At the head of the angelogical system described in rabbinic literature are four archangels, corresponding to the four divisions of the army of Israel as described in Numbers 2: "As the Holy One blessed be He created four winds (directions) and four banners (for Israel's army), so also did He make four angels to surround His Throne — Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. Michael is on its right, corresponding to the tribe of Reuben; Uriel on its left, corresponding to the tribe of Dan, which was located in the north; Gabriel in front, corresponding to the tribe of Judah as well as Moses and Aaron who were in the east; and Raphael in the rare, corresponding to the tribe of Epharim which was in the west."[1]

To my right Michael and to my left Gabriel, in front of me Uriel and behind me Raphael, and over my head God's Shekhinah ["the presence of God"]."
  —From the Kriat Shma, prayer recited before the Shma when going to sleep

We find no mention of angels' names until we reach the Book of Daniel, where Michael and Gabriel make their appearance.[2] This fact led the Rabbis to assert that the names of the angels were something that the returning exiles brought with them from Babylonia.[3] Michael and Gabriel are the most prominent of the angels, and are often mentioned together as the anonymous divine messengers cooperating in a task in the Bible narrative. Michael and Gabriel visited Abraham after his circumcision, Michael's task being to announce the future birth of Isaac while Gabriel's was to destroy Sodom.[4] Together they recorded the birthright was sold to Jacob by Esau;[5] accompanied God when He came down on Mount Sinai;[6] refused to take Moses' soul when his time came to die;[7] and then stood at either side of his' bier after his death.[8]

Michael is made up entirely of snow and Gabriel of fire, and though they stand near one another they do not injure one another, thus indicating the power of God to "make peace in His high places."[9] According to the Aggadah, Both Michael and Gabriel will be among those who will accompany the Messiah, and they will then contend with the wicked.[10]

Michael is considered superior to Gabriel in rank[11] and wherever he appears, the glory of the Shekhinah, the Holy Spirit, is also bound to be found.[12] Each nation has its guardian angel, Michael being the guardian angel of Israel. He acts as the counsel for Israel's defense when the wicked bring angels charges against them before God.[13] According to the midrash, Michael is the angel who prevented Abraham from offering up Isaac at the Accede;[14] informs Sarah that she will give birth to a boy;[15] rescues Abraham from the furnace;[16] instructs Moses;[17] smites the army of Sanneherib;[18] endeavors to prevent the exile by pleading on Israel's behalf to God;[19] and defends the Jews of Persia when Haman plotted to destroy them.[20]

Although both Michael and Gabriel make their appearance in the Kabbalah, Michael is given greater importance. In the Merkabah literature (based on Ezekiel's vision) of the late talmudic period and the period of the geonim, Michael plays a central role in guarding the Chariot. In medieval literature, he is assigned the role of revealer and bringer of tidings.

Gabriel is God's messenger on numerous missions and the constant defender of the Jewish people. He saves Tamar from the fate of being burnt as punishment for her unchastity;[21] protects Joseph against the evil designs of Potiphar,[22] and teaches him the seventy languages of the world;[23] causes the infant Moses to weep so that Pharaoah's daughter will feel compassionate towards him;[24] and saves Moses' life when Pharaoh sets him to a test of loyalty (when the king sets before him coals of fire and jewels, the angel Gabriel pushes his hand to touch the coals, lest his reaching for the crown suggest his wish to usurp Pharaoh's place).[25] Gabriel delivers Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah from the fiery furnace.[26]

Uriel, meaning "light of God," was the medium by which the knowledge of God came to man. The midrash reads: "Why was he named Uriel? Because of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings by means of which the Holy One, blessed by He, atones for sins and gives light to Israel."[27] Uriel is first mentioned in I Enoch[28] (one of the Apocrypha), where he prays to God to end the Nephilim's rule of violence and bloodshed on earth. Along with the other angels of the Presence, Uriel serves as Enoch's guide in the upper heavens,[29] but his main function was to govern the army of angels and the Netherworld, Sheol.[30] In kabbalistic literature, where the four angels surrounding God's throne are identified with the four holy beasts, Uriel is associated with the eagle, and sometimes with that of the lion. These four angels shed their light on the four winds of heaven, and the light which is shed over the west, the most perfect light, is that of Uriel.

Raphael, one of the chief angels, was the responsible for healing, as his names implies. Although the name occurs in the Bible, it first appears as an angelic name in the Apocrypha[31] , where he is one of the seven archangels. He defeats the demon Asmodeus[32] and throws Azazel, chief of the demons, into the abyss.[33] In the Talmud[34] Raphael is one of the three angels who visits Abraham after his circumcision. From the second century on, Jewish traditions referring to Raphael were taken over by both Christian angelology and syncretistic magic, and his name appears repeatedly on amulets and incantations. As a planetary angel he governs the sun, and in the division of the four corners of the world he commands the west.

In kabbalistic literature he keeps his high rank but takes on new responsibilities. Among the four elements he governs earth; in the colors of the rainbow he represents green. He is ordained over one of the four rivers coming out of paradise. In the Zohar he is the angel who dominates the morning hours which bring relief to the sick and suffering.


[1] Numbers Rabbah 2:10 [back]
[2] 10:13, 21; 12:1 and Daniel 8:16; 9:21 [back]
[3] JT, RH 1:2, 56d [back]
[4] Gen. Rabbah 48:9-50:2 [back]
[5] Gen. Rabbah 63:14 [back]
[6] Deut. Rabbah 2:34 [back]
[7] Eccles. Rabbah 9:11, 2 [back]
[8] Deut. Rabbah 11:10 [back]
[9] Job 25:2; Deut. Rabbah 5:12 [back]
[10] Otiyyot de-Rabbi Akiva Shin [back]
[11] BT Berakhot 4b [back]
[12] Exodus Rabbah 2:5 [back]
[13] Exodus Rabbah 18:5[back]
[14] Midrash Va-Yosha in A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 1:38 [back]
[15] BT Baba Metzia 86b [back]
[16] Gen. Rabbah 44:13 [back]
[17] Deut. Rabbah 11:10 [back]

[18] Exodus Rabbah 18:5n [back]
[19] BT Yoma 77a [back]
[20] Esther Rabbah 7:12) [back]
[21] BT Sotah 10b [back]
[22] BT Sotah 13b [back]
[23] BT Sotah 33a [back]
[24] Exodus Rabbah 1:24 [back]
[25] Exodus Rabbah 1:26 [back]
[26] Exodus Rabbah 18:5 [back]
[27] Numbers Rabbah 2:10 [back]
[28] I Enoch 9:1 [back]
[29] I En. Ch 19 [back]
[30] I Enoch 20:1 [back]
[31] Tobit 12:15 and I En. 20:3 [back]
[32] Tobit 3:17 [back]
[33] I Enoch 10:4 [back]
[34] BT Yoma 37a; Baba Metzia 86 [back]

ANGELS Table of Contents




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