Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Prophets and Angels - Ishim and Keruvim.

Before addressing the other differences between Moshe and all the prophets, Rambam makes a very interesting statement that is worth analyzing as it opens a window into his thinking and confirms some of the things I discussed so far. I remind the reader that the Hebrew is the traditional translation found in the Mishnayot while I translate from Rav Kafih’s edition which explains the slight but at times crucial differences.

רצוני היה לבאר זה העניין הנפלא, ולפתוח המנעול ממקראות התורה, ולפרש טעם

פה אל פה וכל הפסוק בזולתו מעניינו, לולא שראיתי שאלה העניינים יצטרכו

לראיות רבות מאוד, והיינו צריכים להצעות רבות והקדמות ומשלים, ושנבאר

בתחילה מציאות המלאכים ושינוי מעלותיהן מן הבורא השם יתברך, ושנבאר הנפש

וכל כוחותיה, ויתרחב העיגול עד שנדבר בצורות שזכרו הנביאים שראוי לבורא

ולמלאכים. ויכנס בזה שיעור קומה ועניינו, ולא יספיק בעניין זה לבדו,

ואפילו יהיה מקוצר בתכלית הקיצור, מאה דפים. ולפיכך אניח אותו למקומו: אם

בספר הדרשות שייעדתי לחברו, או בספר הנבואה שאני מתעסק בו, או בספר שאחבר אותו בפירושי אלו היסודות

I wanted to explain this wonderful subject, clarifying obscure texts in the Torah, explaining the meaning of Peh El Peh – Mouth to Mouth –this text and other similar ones. However, I am aware that these are very delicate subjects and require preparatory remarks, introductions and allegories. I would have to explain first the existence of angels and how their status differs relative to the Creator, the human soul and its various forces and the subject will broaden dealing with the discussion of Forms that the prophets mention in relation to God and His angels. [In the version above, which is Rambam’s original draft of his Pirush, written in his youth there is the following – “the subject of Shiur Komah will also enter into the discussion”. Rambam erased it completely in his later editions of the Pirush – see my discussion below.] This will still not suffice and even if I were to summarize it would require one hundred folios. I will therefore leave the discussion for the books that I plan to write on Aggadot or the one on prophecy that I promised.

I would like to focus on “the existence of angels and how their status differs relative to the Creator”. In the second chapter of Hil Yesodei Hatorah Rambam writes –

כל מה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא בעולמו, נחלק לשלושה חלקים

ומהם ברואים צורה בלא גולם כלל--והם המלאכים, שהמלאכים אינם גוף וגווייה, אלא צורות נפרדות זו מזו

ומה הוא זה שהנביאים אומרים שראו המלאך אש ובעל כנפיים--הכול במראה הנבואה ודרך חידה, לומר שאינו גוף ואינו כבד כגופות הכבדים

ובמה ייפרדו הצורות זו מזו, והרי אינן גופין--לפי שאינן שווין במציאתן

אלא כל אחד מהן למטה ממעלתו של חברו והוא מצוי מכוחו זה למעלה מזה; והכול

נמצאים מכוחו של הקדוש ברוך הוא וטובו

זה שאמרנו למטה ממעלתו, אינה מעלת מקום כמו אדם שיושב למעלה מחברו; אלא

כמו שאומרין בשני חכמים שאחד גדול מחברו בחכמה, שהוא למעלה ממעלתו של זה,

וכמו שאומרין בעילה, שהיא למעלה מן העלול

Everything created by HKBH is divided into three categories… some are created as Form without any Matter at all and those are the angels. For angels have no body but are only Forms that are differentiated from each other. What then does it mean when the prophets say they saw a winged angel made of fire? This is a prophetic vision in the form of a riddle, teaching that they have no body and have no weight unlike heavy Matter… [In other words, winged is an allegory for weightlessness and fire for lack of body]. Being immaterial, how are these Forms differentiated from each other? Their existence is differentiated. Each one is below the status of the other and exists as a result of the other, one above the other. However, all exist as a result of HKBH and His goodness… When we said “below the status of the other”, we did not mean location wise as when we say a person sits above his friend, but rather as when we talk about two wise men, one being wiser than the other. We then say that one has a higher status then the other. Or as when we say that the cause is above the effect.

When we say “existence”, we mean something that we can touch, feel or locate physically. Even those who believe in a “spiritual” world, see it as tangible entities that permeate and exist within the physical reality. They are just another component of our reality. But if we think about it, everything that exists is the result of an idea, a concept. That idea or concept can be visualized as an intangible out there that is the cause of material existence. That idea that underlies everything can only be conceptualized by our minds. It has no body or location; it is just there. We “know” that there is such a thing and we can only define things that result from it but we do not “know” it. We can look at this “idea” as the cause, in a chain of cause and effect, which brings about material existence, our reality. These “ideas” are answers to a plethora of questions that we pose when we try to understand how things are in reality, why, how, when, and ultimately who or what causes all this contingent existence. As the questions get further away from the tangible object they try to explain, they become more abstract and difficult to answer. This is how I understand angels and what Rambam means when he says, “As when we talk about two wise men, one being wiser than the other. We then say that one has a higher status then the other. Or as when we say that the cause is above the effect”. Angels are sequences of “ideas” underlying material existence in a chain of cause and effect, and as they are further removed from materialism, they are wiser, and require greater abstract thinking. As they are all contingent “and exist as a result of the other”, they have to be “below” the only non-contingent entity thus “all exist as a result of HKBH and His goodness”.

