Prayers Of Jews To Angels And Other Mediators In The First Centuries Ce

Meir Bar-Ilan (Bar-Ilan University, Israel)

I. Introduction

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.1 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.2

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.3 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 ce.

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

1 In the Thirteen Principles of Faith, according to Maimonides, it is stated: "I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name—to him alone is it proper to pray and it is not proper to pray to any other"; Siddur Kol Yaacov— Ashkenaz, New York 1990, 179.

2 The existence of the prohibition goes back to Scripture, see: A. Rofe, Faith in Angels in Scripture, Jerusalem 1979, 101 ff. (Hebrew). For the conventional approach in research to 'intermediaries,' see: M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1980, II, 234, 265, 295.

3 S. Carroll, 'A Preliminary Analysis of the Epistle to Rehoboam', Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 4 (1989), 91-103.

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.4

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]'.5

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

4 D. Goldschmidt, The Order of Selihot (Penitential Prayers) According to the Polish Rite, Jerusalem 1965, introduction, 11-12 (Hebrew). For the controversy over 'Angels of Mercy', see: M. Saperstein, Decoding the Rabbis, Cambridge MA, 1980, 192 ff. J. Yahalom, Poetry and Society in Jewish Galilee of Late Antiquity, Tel-Aviv 1999, 54 (Hebrew).

5 D. Goldschmidt, Mahzor for the Days of Awe, 2, Yom Kippur, Jerusalem 1970, 764 (Hebrew). The use of the Hebrew word higayon hints at the post-Talmudic period as the period in which the hymn was composed.

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,6 for every heart is ailing and every head is sick'.7 From a later period comes a prayer, familiar as well from the prayer book, recited just before the blowing of the shofar (while 'seated'):8

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.9

It seems then that prayers to angels are preserved to this day in the Orthodox Jewish prayer service,10 and for one reason or another, most of them seem to be recited in proximity to the period of the Days of Awe.11 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.12

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 ce (if not earlier). Now we can

6 Goldschmidt notes that the precedent for this notion can be found in Hekhalot Rabbati 13,2 (S.A. Wertheimer, Batei Midrashot, Jerusalem 1980, I, 88; P. Schaefer, Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur, Tübingen 1981, 76, § 172).

7 Goldschmidt, The Order of Selihot, 208. The hymn is also recited in the Ne'illah prayer on Yom Kippur. See: Goldschmidt, Mahzor for the Days of Awe, 2, Yom Kippur, 663-664 (Hebrew). A similar hymn is Shlomo ben Menachem's 'Thirteen Attributes' also recited in the Selihot service (Goldschmidt, The Order of Selihot, 95).

8 It is worth citing here the end of the "personal" prayer recited by the Cantor before the Mussaf service entitled 'I am but poor of deed' (Goldschmidt, Mahzor for the Days of Awe, 1, Rosh Hashana, 147): 'That all the angels who are masters of prayer bring my prayer before the Seat of Your Glory,' etc.

9 Goldschmidt, Mahzor for the Days of Awe, 1, Rosh Hashana, p. 145; M. Bar-Ilan, 'The Fate of Joshua Prince of Presence in Scientific (?) Research,' Sinai, 101 (1988), 174-181 (Hebrew).

10 Additional examples: 'Angels of the tears of the wretched endure for hours like the scent of a consuming fire' (by Moshe bar Shabtai. See: D. Goldschmidt, Mahzor for the Days of Awe, 1, Rosh Hashana, Jerusalem: Qoren 1970, 125).

11 The proximity of prayers to angels to Rosh Hashana may derive from the mystic character of Rosh Hashana (and Yom Kippur) as evident in the many times angels mentioned in the liturgy of these days, as opposed to the other days in the year.

12 Avraham ben Eliezer Halevi, 'Instruction on the Question of the Angels,' Kerem Hemed, 9 (1856), 141-148 (Hebrew).

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.13

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].14

This is presumed to be the only source in Rabbinic literature from which we learn that Jews had been accustomed to praying to angels,15 and that the sages prohibited the practice.16 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, § 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.17

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

13 See: Nils Johansson, Parakletoi, Lund 1940.

14 Translation from: Tzvee Zahavy, The Talmud of the Land of Israel, vol. 1, Berakhot, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press 1989, 314.

