Saturday, December 20, 2014


A few weeks ago, I attended a family Sabbath service with my grandchildren in one of the local synagogues. When the Rabbi announced the Shalom Alekhem (“Welcome”) song and went on talking about the angels that accompany us on that night, I was not at all happy. As an adult I understand metaphors, but young children do not, and are more likely to take things literately. And that is unnecessary and dangerous.

Shalom Alekhem is one of the most popular liturgical hymns for welcoming the Sabbath. It refers to the “angels of service,” conceived as two divine messengers, which, according to the Talmud, accompany every Jew on the Sabbath (BT Shab. 119b): one of two angels is good, the other one is evil. When the person arrives home and finds that the Sabbath lamp is lit and the festive table is set, the good angel approves of the action and blesses the individual; but if this is not done, then the evil angel invokes a curse on the person. (Ugh!). As a song, it is relatively late, probably originating at the start of the 18th century. However, it uses imagery that goes back in time.

The belief in angels is predominant in the ancient Near East. People then believed in the existence of divine winged creatures called karibu (“intercessors”). The Bible, too, knows of angels, called either satan, “holy ones,” cherubim, seraphim, and others. (See article on “angels” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1).The role of angels dramatically increased in post-biblical literature as well as in rabbinic texts, and reached its height in kabbalistic material during the medieval times. In the Reform movement, the old Union Prayerbook (1959), reflecting the classical Jewish stand of its time, did not include Shalom Alekhem. The Gates of Prayer (1975) did. The new Mishkan T’Filah (2007) demythologizes it by adding a note at the bottom of the next page saying, “ordinary people are messengers of the Most High” (p. 143). But that is not what the text implies.

A number of Rabbis raised serious concerns about angelology in Judaism and specifically against the use of Shalom Alekhem during the Sabbath service. For example, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (d. 1821) taught that it is forbidden to make any requests of angels, because, he believed, they do not have independent power. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) objected to the verse asking the angels for blessings (“Bless me with peace,”) for, according to a long standing Jewish teaching, blessings come only from God. (For an excellent discussion of this poem, read the chapter in Shabbat At Home, Edited by L. A. Hoffman, Jewish Lights, 2004). 

I don’t think there is such a thing as an angel, whether as real creatures floating in the air or as divine emanations advocated by Maimonides in medieval times. This primitive image belongs to the past, and better be left there. I would also argue that some liturgical passages, like Shalom Alekhem or Kal [note: not Kol] Nidre, should only be sung, but not translated, because they may lead people into believing in matters that are irrational and, worse, theologically objectionable. 

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Dec. 21, 2014