Talking to Angels

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

One who enters a bathroom says to the angels, “Be honored, honorable holy ones, servants of the One on High, give honor to the God of Israel, leave me until I enter and do my will and come back to you.”  Abaye said, “A person should not say, ‘leave me’ lest they abandon him and go. Rather he should say, ‘Guard me, guard me, help me, help me, support me, support me, wait for me, wait for me until I enter and come out, as this is the way of man” (Talmud Brachos 60b).

On Saturday evenings after Shabbos concludes, when leaving our elevated and day of exclusive Torah study and prayer and we reenter the mundane existence of work, we read Psalms 91 which includes, “For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go” (Ibid. 19:11). Evidently, during Shabbos, our worthiness of God’s providence is earned through our elevated state. Leaving shabbos is similar to one entering the bathroom where we must leave our exclusive thoughts of Torah study and mitzvah.   

Prior to entering the bathroom, we recite the above in recognition of this break from our real metaphysical guardians. As angels are real, we must relate to them as real, expressed through dialogue. In contrast, when man finds himself isolated from society—in the wilderness, on a mountain top, in a cave, or at night (Gittin 66a, Tosfos)—the rabbis warn us from offering greetings to shadim (demons): those psychological illusions of “people” we create to escape our painful isolation. So painful is isolation, that the worst prison punishment is solitary confinement. When isolated, man naturally removes his loneliness by imagining others are present. The rabbis warn us from raising this fantasy into reality through talking to such phantoms. The fantasy will be created, but we must not treat our imaginations as real. 

In his fifth principle, (Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin chap. 10), Maimonides states that angels and the stars have neither dominion over their natures, nor free will. So when one addresses the angels it is a reflection on himself, not on the angels. Meaning, when Abaye says telling the angels to leave “may cause them to leave and not come back,” he’s referring to the person, and his worthiness of God’s providence. It is not that the angels listen to the person. Rather, if a person tells angels “leave me,” this statement distances himself from God (via degrading His providential angels), which thereby can diminish God’s angelic protection. Thereby, through such a poor expression, the angels might truly leave him. But the angels are not acting freely, but God’s design of angelic protection follows rules of justice and human perfection. The less perfected person loses God’s angels. But as we must relieve ourselves, our minds turn away from Torah and mitzvah. In order to express our attachment to God’s goodness via His angelic guides, we double the language: “Guard me, guard me, help me, help me, support me, support me, wait for me, wait for me.” Double language expresses  a loss and a human longing, like “please, please.” We express a longing to reunite with the angels once exiting the bathroom. Why must angels be told to wait? This is due to our detachment from Torah and mitzvos while in the bathroom, matters that earn God’s providence. Instead of saying, “leave me” (Rav Acha) we should say as Abaye recommends “wait for me,” expressing a loss at parting with the angels. Rav Acha’s “leave me” indicates that there must be a separation, but not that one regrets that separation as Abaye’s “wait for me.” Rav Acha also renders the reuniting a human decision, “leave me until I enter and do my will and come back to you.” While Abaye attributes it to the angels, “wait for me, wait for me.”

“As this is the way of man”

This means that tending to one’s natural needs is unavoidable. This compliments Abaye’s position to maintain a positive relationship with the angels. It is a manner of saying, “I don’t want to leave Torah and mitzvos, but I have no choice, as this is human nature.” 

Last week’s Torah reading validates angels as real beings performing God’s mission: “The angel of God, who had been going ahead of the Israelite army, now moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them” (Exod. 14:19). There’s no repetition: the angel first guides its metaphysical control over natural laws and then the physical world (here, a cloud) responds to those laws. So too, Psalms 104:4 reads, “He makes His angels winds and His ministers a blazing fire.” Natural forces governed by angels carry out God’s will on earth and in the universe. The Hebrew word for angel is “malach,” and the word for labor or action is “malacha.” The 2 words share the same root as angels perform God’s actions. Rabbi Israel Chait explained that one concept behind the angels connected to the ark’s cover is to teach that man attains knowledge through the assistance of a system of knowledge, in which angels play a role. A angels are connected to our attainment of wisdom from God.  

In summary, angels are real, demons are not. We talk only to what is real. And when we address the angels, we understand they are a great benefit to our existence so we express a longing to reunite with them as Abaye said. And we pray to God that He guards us with His angels as we exit Shabbos and enter mundane matters of work. Our prayers are directed only to God who controls all, even angels. But we can address angels as an expression of our conviction in their reality and purpose to assist man.