15 Not only Rabbinic Jews were praying to Angels, as is stated in I Enoch 104,1: 'I swear unto you that in heaven the angels will remember you for good before the glory of the great One.'

16 According to J. Heinemann, Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns, Berlin— New York 1977, 249: 'It is a well-known fact that there are no prayers from the Talmudic period which are addressed to intermediaries of any sort—neither to angels, nor to saints or patriarchs'.

17 R. Yehiel son of R. Zedekiah (?), Tanya Rabbati, Warsaw 1879 (photocopy, Jerusalem 1963), 77d (p. 154).

of its 'problematic' content which did not seem to suit religious teachings.18 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. Aggadic Literature Eleazar ben Dardoya19

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'.20

Here is a man, not necessarily from rabbinic circles, who, on feeling the need to offer up a prayer of supplication, a heartfelt plea

18 See: M. Bar-Ilan, 'The Occurrences and the Significance of the Yoser Ha'adam Benediction,' HUCA 56 (1985), Hebrew section, 9-27. On this type of internal censoring see below.

19 In the printed edition and in manuscripts the name of Eleazar's father appears slightly different.

20 Translation from: I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, IV, London 1935, 87 (hereafter the citations are from this edition). See also: M. Baer, 'On the Atonement of Penitents in the Literature of the Sages', Zion, 46 (1981), 159-181 (Hebrew), especially 163; M. Bar-Ilan, Some Jewish Women in Antiquity, Atlanta Georgia 1998, 138-139.

for mercy (just before his death), turns to heaven and earth,21 and to the sun and the moon, perceiving the celestial bodies as if they were angels mediating between him and the Lord.22 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.


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. . . .23

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.24 According to this source:

21 Quite a similar prayer to the sun and the moon see in the Book of Adam and Eve 36, 2.

22 For the personification of celestial bodies, or more precisely, their perception as angels, see: M. Beit-Arie, Perek SHIRA: Introductions and Critical Edition, Ph.D. Thesis submitted to the Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1967 (Hebrew, unpublished), 1, 47.

23 Yehuda Hadassi, Eshkol Hakofer, Goslaw 1836 (reprint: Israel 1969), 140b.

24 S. Lieberman, Yemenite Midrashim, 2nd edition, Jerusalem 1970, 33 (Hebrew). The Yemenite community preserved several midrashim in full, without subjecting them to internal censorship.

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 . . .25

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.26 It would appear, therefore, that according to this tradition, even Moses prayed to intermediaries, including the heavens, the sun and the moon, Mt. Sinai(!),27 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. Halachic 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.28

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:

25 From a collection of homilies about Moses and his death: A.M. Haberman, Helkat Mehokek (The Portion of the Lawgiver), Jerusalem, 1947, 62 ff. (Hebrew); J.D. Eisenstein, Ozar Midrashim, (reprint), Israel 1969, II, 368-369 (Hebrew).

26 R. Yehuda Hadassi's addition of Moses turning to the 'land of Israel' and to the 'deserts' is not a substantive change. It seems to me that this Aggadic midrash can be associated with an excerpt from another Aggadah cited in additions to S.Z. Schechter, Avoth dR. Nathan, New York 1967, 156-157 (additions to version A, XII, 50). See also: E. Glickler Chazon, 'Moses' Struggle for His Soul: A Prototype for the Testament of Abraham, the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Sedrach', The Second Century 5 (1985-6), 151-164.

27 Compare this tradition to that of the places where miracles occurred to the People of Israel in the Exodus from Egypt. See: M. Bar-Ilan, 'Wonder Sites in the Land of Israel in Ancient Times,' Judea and Samaria Studies 5 (1995), 229-239 (Hebrew).

28 I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim, II, 214-215.

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