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Question 12.13:
What about angels, demons, miracles, and the supernatural?

Answer:

The Torah is full of what western secular culture would (somewhat derogatorily) call "the supernatural." Even the most fundamental of Jewish beliefs, that there is a Creator, falls into this class--how much more so the Torah's recounting of events that include such out-of-the-ordinary occurrences as prophecy in its many forms, birth of children to very aged parents, the appearance of angels and their interaction with the physical world, the occurrence of narrowly focussed plagues, the revelation on Sinai with its attendant visions, talking mules, the falling of Manna, revivification of the dead, and many, many others. Traditional Judaism, in accepting Torah as G-d's word, accepts that these things happened, even though western science can't currently (and may never) explain them.

As Rabbi Kaplan (z"l) wrote in his Handbook of Jewish Thought, paraphrasing Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (z"l):

"Science does not contradict, or even concern itself with miracles. Science deals with the laws of nature, while miracles are, by definition, exceptions to those laws. Any disbelief in miracles is thus not scientific, but is based on arbitrary prejudices in conformity to popular styles of thought. Such a disbelief can reduce a person's concept of G-d to a mere abstract philosophical idea, abolishing the obligation to serve and obey Him."

In addition, there are traditional Jewish sources (primarily in the Kabbalah) that explain the roles that angels and demons play in the world, the Jewish version of astrology, and the mechanisms through which miracles occur. Let's look at angels for a minute.

Judaism tends to refer to angels as "Ministering Angels", not "Angels of the Lord" (a more Christian term). Maimonides, an Aristotilian rationalist, lists a hierarchy of angels. In prophecy, we find different kinds of angel. In particular, the book of Ezekiel opens with a vision of a Divine Chariot. In this vision we encounter the following:

  1. Ofanim (lit: wheels Chayos) animals. These give the connotation of wild animals: dears or lions, not cows They have four faces, 12 wings, and one leg.

  2. Serafim (from the verb meaning "to burn")

  3. Chashmalim (no translation; in modern Hebrew, the word "chashmal" was drafted to mean "electricity", but that's a 19th cent invention)

  4. Ishim (ish means man, but "men" is "anashim"; saying "ishim" would be like saying "mans" in English)

  5. Keruvim (transliterated "cherub" in English). These are described variously in the Jewish Bible, and are not like our mental image of a "cherub". One should avoid the English parallel. In Genesis, there are two keruvim guarding the entrance to Eden (together with "the Flaming Sword") so that man does not re-enter. In Exodus, the top of the ark is adorned with two keruvim that have childlike faces and two huge wings that make a canopy over the ark. In Ezekiel, the four faces of the chayos have are described as being those of a man, a lion, an eagle and a keruv. Two verses later, the list replaces keruv with a bull. So they're associated with bulls somehow.

Tradition does not take these descriptions literally. For example, angels are seen in visions as having one leg because they lack free will. They are automata that are "programmed" to do the will of God. They therefore lack the power to progress, to improve themselves. Man's power for growth, in contrast, is described as "walking". Jewish law calls itself "halachah", the way to walk.

In addition, the Talmud tells us that every angel has only one mission. Their missions are their names. In most cases, that means that they don't last long enough for their names to warrant mention. However, some have more far-reaching missions, and their names do make it into the Torah or the prayer book. Kabbalistic prayers said by Chassidic and Sepharadic Jews sometimes have names that are only to be looked at, not read. But the most comonly cited names include:


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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