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“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

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David Willig on September 20, 2012 at 6:39 am (Reply)
If the Rabbi's weren't so busy worrying about Lippa Schmeltzer, they would not have allowed MDB to popularize this apikursus.
    Sydney on September 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm (Reply)
    I think you mean Abba Brodt who sang the tune at the Siyum Hashas 15 years ago which took place right before Rosh Hashana.

    As far as I could understand the piyut--the mal'achim/angels are the one's on the "tfila/prayer conveyor belt" (kiv'yachol/so to speak or allegorical) whom we are telling to do their job.

    Our prayers are to HB"H--the angels are merely allegorical.
Steve Brizel on September 20, 2012 at 9:16 am (Reply)
See R Asher Weiss's Minchas Asher on the Moadim for a discussion of the pros and cons of the recitation of Machnisei Rachamim.
Enosh Atei on September 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm (Reply)
What about the slikha Malakhei Rakhamim M'shartei Elyon?
Nahum Schnitzer on September 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm (Reply)
This is a beautiful and effective piece of poetry - it should not be understood literally.
I can't say what the intentions of the author were, but few Jews believe that angels can intercede for us. We are in little danger.
Shlomo Brody on September 20, 2012 at 5:56 pm (Reply)
Nahum and Sydney,

Thanks for your comments.
I think that there are a number of reasonable justifications given to reciting interecessory prayers, as I indicated, and while I do not ultimately find them to be compelling, I think that they are definitely reasonable. However, I do not think it is accurate to assert that these are allegorical references - most commentators take the prayer quite literally, and hence the ongoing historical debate.
Thanks again for taking the time to read my article.
Shlomo Brody
Deacon Jim Stagg on September 20, 2012 at 10:24 pm (Reply)
Are you sure angels have "no free will"? How, then, do you explain Lucifer's fall from grace?

Just be glad you are not Catholic. We storm the throne of G-d with everyone who might intercede for us......including our personal Guardian Angels. And, you know, that method seems to work, more often than not for this soul.

Maybe you limit the Unlimited by your opinion.
Josh on September 20, 2012 at 11:40 pm (Reply)
Just wondering why intercessory prayers at the graves of tzadikim shouldn't fall under the same category.
    Elon on September 21, 2012 at 3:48 am (Reply)
    They do. Rambam considers asking a dead person to intercede to also be questionable. Slightly more defensible in that the Talmud implies that G-d at least debates with dead people about the fate of their descendants. But he would totally be against the practice.
    Shlomo Brody on September 21, 2012 at 4:34 am (Reply)
    Hi Josh,
    Thanks for your question.
    Indeed, there is a similar debate, although many people argue that the point is the ambiance of the cemetery, but that we don't pray to the deceased.

    You can see my discussion about that topic here:

    Shlomo Brody
SCB on September 21, 2012 at 4:59 am (Reply)
Deacon Jim: In Judiasm the big advantange of being human is that we have free will. It actually makes us superior to the angels: they HAVE to sing certain praises at fixed times, like automatons; we CHOOSE to pray. Interesting take, no? And we don't have that whole Lucifer story, so it's not a problem. Satan's one appearance in the Tanach shows him as an employee of the Almighty, not a rebel against Him.
Jerry Blaz on September 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm (Reply)
Not only angels have been called upon to intercede, but I recall my own dear mother,z"l, going to the cemetery, and though she was born in the U.S., she would pray in Yiddish ,"zoll sein fir uns a giter beiter," Intercede for us, addressed apparently to the soul of the dead relative. Calling for intercession by the dead or by angels, it was a tradition. Traditions are what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan called "sancta." They are not determined by logic or rationality but by the practice and the evocation of a mood to draw one to the God who often seems to be otherwise unreachable in our modern lives. Faith is not of the head but the heart, and it is not the words but the heartfelt meaning evoked by the practice. I think of the call for intercession as a spiritual "boost" that gets us closer to the place (makom) the Rambam considered the only destination of our prayers.
Dovid K on September 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm (Reply)
What about "HamMalach HoGoel"? Of course it's in the Torah, but I always feel uncomfortable having my kids sing/say it.
    avinoam on September 27, 2012 at 8:31 am (Reply)
    I don't view that as intercessory - I've always seen it as referring to a personal manifestation of HKBH in the role of Guardian.
    (And that's from someone who's hypersensitive to any concept of 'angels' as independent beings)

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