Until the 20th century, Jews believed in the reality of angels, who were thought to appear among us in everyday life.
In ancient Israel, the world of the spirit was intermingled with the world of everyday life. It was not somewhere out there but right here among us and within us. Today some Jews still see and occasionally experience the mysteries of the spirit in everyday life. For others spiritual experiences are illusions. And for still others there is a known or unknown longing for spiritual experiences that might bring us closer to God. One form of these experiences is an encounter an angel, stories of which is actually more common today than you might think. The Hebrew name for angel is Malach, which also means messenger. Angels were thought to be messengers of God.
Recently, archeologists have dug under the floors of homes in ancient Mesopotamia. Among other things, they found amulets and simple ceramic bowels inscribed with personalized appeals to angels, God, and other sacred heroes. They pleaded for help in healing illnesses, restoring love in marriages, increasing business or protecting their home from demons and other evil forces.
And our Hebrew bible of course is filled with angelic figures, (usually disguised as men): the angels who came to Abraham’s tent and announced that Sarah would have a child at 90 years old; the angel who stayed Abraham’s hand as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac; the angel who wrestled with Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, which means wrestilng with God.
In the first few centuries of the Common Era, it was generally thought that two angels accompanied each family home after the Sabbath Service. If the Sabbath table was properly prepared with candles, the family would be blessed with assistance in everyday life.
When Reform Judaism first rebelled against Orthodox Judaism, our movement followed the lead of a culture which anointed science and rationality as the sole criteria of truth. Angels, along with other celestial beings fell into disrepute, and God alone reigned as Creator of the world and Divine architect of the covenant. But angels persist under the radar today, even in our liturgy. Every Sabbath evening, we sing the song “Shalom Aleichem,” peace be unto you. Few of us know the translation of this song, which adopts the ancient notion of the angels who accompany us home from Sabbath services.
Peace be unto you ministering angels, angels of the Most High, the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Come in peace angels of peace, angels of the Most High
Of the King, the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He.
Bless me in peace, angels of peace, angels of the Most High,
Of the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Depart in peace angels of the Most High.
Of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
Few people today say they believe in angels. But who knows? As we look for ways to bring home divine blessings from our Sabbath services, perhaps invisible angels are walking us home. Perhaps we have lost touch with these messengers of God, who are waiting for us to wake up to the divine presence that is all around us.
Dr. Cole has published many articles and books on the history of aging and humanistic gerontology. His book The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America (Cambridge University Press, 1992) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is senior editor of What Does It Mean to Grow Old? (Duke, 1986), the Handbook of Humanities and Aging (Springer, 1992; 2nd edition, 1999), and Voices and Visions: Toward a Critical Gerontology (Springer, 1993). Other co-edited books include The Oxford Book of Aging (noted by the New Yorker as one of the most memorable books of 1995) and Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does It Mean to Grow Old? (Johns Hopkins U Press, 2010).
Biography and Civil Rights Film
Cole’s interest in the life stories of older people has taken him into biography and film-making. In 1984, he encountered a hospitalized psychiatric patient who claimed he was the “original Texas integration leader.” Their collaboration resulted in a book—No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Desegregation of Houston (University of Texas Press, 1997)—and an accompanying film, The Strange Demise of Jim Crow, broadcast nationally on over 60 PBS stations and internationally by the State Department. The documentary received numerous awards and was nominated for a regional Emmy and a National Humanities Medal.
Medical Humanities Writing and Films
Cole’s film, Still Life: The Humanity of Anatomy, was an official selection at the Doubletake Documentary Film Festival in April 2002. This work explores the special yet unstated relationship between medical students in the anatomy lab and the people who donate their bodies for dissection. In 2001, Cole’s writing workshop programs for elders was featured in the PBS documentary Life Stories. In 2007, he co-produced Living with Stroke, a prize-winning film about the invisible world of stroke survivors. Cole is senior editor of the book Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Physicians, Scientists and the Pressures of Success (Humana, 2009), which explores the impact of the spiritual and economic crises facing academic health centers today. Other collaborative books include: The Brewsters, an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure fictional text in health care ethics (UTHealth, 2011) and, with Nathan Carlin and Ron Carson, Medical Humanities: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Cole’s work has been featured in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Voice of America, PBS, and at the United Nations. He has served as an advisor to the United Nations NGO Committee on Aging, the Union for Reform Judaism and various editorial and foundation boards. In 2004-2005, he served as a consultant to the President’s Council on Bioethics project on aging and was featured speaker at the AARP/United Nations Briefing Sessions on Aging in February 2009.
Your article on the disappearance of angels and your reference to Genesis 18:7-8 were very interesting. In that passage, angels visited Abraham’s tent and informed him that Sarah would have a child at the age of 90.
According to the metaphor of Hashem, Abraham served the angels a meal that included both milk and meat, which was not a violation of Torah/Tanakh law, as G-d’s presence witnessed the meal without objection.
However, Chazal later forbade the consumption of milk and meat in Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21, where it states, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This raises the question of whether G-d forgot to mention the prohibition of milk and meat in these verses.
G-d’s Torah also mentions Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim, which prohibits cruelty to animals and consuming a kid in its mother’s milk to avoid causing pain and suffering. Additionally, G-d used other references in the Torah to describe angels.
Your insight is appreciated.