In the next Halacha Rambam enumerates a sequence of ten different levels of angels, all are names that are mentioned by the prophets in Tanach when they describe their visions. The two “lowest” levels are וכרובים, ואישים where אישים are the ones that talk to prophets[1] while כרובים are the source of Moshe’s prophecy[2].

כד וַיְגָרֶשׁ, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּשְׁכֵּן מִקֶּדֶם

לְגַן-עֵדֶן אֶת-הַכְּרֻבִים, וְאֵת לַהַט הַחֶרֶב הַמִּתְהַפֶּכֶת,

לִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-דֶּרֶךְ עֵץ הַחַיִּים

24 So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim, and the flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way to the tree of life.

The imagery in this verse now takes on a different form and can be understood as a reference to man’s need to overcome his physicality and cross the whirling sword to reach the ַכְּרֻבִים. Rambam in the introduction to MN describes the prophecy of Moshe as opposed to that of others as follows –

We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some, the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets… By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. … There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals. Others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night. To them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were "the flame of the rotating sword."

This brings us to the next quality that separates Moshe from other prophets - his ability to always be in the presence of God.


Earlier I noted that the Hebrew version of the Pirush Hamishna found in the Mishnayot contained a few words about Shiur Komah – a mystical treatise of questionable origin. Here is the statement in question: ויכנס בזה שיעור קומה ועניינו

The subject of Shiur Komah will also enter into the discussion”. Rav Kafih in a note on this segment says that Rambam erased this statement later in life. Rambam kept the original draft of his Pirush Hamishna next to him all his life, making changes as his thinking developed. Usually he would cross off some words and write the new version below or next to the original without deleing it. In this case, he completely erased this statement. In a Responsa (Blau edition 117) Rambam was asked his opinion on the authenticity and reliability of this treatise. He writes:

שו"ת הרמב"ם סימן קיז

לא חשבתי מעולם, שהוא מחיבורי החכמים ז"ל, וחלילה להם, שזה יהיה מהם. ואין הוא אלא חבור אחד הדרשנין היונים ותו לא. וסוף דבר, למחוק זה הספר ולכרות זכר ענינו (הוא) מצוה רבה. ושם אלהים אחרים לא תזכירו וכו' +שמות כ"ג, י"ג+ והרי מי שיש לו קומה, הוא אלהים אחרים בלא ספק. וכתב משה.

I never thought that it was written by the sages and it would be unthinkable that they could have authored it. It is a book written by one of the Greek preachers and nothing more. Finally, it would be a great Mitzvah to destroy this book and to eradicate its subject from memory. [It says] “And the name of foreign gods you should not mention” – a god that has bodily measurements is a foreign god without doubt. And Moshe wrote. [This is Rambam’s customary signature.]


ומעלה עשירית, היא מעלת הצורה שנקראת אישים, והם המלאכים שמדברים עם

הנביאים ונראים להם במראה הנבואה; לפיכך נקראו אישים, שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת

דעת האדם.


וּבְבֹא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, לְדַבֵּר


וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-הַקּוֹל מִדַּבֵּר אֵלָיו מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת

אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרֹן הָעֵדֻת, מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים; וַיְדַבֵּר,

אֵלָיו. {פ}

89 And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking unto him from above the ark-cover that was upon the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and He spoke unto him. (Bamidbar 7:89)


  1. That explanation of Angels works for some occurrences in the Torah but what about Angels in the context of appearances in the forms of people. For example, when an Angel gives speaks to Yosef on his way to his brothers or when Yaakov encounters the Angel of Eisav or when the Melachim come to visit Avraha?

  2. Gavriel,

    You are asking good questions and as you can imagine, Rambam addresses every one of your concerns and many others . Regarding Avraham and the angels, Rambam understands that whole episode as a prophetic vision or dream. IOW there were no angels and conversation in the real world just in Avraham's mind. So too Yosef the verse reads "A man met with him" The rabbis say it was a Male'ach. The word Male'ach has many meanings among which is messenger. IOW the man that met Yosef was perceived as a messenger - it was not pure coincidence that he was directed to his brothers but fate - God's messenger - played a role in it.

    Generally Rambam sets down a rule that Maleachim in the sense of unique entities cannot be perceived by man other than in a vision or a dream. He therefore says that whenever such a story is told it depicts a vision or dream generally prophetic though not always.