was not buried together with the Patriarchs:
God commanded Rachel to be buried there because it was known to Him and foreseen that a time was to come when the Temple would be destroyed and Jacob’s children would depart into exile. Whereupon they would go to the Patriarchs whom they would beseech to pray for them, but the Patriarchs would not avail the children of Israel. Then, before the setting forth on their way, they would go and embrace the tomb of Rachel, who would arise and beg mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying to Him: Master of the Universe, hearken to the voice of my weeping and have mercy upon my children, or else pay the due bill which I present contract. Forthwith the Holy One, blessed be He, would listen to the voice of her prayer.
This midrash relates explicitly to what is not spelled out in the earlier one. In Genesis Rabba, Rachel pleas for mercy from the Lord without being asked to, whereas in Pesikta Rabbati, she does so only after her sons come and beg her to intercede for them. In addition, the preacher was undoubtedly aware that Jews went to the Cave of Machpela in Hebron to ask the Patriarchs for mercy, as he must have seen this for himself. We can therefore deduce from Talmudic sources that the practice of appealing to the dead Patriarchs began in the Amoraic period, most probably emerging around their burial places in Hebron and Rachel’s tomb.
If we look outside of Talmudic literature we first encounter prayer at patriarchal tombs in the elegy of R. Elazar Haqalir. This is recited to this day on the Ninth of Av: ‘Then when Jeremiah went to the burial places of the Patriarchs and declared: Lovable bones, why lie you still? Your children are exiled and their houses are destroyed. What is become of the merit of the ancestors in the land of drought’... Apparently, then, in the sixth or seventh centuries, the Jews in Palestine prayed at the tombs of the patriarchs in Hebron. The poet was a leader in prayer (and probably more) and although the custom is mentioned in rabbinical sources, the prayer itself is unknown, so the poet apparently ‘reconstructed’ itthe words said by the prophet. As it was composed only for the purposes of the elegy, however, it cannot be considered as authentic.
Not long after the time of Haqalir, a prayer to be recited at the grave of the prophet Samuel was, in fact, composed, and reads in part:
Fortunate are you the faithful and friendly, fortunate the modest and the pious... because of your merit God will receive [the prayer of His people Israel], because of your merit God will bring to end [of our exile]... our master Samuel the prophet... [be dear] my soul in your eyes and the souls of your servants believing in your prophecy, who come to prostrate themselves on your grave, to implore the great and awesome Lord your God on behalf of the surviving remnant…
Thus, Talmudic literature retains a number of references to the custom of visiting graves. What is more, by the ninth century at the latest, special prayers were being written for the graves of the prophets of Israel, and it is more than reasonable to assume that prayers meant to be recited at the graves of the patriarchs in Hebron already existed at that time. Hence, praying at gravesites, a custom prohibited in Scripture and condemned in later periods, appears to have been a norm more than a thousand years ago, even if the halachic authorities refused to admit it.
The sources presented above clearly indicate that the Jews in Palestine in the Talmud period did not pray exclusively to God, but also to various intermediaries, including celestial bodies and natural phenomena, leaders, and the saintly, both living and dead. All of these were asked to pray to the Lord on behalf of the supplicant. This cannot be considered only as ‘popular religion’, since even the greatest of the Tannaim appealed to intermediaries to intercede with the Lord. At the same time, there are indications that the sages sought to ‘popularize’ prayer by teaching that God welcomes the prayers of all people, not only of the sages, the pious or the priest. Exodus Rabba 21:4 states:
‘Who hears prayer’—R. Judah bar Shalom reported in the name of R. Eleazar: A human being, if a poor man comes to say something to him—he does not listen to him; if a rich man comes to say something—he immediately listens and receives him. But the Holy One blessed Be He is not so, but all are equal before him—women and slaves and the poor and the rich... this is prayer and this is prayer: all are equal before God in prayer.
Notwithstanding this teaching, which reflects an attitude of equality among all believers in respect to prayer (precluding the need for intermediaries), it is clear that the appeal to angels and other intermediaries in the Judaism of the Talmudic period was not limited to a small circle. On the contrary, it was accepted by all levels of society, from the sages representing the religious norm to the broad ranks of the populace. Only later did theologians and religious philosophers seek to limit this practice, or at the very least, to disguise it.