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Angels and Afterlife


I. Angels and Visions

The Torah speaks explicitly about angels but gives little detail about these supernatural creatures. A debate about these biblical narratives reflects not only different understandings about the nature of angels but also about other crucial concepts.

According to Jewish tradition, Avraham is visited by three angels (Gen. 18:1). Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 2:42; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:3-4) writes that any time the Bible speaks of people seeing angels, it occurs in a vision. Angels are incorporeal and cannot be seen. Therefore, the Torah begins by saying generally that God revealed Himself to Avraham and then gave details about the content of that prophetic vision, i.e. the three angels visiting.

Ramban (Gen., ad loc.) sharply disagrees. The details of the narrative seem meaningless if they never really happened. Technically, Avraham did not see a vision of God in this passage. Therefore, the first verse cannot be a summary of the angels’ visit. Also, how can we call everyone who saw an angel a prophet when people whom we know were not prophets, such as Lot, Hagar and Daniel, saw angels? And if the angels were just a vision, did Lot and his family never leave Sodom? Rather, explains the Ramban, angels generally appear in visions but when the Bible states that the angels appeared as people, it means that God created some sort of a physical body for them.

II. Angels and Bodies

R. Yitzchak Arama (Akeidas Yitzchak, no. 19) disagrees with the Rambam in principle, that we can only see angels in visions and not physically. However, he rejects Ramban’s specific criticisms of the Rambam’s view. He points out that we find many times that someone who saw an angel is referred to as having seen God. And the details of the vision serve the same purpose as the details of narrative had they all occurred as told.

Regarding the non-prophets who saw angels, the Rambam (ibid.) explicitly addressed this. He said that they received a non-prophetic vision, because they were not capable of attaining actual prophecy.

In his commentary on Moreh Nevukhim (2:42), Abarbanel adds that God could, if He wanted, create bodies for angels. However, in his Torah commentary, Abarbanel (Gen. ad loc., p. 234) poses questions on the view that the angels were physical. Where did these bodies come from? Were they born and, if so, to whom? Or were they created as adults, like Adam? What happened to the bodies after the angels’ appearance? If the angels’ spirit left the bodies, the remains should be corpses like any dead body after its soul departs.

Even if the angels appeared in some sort of pseudo-body that only looked real, why did only some people see them and not others (e.g. Num. 22:31; 2 Kings 6:17)? Rather, Abarbanel concludes, the angels must have appeared in visions and not physically. For the non-prophets, the visions directly impacted the senses and not the intellects. But the angels did not appear physically.

II. Afterlife and Bodies

Perhaps we can explain Rambam’s reluctance to allow for angelic corporeality and Ramban’s embrace of it based on another debate of theirs. Rambam believes that the world-to-come is purely spiritual, a world of souls (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 8:2; see also Kuzari 1:109 who agrees). Indeed, his emphasis on the incorporeal nature of the afterlife confused many into believing that he rejected a messianic-era resurrection. Rambam clarified that while he believes in a general resurrection, that is a one-time event and the eternal afterlife encompasses souls and not bodies.

Raman disagrees (Toras Ha-Adam, Sha’ar Ha-Gemul in Kisvei Ramban, vol. 2 p. 283ff.). He contends that the afterlife occurs during the resurrection era, when we have both body and soul. The ultimate reward is given to the complete person, including the body. (See Sefer Ha-Ikkarim 4:30.)

IV. Angels and Afterlife

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 8:2), in describing the afterlife, directly compares it to angels today. “The world-to-come has no body or torso, just the souls of the righteous without bodies, like angels.” Rambam similarly writes in his Essay on Resurrection, “I believe that the angels are not bodies, and that the members of the world-to-come are separated souls, namely intellects” (Halkin tr., p. 215; Kafach ed., p. 76).

If we accept this comparison as authoritative, then Rambam and Ramban are both consistent. According to Rambam, just like the afterlife is entirely spiritual without anything physical, so too angels must be entirely without physical representation in this world. The plane of spiritual excellence exists solely beyond the physical. Therefore, angels can only appear in visions and never in physical bodies.

