Parsha Halacha

Parshat Vayeshev – Shabbat Mevarchim Tevet

Angels In the Chumash

and Not Pronouncing their Names

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The Torah portion of Vayeshev tells the tragic story of the brothers’ sale of Yosef. The Torah recounts that at first Yosef could not find his brothers and then a man directed him to them. The Midrash says[1] the man was actually the angel Gavriel. This is based on the word אִישׁ/ish (“man”) found in this verse which is the same word used to describe the angel Gavriel.[2] According to a different Midrash[3] there were three angels who appeared to him. This is based on the repetition of the word אִישׁ/ish three times in the verse.

The Ramban explains that the fact that an angel directed him teaches us that the sale of Yosef was part of G-d’s plan.[4] The commentaries explain[5] that if this exchange was just about a man giving him directions, it would not have been recorded in the Torah.

This article will discuss where angels are mentioned in the Chumash (Five Books of Moshe) as well as the issue of whether or not one is permitted to pronounce the names of angels.

Angels in Tanach

Celestial angels are mentioned (or alluded to) in the Five Books of Moshe many times. Here are some of those instances as well as what we can learn from these encounters.

Parshat Bereishit

The Torah recounts how “the sons of G-d” (also called “nefillim”) took beautiful women of their choice. Some say[6] that there were angels (named Shamchazai and Azael)[7] who believed that they could do better than mankind and when G-d sent them into this world they failed their test by succumbing to the forbidden temptations of this world. Generally, angels do not have free choice and cannot sin willfully, but in this case they were given an evil inclination (and the freedom to follow it) as part of this test.[8]

Parshat Lech Lecha

Hagar, the maidservant of Avraham, conversed with four angels of G-d. The fact that she conversed comfortably with the angels teaches us that she was accustomed to seeing angels in the house of Avraham.[9]

Parshat Vayeira

Three angels (disguised as men) dined with Avraham and informed him and Sarah of the impending birth of Yitzchak (Gen. 18:2). According to our sages,[10] these were the archangels Michael, Gavriel, and Rafael, two of whom continued from there to destroy Sodom.

An angel of G-d showed Hagar a well so she and Yishmael could drink in the desert.[11]

An angel instructed Avraham not to kill Yitzchak on Mount Moriah. In this case we see that an angel has the capacity to repeal a command that came directly from G-d. This is possible because angels are simply passing on G-d’s messages to man.[12]

Parshat Chayei Sarah

Avraham Avinu informed his servant Eliezer that G-d would send an angel in front of him to assist him in finding a wife for his son Yitzchak.[13]

Parshat Vayetzei

Yaakov saw angels of G-d going up and down the ladder in his dream (Gen. 28:12). Some say[14] that these were the same angels that had come to Avraham and had destroyed Sodom.

An angel of G-d (Elokim) appeared to Yaakov in a dream and showed him how G-d was miraculously assisting him in the breeding of his sheep. This angel is called an angel of Elokim which is associated with the aspect of G-d’s din(justice)[15] as he was reminding Yaakov to keep his vow.

Angels of G-d came to greet Yaakov when he was journeying towards Israel (Gen. 32:1). These angels were the angels of the land of Israel who usually never depart from that land. This exception was made because they were coming to escort Yaakov into that very land after his stay in Charan. In addition, Yaakov had transformed his part of the diaspora and imbued the holiness of the land of Israel there.[16]

Parshat Vayishlach

Yaakov sent angels to his brother Eisav (Gen. 32:4). This is somewhat unusual as, ordinarily it is the angel who instructs the human being as to what to do. In this case, the reverse happened.[17]

Yaakov wrestled with Eisav’s angel. Some say[18] that the purpose of the angel wrestling with Yaakov was to delay him so that he would meet up with Eisav and see how G-d protected him at that time. Whereas, if he had not been delayed, he may have eluded Eisav and not had that encounter.

Parshat Vayeshev – See above in the beginning of the article.

Parshat Shemot

An angel of G-d appeared to Moshe and spoke to him from the burning bush. At this point, Moshe needed to converse with G-d through an angel. Whereas after the Torah was given, Moshe was able to converse directly with G-d without any intermediary.[19]

Parshat Bo

The Jewish people were instructed to put the blood of the Pesach sacrifice on their doorposts so that the destroyer, a reference to the angel of death, not enter their house to strike them. By fulfilling the mitzvah of placing the blood, they merited Divine protection despite the widespread destruction visited on the Egyptians.[20]

Parshat Beshalach

An angel of G-d protected the Jewish people from the Egyptians when they crossed the sea.[21]

Parshat Mishpatim

The Jewish people were informed that G-d will send an angel to assist them in conquering the land of Israel. Indeed, when Yehoshua succeeded Moshe Rabeinu, the angel appeared to him, assuring him of his assistance.[22]

