Angels Don’t Know Aramaic?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

I recently heard two questions concerning angels. The first is based on two related Talmudic sources:

Rabbi bar bar Channa said, “When I went after Rabbi Eliezer to pray for the sick, at times he prayed in Hebrew, and at times in Aramaic. But how did he do so? For we learned that Rabbi Yochanan sated, “Anyone who asks for his needs (prays) in Aramaic, the ministering angels will not respond to him, since the angels do not recognize Aramaic. The answer is that sick people are different, since God’s presence is with them (Sabbath 12b).”

Tosfos is astonished at this and states, “All man’s thoughts angels know, but they don’t know Aramaic?!” How do we reply to Tosfos? My friend Jessie asked, “Why are we praying to angels, when we are to pray to God alone?” And even if this is true, what is the meaning? We must also understand what is meant by God “being with” the sick.

The second source (Sota 33a) says one may pray in any language. The Talmud cites the quote above as a question, but resolves the conflict by saying, “Any language can used in prayer (i.e., angels understand even Aramaic) is applied to a congregation’s prayers. But when one prays as an individual, he must not pray in Aramaic, as the angels don’t recognize it.”

The question is obvious: Do angels recognize Aramaic, or not? What’s the difference if one is praying alone or with others: how does this affect the language skills of angels? And why is Aramaic singled out, as opposed to other languages?

Focusing on the clues, we will arrive at our answer. We are told that Aramaic prayers of individuals – not congregations – are not recognized. Aramaic prayers for the sick – even made by individuals – are recognized, since “God’s presence is with the sick.” 

What is significant about one who prays alone? When one does not pray with the congregation, and is isolated from others, one cannot escape the feeling that his prayers are only from himself. He experiences a larger measure of entitlement. When praying to be saved from his evil twin Esav, Jacob said, “I have grown small from all of Your kindness (Gen. 32:11).” Jacob recognized this idea, that the feeling of entitlement, in fact, can reduce one’s true entitlement to God’s kindness, “I have grown small.” Jacob was aware that all God’s kindnesses might have had an adverse effect on his perfection, namely, on his humility. 

To feel “worthy” of God’s kindness, is to engage arrogance. Arrogance aroused when man prays alone, causes him to view his mitzvos and good acts as a tool for ulterior benefit. This view is incorrect: Torah fulfillment and upright morality are worthwhile…without side benefits. If we follow God’s Torah merely as a means to gain success in any area, we do not possess a true opinion of the Torah, as it is meant to benefit our souls, not our daily physical needs. Ironically, this incorrect view of Torah decreases our true entitlement. And when Jacob felt what he already received from God might have corrupted him, this was due again to his fear that he might have overestimated himself, thereby reducing his worthiness of God’s continued kindnesses. Pirkei Avos 4:7 too teaches this idea to not use the Torah as a means for personal gain. Additionally, arrogance has a way of deluding us about the degree of our goodness. Thus, we may cross the line of poorly assessing how deserving we truly are.  

The Rabbis speak metaphorically and non-literally, in order to teach vital lessons. Tosfos is correct: angels know man’s thoughts, and thus, no language is a barrier to angels. Suggesting an individual’s prayers in Aramaic are not recognized, is a lesson: our prayers are compromised when we pray alone. Our arrogance and sense of entitlement are “as if” unintelligible by those beings who relate our prayers to God. The Talmud does not say we pray to angels. But as we learn throughout Torah and the Rabbis, angels play a role in our lives. Regarding both, God’s communications to prophets or His kindnesses towards all individuals, or our prayers to Him, angels play a role. I will expound more on this in a minute. But let us grasp this concept of “angels not recognizing Aramaic.” This is a Rabbinic metaphor that relates the idea of our reduced worth due to entitlement feelings. Aramaic was the language used to translate Torah readings for the masses who did not know Hebrew. Thus, Aramaic carries a sense of entitlement. I believe this to be the unique character of Aramaic, and why it embellishes this lesson that entitlement compromises our prayers. The fact that angels suddenly recognize Aramaic when a congregation prays, must cause us to scratch our head. This Rabbinic statement intends to alert us to a conflict, and strives to uncover the hidden meaning. Why are prayers for the sick heard in any language? This is because our concern is so great for others, that there is no possibility of arrogance, even when praying alone. This unselfish focus is referred to as “God being with the sick.” And when we pray with a congregation, again, our focus is not that God answers “my” prayers, since I am praying with a large group. My worth is as part of the nation of Israel, not my own merits.

The Talmud does not suggest that we are to pray to anyone, but God alone. What then is the role of angels in prayer? Maimonides states about the perfect person, “such a person will undoubtedly perceive nothing but things very extraordinary and divine, and see nothing but God and His angels (Guide for the Perplexed, book ii, chap. xxxvi).”  

In his Mishna Torah (Yesodei Hatorah 2:7) Maimonides teaches of the various levels of angels, including those called “ishim” who “speak and appear to prophets in visions.” Angelic cherubs are a central part of Judaism. Their golden forms are commanded to be created above the Ark housing the Ten Commandments. There are additional angelic forms in Temple. Maimonides states:

“…the belief in the existence of angels is connected with the belief in the existence of God; and the belief in God and angels leads to the belief in Prophecy and in the truth of the Law. In order to firmly establish this creed, God commanded [the Israelites] to make over the ark the form of two angels. The belief in the existence of angels is thus inculcated into the minds of the people, and this belief is in importance next to the belief in God's Existence; it leads us to believe in Prophecy and in the Law, and opposes idolatry (ibid, book iii, chap. xlv).”

The point I intend to stress is that God created an abstract but real system of interaction between Himself and mankind, and angels play an indispensable role. We do not pray to angels, but angels also play a role in how our prayers are related to God. As Maimonides said, it is a vast study (Yesodei Hatorah 211). This is the meaning behind our Torah and Talmudic sources. 

“Fallen” Angels

“The Nefillim lived in the land in those days and afterwards, when the sons of the judges came to the daughters of men and bore them; they were the mighty ones, renown of ancient times (Gen. 6:4).”

Yonasan ben Uzziel offers this commentary: 

“They were Shame-chazzai and Uzzi-el, who fell from heaven and were in the land in those days…”

Are we to assume this is literal, that non-physical things (angels) can “fall to Earth” and procreate with women? Or, perhaps Yonasan ben Uzziel echoes the other Rabbis…

This Torah section recounts those corrupt societies that precipitated the Flood. God communicates the flaw of those people: they grew arrogant due to their amazing stature. Their height and might caused other peoples’ hearts to “fall”: i.e., they feared them and felt powerless. The Rabbis teach, this is the meaning of “Nefillim,” those who cause the hearts of others to “fall.”  The verse also tells us they “lived in the land in those days and afterwards”.  Longevity also contributes to one’s invincibility.

“…they were the mighty ones, renown of ancient times” means they were uniquely strong and this was famous among mankind. Thus, they must have had an astonishing degree of form and power unique from the rest of mankind. Now think about that: form and power…doesn’t that correlate well to the names Yonasan ben Uzziel cites? “Shame-chazzai” means “fame from what is seen (form).” And “Uzzi-el” means “God, my might (power).”  Meaning, society named these men of great stature based on their appearance, and due to their might, as if they beheld God’s might.

Finally, the verse itself bears out that these were humans, not angels: “when the sons of the judges came to the daughters of men and bore them.” Who is “them?” The only subject in this verse are the Nefillim. The judges bore the Nefillim; they were human.