However, according to the Ramban, even the afterlife includes physical human existence. Holiness exists both above and below. Therefore, angels can also attain physical existence in this world and interact directly and physically with people.


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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.

33 Responses

  1. Mr. Cohen says:

    Understanding the exact nature of angels does not help us to serve G_d better, and therefore is not very important.

    If anyone wants to understand prophecy, I recommend THE HANDBOOK OF JEWISH THOUGHT by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ZYA.

  2. Hirhurim says:

    I reject your pragmatic approach to limud ha-Torah. Even impractical Torah is important to learn.

    R. Kaplan’s two volume Handbook is important but, particularly regarding prophecy and souls, he takes a very kabbalistic approach.

  3. Aryeh says:

    Mr. Cohen has decided that the Rambam and the Ramban were just wasting their time.

  4. Shlomo Pill says:

    “Mr. Cohen has decided that the Rambam and the Ramban were just wasting their time.”

    Of course, it’s not just Mr. Cohen saying that. That view, often homiletically tied to the pasuk “Hashamayim shamayim laHashem, v’ha’aretz nassan livnei adam,” was maintained by many great Torah scholars – perhaps most notably R. S.R. Hirsch, her rejected the notion that ruminations on theology and all the branches of esoteric study subsumed under that heading were not particularly relevant to living as a Jew, which is our ultimate goal.

    This need not mean that those who study such things are “wasting their time”; every person has their own “cheilek” in Torah, and each person’s unique disposition inclines towards a different scholarly focus and interest. The point, however, is that all would do well to keep in mind that speculative intellectual exercises regarding the “Pardes” are not particularly useful as a means of living as a better Jew, which after all entails understanding and applying law, not theological speculations.

  5. HaDarda"i says:

    Mr Cohen wrote: “Understanding the exact nature of angels does not help us to serve G_d better, and therefore is not very important.”

    This is not what the Rambam held. In Moreh Nevuchim, he states that the purpose of the keruvim was to instill belief in angels. That is, he considered belief in angels to be important.

  6. Josh says:

    Let’s not forget that Rashi (Bereshit 6:2) cites a view that the “B’nei Elohim” who cohabited with the B’not Ha-Adam were celestial “sarim”:

    ב. וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ:

    בני הא-להים: בני השרים והשופטים. (דבר אחר בני הא-להים הם השרים ההולכים בשליחותו של מקום, אף הם היו מתערבים בהם). כל א-להים שבמקרא לשון מרות, וזה יוכיח (שמות ד טז) ואתה תהיה לו לא-להים, (שם ז א) ראה נתתיך א-להים:

  7. shmuel says:

    Mr. Cohen, I have to disagree with what you said for a very simple reason: the Torah tells us several times that a “malach” spoke to one person or another (a good example is a malach speaking to Avraham after the Akeida, another is a malach speaking to Hagar, and there are more). The Torah was given to us to be understood, and we are required to try to understand what these parts of the Torah are talking about. Making an effort to understand Torah, and reaching whatever understanding we can, are important components of serving God (sometimes referred to generally as “Talmud Torah”).

  8. Shades of Gray says:

    While I personally take an interest in “non-pragmatic” matters, RSRH seems to take a pragmatic approach when discussing primarily magic and astrology(see Hebrew and English links):

    “I admit unashamedly that I never made an effort to get to the roots of these matters just as I never found myself curious to inquire about the nature of of om ha-bo, the world after the resurrection of the dead, and related matters. For the reality of these matters as of those is hidden from human vision and it is impossible to know them with absolute clarity. Whatever is said about them is no more than a guess – however close – at what may be the truth; and there is no obligation upon Jews to know these and related matters. Thank G-d they are totally unnecessary. There is nothing to be gained by knowing them in terms of fulfilling one’s purpose on earth through observing Torah and mitzvos and performing them, just as one lacks nothing if he does not know these guesses and does not occupy himself with investigating them.