Parshat Balak

An angel appeared three times to Bilam’s donkey (and later, to Bilam as well) when he was on his way to try and curse the Jewish people and warned him to say only what G-d placed in his mouth.[23]

Not to Say the Name of an Angel

Rabbi Chaim Vital wrote[24] that his teacher the Arizal would not pronounce the names of angels. Instead, he would refer to them with several letters of their names. For example, “mem tet” for Matatron or “samech mem” for Samael. He explained that an angel that is summoned to this world and ordered by oath to fulfill a mission is obligated to do so. As such, if one mentions an angel’s name, the angel comes to this world thinking it is being summoned to fulfill a mission. When he does not receive any order, he can become upset at the person who mentioned his name and try to prosecute him (by mentioning that person’s sins to the Almighty). (We are not worthy of ordering angels in our generation and doing so may, in fact, cause us harm.[25])

Another point he makes is that one may mention G-d’s name (in the context of studying Tanach or prayer), but it does not have a negative effect as G-d is present in this (somewhat) impure world and it does not affect Him. Angels who are summoned to this world, on the other hand, can be affected negatively by the impurities of this world. (See above regarding Shmachazai and Aza’el.)[26]


●      Names of angels that are commonly used (e.g., as names of people), such as Gavriel, Refael, Michael and Uriel, may be uttered.[27] Presumably this is because it is understood that the person is not referring to these angels.

●      Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote that he does not see any issue with mentioning names of angels except for that of Matatron to whom it is permissible to bow.[28] Apparently, Rabbi Auerbach considered the behavior of the Arizal a chumra (stringency) rather than a chova (obligation).

●      Some say[29] that one may say the names of angels in the context of prayer although the words of Rabbi Chaim Vital do not support this view.

●      In the Siddur of the Ba’al HaTanya (known as Nusach Ha’Arizal and used in Chabad) as well as in many other siddurim, there is a small prayer after Hallel on Rosh Chodesh that includes the name “Zevadyah.” Although some say that one should only think of this name and not recite it,[30] the Ba’al HaTanya’s siddur says that one should say it. Some say that the reason it is permissible is that Zevadyah is a name in Tanach.[31] Others say that it is a holy name of G-d which one may recite during prayers.[32]

Bottom Line

It is best not to pronounce the names of angels that are not commonly used as human names. Some permit this during Torah study and prayer.

May G-d “command His angels… to guard us in all our ways.”[33]

[1] Tanchumah, quoted in Rashi on the verse

[2] See Daniel 9:21. The Mizrachi explains that we know he was an angel from the fact that Yosef asked him where his brothers were instead of first asking if he knew them. The word אִישׁ informs us which angel he was.

[3] Bereishit Rabbah 75:4

[4] Ramban on Gen. 37:15

[5] Gur Aryeh on the verse

[6] See Rashi and other commentaries on Gen. 6:2-4

[7] Targum Yonatan on Gen. 6:4

[8] Tractate Kallah Rabati 3:9

[9] Rashi on Gen. 16:13

[10] See Rabeinu Bachaye on the verse.

[11] Gen. 21:17 See Sefer HaYashar that after this event Yishma’el married a woman by the name of Marissa.

[12] See Bechor Shor on Gen. 22:11.

[13] Gen. 24:7. Although the verse does not mention this angel again, according to our sages, this may be the angel that saved Eliezer from being poisoned by Betu’el (see Rashi on ibid, 24:54).

[14] See Bereishit Rabbah, end of 68:12.

[15] Rikanti on Gen. 31:13

[16] Likutei Sichot

[17] See commentaries on Bereishit Rabbah 75:4

[18] Chizkuni on Gen. 32:25

[19] Seforno on Exodus 3:2

[20] Ohr HaChaim on ibid 12:12

[21] Exodus 14:19

[22] Exodus 23:20 and Yehoshua 5:13 – 15 with Radak

[23] Numbers 22:22 and on. See Rashi on verse 23 that animals are more likely than men to see angels.

[24] Sha’ar HaMitzvot, Parshat Shemot, D.H. Gam

[25] See ibid, earlier in Parshat Shemot

[26] See Zohar, Parshat Shemot, where it is explained that this is the reason that G-d Himself passed through Egypt, rather than an angel.

[27] Rabbi Chaim Vital in Sha’ar Hamitzvot

[28] See Yehoshua 5:13 – 15 where Yehoshua bows to this angel.

[29] Chayei Adam, Klal 5, Seif 27 citing the Vilna Gaon

[30] See Sha’ar HaKolel 37:10.

[31] Ibid, see Ezra 8:8 and in Divrei HaYamim

[32] See Siddur Rabeinu HaZakken Im Biurim, Tziyunim VeHa’arot by Dayan Raskin of London, page 481, footnote 21.

[33] Based on Psalm 91:11

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach, a Chodesh Tov and a Happy Chanukah!

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