“I, and Not an Angel”
"Warning: The Following Prayer May Be Dangerous to Your Spiritual Health. Recite with Caution, and Only with the Proper Intention."
When was the last time you saw this kind of warning in a prayer book? Yet in most S’lihot prayer books, including the one that is most popular in the Israeli market, that is the message (OK, my translation is a bit of a dramatic paraphrase) that actually accompanies one of the hymns.
The hymn in question is known by its first words, Makhnisei Rahamim or "Ushers of Mercy." It is the best known of the many intercessory prayers, composed for this time of the year, which call upon angels to deliver our supplications to God:
O you who usher in [pleas for] mercy, may you usher in our [plea for] mercy, before the Master of mercy. O you who cause prayer to be heard, may you cause our prayer to be heard before the Hearer of prayer. . . . Exert yourselves, and multiply supplications and petition, before the King, God. . . . (ArtScroll translation)
There are many such prayers in prayer books dating back as early as the 10th century. It is possible that they were composed under the influence of, if they did not actually originate in, even earlier mystical sources, such as the Heikhalot literature, which are full of angelic ascensions and entreaties.
Yet the notion of turning to angels to supplicate on our behalf ruffled many theological feathers in the medieval era. Maimonides, in the fifth of his 13 principal dogmas of Judaism, asserts that only God should be worshiped and praised. “Do not,” he continues, "seize upon intermediaries in order to reach Him but direct your thoughts toward Him, may He be exalted, and turn away from that which is other than He." Some scholars, including Nahmandies and the Maharal of Prague, tried to ban such prayers, even as other prominent scholars defended their continued recitation. Debates on the question continued into the early modern period, with some scholars trying to placate both sides by suggesting grammatical emendations or apologetic interpretations to make the hymns theologically acceptable.
A turning point occurred in the 19th century, when Reform leaders sought to excise angelic hymns from the prayer books. In response, many Orthodox scholars mounted a stalwart defense of these prayers against the "heresies" of the Reformers, though some confessed that they privately omitted Makhnisei Rahamim while allowing their own congregants to recite it. Other scholars remained steadfast in their public opposition, leaving us with the contemporary situation: Makhnisei Rahamim remains in Orthodox prayer books with its unusual "theological hazard" warning sign, with some (like myself) skipping it, others reciting it on purpose, and many, alas, unknowingly mumbling their way through the theological minefield.
I have always wondered why so many people, scholars and laypeople alike, continue to embrace this prayer, to the point at which it has recently been popularized in a striking song by the Hasidic singer Mordechai Ben David. Leaving aside the many halakhic and theological questions, do you really want to roll the dice by participating in an arguably heretical rite while the Books of Judgment are open? After all, there is no shortage of prayers to recite; why place your bets on one that Maimonides thinks can lose you your place in the World to Come?
More substantively, there are theological, philosophical, and existential arguments against the idea of intercessory prayer by angels. The theological argument is fairly simple: In our mission to spread monotheism, we not only worship God exclusively but avoid creating the mistaken appearance that there are intermediaries possessing any form of independent power. Indeed, some opponents of Makhnisei Rahamim argued that intercessory prayers mimicked non-Jewish rites; one 18th-century polemicist even cited Christian Hebraists in arguing that genuine Jewish ritual includes only direct supplication to God.
But supporters of Makhnisei Rahamim had some strong theological rebuttals. First, they said, intercessory prayers themselves assert that God is the exclusive sovereign of the world: Even the angels must beseech Him, and His angelic entourage only increases His glory and grandeur. Equally significant, the Talmud implies in several places that Jews indeed employ intercessory methods using angels and others, possibly including the deceased; talmudic authority, said the supporters, legitimizes these hymns.
On the philosophical level, scholars like Rabbi Yosef Albo argued that intercessory prayer is illogical: It only makes sense to petition the entity—i.e., God—who holds the power to grant the request, whether it be for health, atonement, or livelihood. Angels do not possess free will or determine anything on their own; therefore, they are not worthy of being involved in the process. Some intellectual historians have speculated that proponents of intercessory prayer believed angels do have some independent powers, a sentiment which is found in a few select sources. Yet the more likely and simpler response is to agree that God is the only worthwhile object of our petitions; that is why the angels serve as mere intermediaries, nothing more.
If that is the case, though, why bother with the angels? This question, I believe, is the reason the proponents of Makhnisei Rahahim introduced the existential aspect of petitionary prayer. The penitent, seeking atonement for his or her sins from an Omnipotent God, feels unworthy of approaching the King of all Kings. In this humble moment, the penitent turns to Michael and Gabriel for help, hoping their intercession will make the petition worthy of God's ear. In this view, the call for intercessory prayer, far from being idolatrous, is an act of humility from remorseful souls fearful that God will not heed their cries.
Yet it is precisely on the existential level that the idea of intercessory petitions betrays the gift of prayer. Logically, one might think that a God who is Omniscient would be uninterested in the petitions of mortal, sinful men; nonetheless, our tradition teaches, all individuals, no matter what their spiritual state, can turn directly to God and beseech Him for help. Indeed, the talmudic text most often cited by opponents of intercessory prayer does not make a theological or philosophical argument but takes the existential approach. A king of flesh and blood, the Palestinian Talmud (Berakhot 9:12) teaches, has an extensive staff to determine whether a person in need will be allowed to see him. Yet God asserts, "If trouble besets a person, let him cry neither to Michael nor to Gabriel, but rather directly to me, and I will answer immediately."
The essence of prayer, it would seem, is a direct relationship between man and God—honest, direct, and unmediated. Repentant souls, however shamed they might be, must stand directly before God and beseech Him. Confrontation and a direct plea for mercy are the means by which the repentant can heal the breach with his Maker.
Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post High School Students in Israel. He is the online editor of Tradition and the “Ask the Rabbi” columnist for the Jerusalem Post.