    What difference does it make if on the topic of magical and related acts the truth is as Rambam says or as Ramban says? In either case -whether they are nonsense or real- we must stay away from these matters, for in either case G-d made them repugnant to us; he who guards his soul will keep his distance from them so as not to defile himself with what G-d considers repugnant.

    …Similarly, regarding such lofty matters as olom ha-bo, the world after the resurrection of the dead, and similar topics, it is enough that we believe wholeheartedly in the words of Scripture, “You will not leave my soul in purgatory” and “Even my flesh will repose securely” without inquiring into the nature of matters hidden from us that no eye has seen…”



  9. Hirhurim says:

    Another reason I’m not a fan of RSRH’s writings. I’m a believer in derosh ve-kabel sekhar. You don’t have to reach a conclusion but Torah hi ve-lilmod ani tzarikh. Keep in mind that all of this–angels, olam ha-ba, yemos ha-mashiach–is discussed in Mishneh Torah!

  10. Shades of Gray says:

    I think it’s worthwhile to discuss whether or not to learn about angels, since this also involves Torah principles :)

  11. Moshe Y says:

    Excellent post! Very interesting chiddush. As opposed to Mr. Cohen, I think we actually need MORE such discussions on abstract matters of the spirit and not just cold practical issues. Subjects such as these are a greater manifestation of learning “torah lishma” precisely since they have no practical import.

  12. Holy Hyrax says:

    What does Rambam (or anyone else for that matter) say about Sheol…which is actually found in scripture.

  13. Steve says:

    Does anyone know how the Rambam understands the encounter Manoach and Eishes Manoach had with the malach? I can understand a vision when it is one person having it. But the Navi is very clear that both Manoach and his wife confronted the angel, and both “saw” him disappear. Does the Rambam address this?

  14. David Tzohar says:

    I would tend disagree with Mr Cohen. There is much to learn in the appearence of angels in the Bible and Chazal. For what purpose were they sent? how do they react with each other and with human beings etc., etc. Angels are the Major protagonists in stories such as the destruction of of Sdom and Ya’akov’s nocturnal struggle with the malahch.

  15. Dovid K says:

    “not a fan of “RSRH’s writings” – ouch! As for me – RSRH is the highest of the high. Too bad his commentary on Tehillim is so often out of print. Anyway, don’t forget Rashi on the opening of this week’s parsha – m’lachim mamash.

  16. Hirhurim says:

    HH: I believe Rambam holds that Sheol is a term for the spiritual afertlife.

    Steve: Rambam explicitly says that Manoach saw the angel in a non-prophetic vision (end of Moreh 2:42).

    Dovid K: R. Yaakov Ettlinger has a cute vort on Malachim Mamash in Minchas Ani. He says that Yaakov petitioned both Eisav and God. He sent messengers to Eisav and angels to God.

  17. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Steve: See Guide 2:6. Rambam’s position here requires fleshing out.

  18. Shades of Gray says:

    Ramchal touches on the issue of practicality but also discusses the impractical. In Derech Hashem he describes the nature of magic, astrology, angels and demons in a hashkafic framework. At the same time, the preface to Mesilas Yesharim emphasizes not ignoring the practical:

    היתכן שייגע ויעמול שכלנו בחקירות אשר לא נתחייבנו בם, בפלפולים אשר לא יצא לנו שום פרי מהם ודינים אשר אינם שייכים לנו, ומה שחייבים אנו לבוראנו חובה רבה נעזבהו להרגל ונניחהו למצות אנשים מלומדה

