This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Angels on My Shoulders *

There is a natural human need to give visual expression to abstract ideas Towards that end people draw upon a variety of sources of inspiration.

For some of us, religious imagery is defined by the illustrations in our old schoolbooks, while others invoke great masterpieces of painting and sculpture. As for myself, my own perceptions have been decisively shaped by the cartoons I used to watch as a child.

The eternal struggle of the "Yetzer ha-tov" and the "Yetzer ha-ra"--the good and evil urges that compete within each of us--will always appear in my imagination like the little angel and imp who hover over the shoulders of animated characters pleading their respective cases. The good and bad angels figure in several Rabbinic legends. The Talmud tells how they visit Jewish homes on Friday night. If they find the household at peace and everything prepared for Shabbat, then the good angel blesses the family with the assurance that subsequent Sabbaths will be as delightful, while the bad angel reluctantly adds his "amen." But if the home is found to be in confusion and disarray, it is the bad angel's turn to wish upon the unfortunate family more unpleasant Sabbaths in the future--to which the good angel must add his unwilling assent.

The image of the angelic guests is a charming one. It is of course the inspiration for the Shalom Aleikhem hymn chanted in many Jewish homes before the Friday night meal. In this song we greet the celestial visitors, ask for their blessing--presumably we will be found worthy of the "good angel"'s version--and then bid our farewells as they return to "King of Kings of Kings" (a title that was probably coined in antiquity in order to assert God's superiority over the Persian monarch, who proudly called himself--as did the Iranian Shahs in our own times--the "King of kings").

It is hard to imagine anything more beautiful, or unobjectionable, than the themes evoked by the Shalom Aleikhem. It might therefore come as a surprise to learn that it became a topic of heated controversy from its first appearance in 1641 in a prayer book printed in Prague.

The Rabbis of the time had severe misgivings about the Shalom Aleikhem. The 18th-century Rabbi Jacob Emden was suspicious of any mystical innovations in the traditional prayer book, because so many of them had been introduced by the supporters of the Messianic pretender Shabbetai Zvi. There were additional halakhic considerations to keep in mind, such as the prohibition against petitionary prayers on the Sabbath, and the fear that people might be induced to manipulate their lamps in order to read unfamiliar supplements to the Siddur.

Emden, as well as several other distinguished rabbinical authorities, were especially upset that a prayer was being directed to angels, and not to the Almighty himself. After all, Judaism had always insisted that worshippers address their Creator directly, and often criticized the Christian reliance on intermediaries. And yet here we are instructed to ask the angelic emissaries for their blessing of peace.

A further objection was raised by the renowned Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821): To suppose that angels can respond to our petitions implies a gross misunderstanding of their nature. According to rationalist belief, angels are mere automatons programmed to carry out specific Divine missions. They do not have the judgment or freedom of choice that would be required to comply with the human supplication for a favourable blessing.

It was in response to charges of this kind that several prayer books inserted, immediately after the Shalom Aleikhem, two verses from Psalms which state unmistakably that it is God who commands the angels, and protects us in our comings and goings.

Some authorities were upset by an apparent breach of supernatural etiquette. After all, as we sing the Shalom Aleikhem before Kiddush we seem to be hustling the angels in, asking them for their blessing and then hastily sending them on their way before the meal has even begun! Is this the proper hospitality to show to supernatural guests? Although some commentators insisted that we are not ordering the angels to depart immediately, not everybody was convinced.

An interesting variation on the above theme is found in a note to a prayer book published in 1880 in Lublin: "In cases of domestic disputes, refrain from singing the stanza `Depart in peace.' According to a noted Rabbi, this is a certified effective way to soothe the tensions."

Indeed, who would be so rude as to keep on quarreling when there are angels at the table?

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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    First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, February 8 1996, p. 8.

    • I. Jacobson, Netiv Binah, Tel-Aviv.