Do Angels Work?!

In our parsha, Balak, king of Mo’av, sends messengers (malachim) to Bil’am the son of B’or, to commission his services to curse Israel (Bamidbar 22:5-6). Bil’am reluctantly agrees. He goes with the princes of Mo’av. “But God’s anger flared up because he went, and the angel (malach) of God stationed himself on the path to bar his way…” (22:22).


What is an angel? Normally, we conjure up in our minds an angel as an ethereal heavenly figure, cloaked in white and hovering above us. But Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, has a far more down-to-earth definition. He writes (Part II, Ch. 6):


The angels are incorporeal. This agrees with the opinion of Aristotle: there is only this difference in the names employed – he uses the term “Intelligences,” and we say instead “angels.” His theory is that the Intelligences are intermediate beings between the Prime Cause and existing things, and that they effect the motion of the spheres, on which motion the existence of all things depends. This is also the view we meet with in all parts of Scripture: every act of God is described as being performed by angels.


But “angel” means “messenger”; hence any entity that is entrusted with a certain mission is an angel. Even the movements of the brute creation are sometimes due to the action of an angel, when such movements serve the purpose of the Creator, who endowed it with the power of performing that movement; e.g., “God has sent His angel, and has shut the lions’ mouths that they have not hurt me” (Daniel 6:22). Another instance may be seen in the movements of Bil’am’s ass, described as caused by an angel. The elements are also called angels – as in the verse: “Who makes winds His angels, flaming fire His ministers” (Psalms 54:4). There is no doubt that the word “angel” is used of a messenger sent by man; e.g., “And Jacob sent angels” (Bereshit 32:4); of a prophet, e.g., “And an angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim” (Judges 2:1); “And He sent an angel, and hath brought us forth out of Egypt” (Bamidbar 20:16).


In his splendid book Yofi shel Ivrit (“Beautiful Hebrew” or “The Beauty of Hebrew”), published by Yediot Achronot and Chemed Books in 2010 (and naturally written in Hebrew), Dr. Avshalom Kor, top Israeli linguist and expert on Hebrew grammar and semantics, points out the interconnection between angels and work! He notes that, until the 1920’s, the root of the Hebrew word for angel – malach – was unknown. At that time, the ancient Ugaritic language was discovered. This was the language spoken in Ugarit, Syria, north of Israel, during the period of the Patriarchs. In Ugaritic, instead of saying שלחתי (“I sent”), they would say לאכתי. From this it follows, that an angel (malach) is a messenger (shaliach), as we saw in Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed!


In modern Hebrew, we also have the wordמלאכה , which means “work.” מלאכה is comprised of מלאך + the letter ה. Now, if aמלאך  is a שליח,מלאכה  must be משלח. And, indeed, in modern-day Hebrew, the termמשלח יד  means מלאכה (one’s work or profession), coming as it does from the same root!


Only in Hebrew!

By Simon Jackson

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Posted in: Hebrew Language Gems & Torah Insights

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