  19. Y. Aharon says:

    This is my understanding of angelic appearances. When Hashem wished to communicate with a person in biblical times, He either sent the communication in a night dream or created an angelic apparition for such communication to the person in his waking state (..im yehiye nevachem, Hashem bamarah eilav etvadah, bachalom adaber bo – Num 12:6). Note that no angelic figure in the Torah has a name, i.e., he is not a permanent figure, but a temporary creation. If there is a special angelic communication such as with Avraham (..shov ashuv eilecha ka’et chaya vehinei bein leSarah ishtecha – Gen. 18:10) then it is counted as a prophetic experience. If only more practical matters are exchanged (such as with Lot) then it isn’t. Not only are angelic appearances merely a contrivance, but so are other extraordinary happenings such as the exchange between Bilaam and his donkey, i.e., the donkey merely appeared to speak and argue his case. In this viewpoint the apparent deep divide between the Rambam and the Ramban as to angelic appearances is bridged. Such appearances are visions, but they have a reality in that they are creations independent of the recipient’s mind. What is left undefined in this scheme is the nature of the angel whom Hashem had promised Moshe to lead the Israelites in battle. That angel is characterized as bearing the divine name (Ex. 23:20-21).

  20. Shlomo says:

    What is left undefined in this scheme is the nature of the angel whom Hashem had promised Moshe to lead the Israelites in battle. That angel is characterized as bearing the divine name (Ex. 23:20-21)

    Some say this “malach” was Moshe himself (the promise was technically to the people not to Moshe) rather than an angel; others that it was the sar tzava hashem that Yehoshua met before conquering Yericho.

  21. IH says:

    It seems to me this discussion needs to reference the examples that permeate our normative liturgy, heavily influenced by the heichalot literature. It’s much harder to rationalize our praying שרָפִים וְאופַנִּים וְחַיּות הַקּדֶשׁ or נְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בָּעולָם. כְּשֵׁם שֶׁמַּקְדִּישִׁים אותו בִּשְׁמֵי מָרום or נַעֲרִיצְךָ וְנַקְדִישְׁךָ כְּסוד שיחַ שרְפֵי קדֶשׁ הַמַּקְדִּישִׁים שִׁמְךָ בַּקּדֶשׁ

  22. Mr. Cohen says:

    Given the choice, I would rather read a Torah message about something practical, like the prohibitions against:
    Nivul Peh, revealing secrets, Lashon HaRa,
    talking in shul, talking too much, etc…

    And thanks to Shlomo Pill and Shades of Gray
    for helping to explain my position about angels.

  23. Hirhurim says:

    Dr. Kaplan: I fully agree that the Rambam’s view on angels requires further fleshing out. And the meat of the Moreh material is even in Mishneh Torah. This post wasn’t intended to go too far in depth, although I read the chapter in Kellner’s Mysticism book before posting this to make sure I wasn’t making an elementary mistake.

    Mr. Cohen: This blog provides both. I don’t think I’ve written about Nivul Peh but I have written about revealing secrets, lashon hara, talking in shul, talking about mundane matters and more. Check the archives (or Google it).

  24. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Gil: My comment wasn’t meant as any criticism of you.

    Re the Guide, the Rambam appears to contradict himself. In 2:6 he states that Mrs. Manoach at least was a prophet, while in 2:42 he states that Manoach and his wife were not prophets. Perhaps the initial vision of Mrs. Manoach was a vision of prophecy, but the later joint vision was not.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Thank you R. Student and Professor Kaplan for the references to the Moreh.

  26. Tal Benschar says:

    It seems to me this discussion needs to reference the examples that permeate our normative liturgy, heavily influenced by the heichalot literature. It’s much harder to rationalize our praying שרָפִים וְאופַנִּים וְחַיּות הַקּדֶשׁ or נְקַדֵּשׁ אֶת שִׁמְךָ בָּעולָם. כְּשֵׁם שֶׁמַּקְדִּישִׁים אותו בִּשְׁמֵי מָרום or נַעֲרִיצְךָ וְנַקְדִישְׁךָ כְּסוד שיחַ שרְפֵי קדֶשׁ הַמַּקְדִּישִׁים שִׁמְךָ בַּקּדֶשׁ

    I think those examples are paraphrases of what is described in the Novi, specifically Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. We in fact then quote those pesukim verbatim.

