With the recitation of selichot upon us, I'd like to explore the fascinating debate concerning those piyyutim, religious poems, which we seem to direct toward angels. Specifically, in the beautiful song "Machnisei Rachamim," we entreat the angels to beseech God on our behalves and carry our penitential prayers before His throne. This piyyut and others like it, however, have stirred controversy for hundreds of years.
Many have opposed the recitation of this prayer on the basis of Rambam's fifth principle of faith, which declares it heretical to pray to any entity other than God Himself. Rambam explicitly excludes praying to angels, stars, or other celestial beings. He reiterates this principle in his Laws of Repentance (3:7), which state that one who prays to another entity to serve as an intercessor between the human and divine is deemed a heretic. Other medieval authorities including Ramban (Shemot 20:2) side with Rambam and find praying to angels in violation of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 9:1) seems to lend support to Rambam's position, noting that it is preferable to pray to God than to a human king: "Whereas one who wishes to make a request of a king must first deal with the bureaucracy of a variety of people who stand in between them, one who prays to God can do so directly without first approaching an intermediary." While the Yerushalmi falls short of indicating that approaching an intermediary in prayer is heretical, it does seem to prove that requiring an angel as intermediary is superfluous.
A number of sources in the Gemara, on the other hand, seemingly contradict Rambam's prohibition. Berakhot 60b, for instance, teaches that one who enters a restroom should address the protective angels who accompany him and urge them to pray on his behalf and not abandon him while he relieves himself. Shabbat 12b suggests that one should not pray in Aramaic, since the angels do not understand it and will not be able to attend to his needs. Finally, although the passage is subject to a variety of interpretations, Sanhedrin 44b cites Rabbi Yochanan who, at least on the reading of Rashi (s.v. le'olam), urges one to pray that all the angels should assist him in beseeching mercy, so he will have no enemies in the upper world. Indeed, Rashash (s.v. le'olam) comments that the Gemara Sanhedrin would appear to offer support for the recitation of Machnisei Rachamim. All these passages seem then, on the surface, to contradict Rambam's accusation of heresy.
In fact, none less than Yaakov Avinu himself appears to offer a precedent for praying to angels. In his blessing of "Hamal'ach ha-go'el" to his grandchildren Menasheh and Ephraim, Yaakov appears to beseech the angels to bless the children, which implicitly involves praying to God on another's behalf. (It should be noted, however, that on page 325 of the Prague edition of his responsa, Maharam of Rutenberg cites R. Yaakov Anatoli as having deflected this proof, arguing that in fact the previous passuk indicates that Yaakov was in fact talking to God and requesting that God ensure that the angel bless his grandchildren.)
On the basis of these prooftexts, numerous authorities have defended the continued recitation of Machnisei Rachamim, including R. Tzidkiya ha-Rofeh (Shemesh Tzedaka O.C. 23-4), R. Yaakov Emden (Mor u-Ketzi'a #3), R. Yehuda Assad (Responsa Yehuda Ya'aleh O.C. 1:21), R. Hirsch (responsum printed in Yeshurun vol. 3), and many others. In an opaque passage that requires further investigation, R. Nissim of Gerona (Derashot ha-Ran, Derush 4) suggests that although one may not generally pray to angels, there is a single angel - Metatron - to whom it is permissible to pray, as he is considered to fully stand in for God in our human experience. According to R. Nissim, it is this angel to which our piyyutim and the aforementioned passages in the Gemara refer.
Many other commentators, however, remained deeply concerned for the view of Rambam and Ramban, and sought to ameliorate the problem in a variety of ways, three of which follow:
Omitting the Tefilla - There are some who simply chose to omit the piyyut entirely, either publicly or privately. This view is adopted, among many others, by Maharam of Rutenberg (ibid.), Kol Bo (10), Sefer ha'Ikkarim (2:28), Korban Netanel (End of First Chapter of Rosh Hashanah, letter gimmel), Vilna Gaon (Ma'aseh Rav), Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Sheiltot to Maaseh Rav 128; quoted in Otzar Hatefillot Mavo letter 3), Chatam Sofer (O.C. 166), Dayan Yitchak Weiss (Si'ach Yitzchak 411), and Rav Soloveitchik (see Halakhic Man pgs. 43-44 with footnote 49; see also "On Translating Ish Ha-Halakhah with the Rav" by Dr. Lawrence Kaplan in Mentor of Generations, pgs. 334-346).
Reinterpreting the Tefilla - Another view maintains that we need not delete the prayer from our traditional text; after all, it has appeared in our siddurim for nearly a thousand years. Instead, we simply need to understand the tefilla differently than its face meaning suggests. Mahari Bruna (275) and Divrei Yatziv (Y.D. 191), for example, suggest that in fact the prayer is merely intended as a metaphor for our downtrodden state. (This interpretation seems quite forced; its mere suggestion is remarkable testament to the Rambam's far-reaching influence.) R. Yehuda Ben Yakar, a medieval scholar, suggests instead that we are actually addressing not the angels, but the righteous of our generation. (Again, this seems difficult.) Finally, R. Moshe Feinstein (O.C. 5:43:6) submits that we are not asking the angels to pray on our behalf, merely that they be successful in their divine mission. In doing so, we hope that their success involves something that will benefit us on earth.
Change the Words - Yet others propose a minor emendation to the text. This position was first advocated by the famed Maharal of Prague in Netivot Olam (Netiv ha'Avodah 12), which suggests simply changing the word "hachnisu" to "yachnisu." In other words, like Maharam's argument cited earlier in regard to ha-Mal'ach ha-Goel, this change transforms the prayer from one to the angels to an entreaty to God to ensure that the angels successfully - but independently - advocate on our behalf. R. Moshe Feinstein (ibid.) similarly cites his father's practice of modifying the words "chalu na" in another selichot piyyut to "avot ha'olem ahuvei elyon chalu na," which is to entreat the avot and imahot to pray on our behalf, not the angels.
In sum, then, this week we briefly reviewed a range of views concerning the legitimacy of entreating angels generally, and the prayer of Machnisei Rachamim in particular. Having surveyed some of the basic views, next week we'll explore a parallel debate concerning one of the stanzas in the piyyut Shalom Aleichem, some of the controversy's theological underpinnings, and the impact of the song popularized by Mordechai Ben David upon the halakhic discourse surrounding this controversy.