  27. IH says:

    Tal – Much can be said about this, but I will just quote R. Freundel in Why We Pray What We Pray (Urim, 2010) p. 212:

    Jewish Prayers are often strongly influenced by the esoteric teachings of the Rabbinic period known Heikhalot or Merkavah mysticism. One of the prominent themes of the literature that preserves this mysticism is a description of the mystic as he climbs through the seven Heavens to stand before God’s throne of glory. There he joins the celestial choir and sings the Almighty’s praises along with the angelic hosts.

  28. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Tal: You miss the point. The idea of the Kedushah of the Amidah (not of the Yotzer though) is that WE, the Jewish people, praise God the same way the angels do. We use the same texts they do. This idea, as Prof. Ezra Fleishher noted, is NOT found in classical rabbinical literature and reflects the influence of Heikhalot literature. Note the kedushah ends with Yimlokh, which is the uniquely human way we praise God. This, as Prof. Fleisher further noted, also accounts for the presence of the Shema in the musaf kedushah.

  29. SR says:

    “I *reject* your pragmatic approach to limud ha-Torah.”

    Gil, your words are too harsh. “tend to disagree with” is nicer.

  30. Scott says:

    I would assume that the inclusion of an illustration that contains Christian symbolism was inadvertent.

  31. A Fan says:

    I appreciate your presentation and discussion Rabbi Student, but think you’re missing the big question which is if angels play such a concrete, explicit role in THE source text – the Torah – how in the world do we leave such fundamental questions as are they corporeal or not, or what does it mean that there are supernatural beings, or where did angels go/why don’t they appear anymore, or how were they recognized, or what does it mean that seeing an angel is sometimes referred to as seeing G-d, or… etc. unanswered and think that’s OK given how rational our approach is to so many other basic aspects of our theology and practice.

  32. Stephan Pickering / Chofetz Chayim ben-Avraham says:

    Shalom & Boker tov…

    Your discussion, while interesting, is incomplete. The following (especially Reiterer et al. 2007 and Annette Evans 2007) should be carefully consulted:

    F.V. Reiterer, Tobias Nicklas, Karin Schoepflin, eds., 2007. Angels: the concept of celestial beings — origins, development, & reception (Walter de Gruyter), 714pp

    Meir Bar-Ilan, 2004. Prayers of Jews to angels and other mediators in the first centuries CE, pp. 79-96 IN: MARCEL POORTHUIS & JOSHUA SCHWARTZ, eds., 2004. Saints & role models in Judaism & christianity (Koniklijke Brill), 485pp

    Annette Henrietta Margaretha Evans, 2007. The development of Jewish ideas of angels: Egyptian and Hellenistic connections ca. 600 BCE to ca. 200 CE. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. Stellenbosch, 320pp

    Crispin Fletcher-Louis, 2000. Some reflections on angelomorphic humanity texts among the Dead Sea scrolls. Dead Sea Discoveries 7(3):292-312

    Crispin Fletcher-Louis, 2005. Further reflections on a divine and angelic humanity in the Dead Sea scrolls. Paper, 10th Annual International Orion Symposium Jerusalem, 9-11 January, 15pp

    Rimon Kasher, 1996. Angelology and the supernal worlds in the Aramaic Targums to the Prophets. Jour. Study of Judaism 27(2):168-191

    Hindy Najman, 2000. Angels at Sinai: exegesis, theology, and interpretive authority. Dead Sea Discoveries 7(3):313-333

    Saul Olyan, 1993. A thousand thousands served him: exegesis & the naming of angels in ancient Judaism (J.C.B. Mohr/P. Siebeck), 148pp

    Peter Schaefer, 1992. The hidden & manifest God: some major themes in early Jewish mysticism [trans. Aubrey Pomerance] (State University of New York Press), 198pp See his synopses of ‘Angels’ pp. 21-36, 62-66, 81-86, 103-107, 129-134

    g’mar chatima tova…

    STEPHAN BOROWSKI PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham
    Torah G-ddess Jew Apikoros Ishi / Philosophia Kabbalistica Researcher


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