Praying to Angels - Part 2

Last week we surveyed a variety of views concerning the general issue of praying to angels and particularly the tefilla of Machnisei Rachamim. This week we'll explore a parallel debate concerning one of the stanzas in the piyyut Shalom Aleichem as well as the impact of an increasingly popular tune upon the halakhic discourse surrounding this controversy.

Barchuni le-Shalom
Common custom is to recite four stanzas each Friday night as part of the piyyut Shalom Aleichem. The penultimate stanza, Barchuni le-Shalom, however, appears to entreat the angels to bless us. This, as noted in last week’s discussion, would appear to violate Rambam’s injunction against praying to angels. On the basis of Rambam’s fifth principle, therefore, a number of prominent halakhic authorities have opposed the recitation of this stanza. These include R. Yaakov Emden (Siddur Beit Ya’akov), the Vilna Gaon and his student R. Chaim of Volozhin (cited in Keter Rosh 93), as well as R. Soloveitchik (see R. Yuval Sherlo here). On the other hand, many of the authorities who defend the recitation of Machnisei Rachamim would presumably justify Barchuni le-Shalom as well.

Is there room to distinguish between praying to angels and asking them for blessings? The evidence might suggest such a view. Circling back to our discussion last week, on two occasions Yaakov Avinu appeals to angels for berakhot. In regard to the blessing of his grandchildren Menashe and Ephraim he asks that “the angel who redeems me bless the children” (Bereishit 48:16). After wrestling the angel, moreover, Yaakov declares, “I shall not send you forth until you bless me” (Ibid. 32:27), and the Torah records that “[the angel] blessed [Yaakov] there” (32:30). Taken at face value, in both these instances Yaakov requests blessings from angels. And although some commentaries reinterpret both of Yaakov’s requests (regarding the former see our discussion in Part I; regarding the latter see Rashi to 32:27 and Ramban to 32:30), the simple thrust of the verses would appear to support the recitation of Barchuni le-Shalom.

What might be the logical basis for differentiating between praying to angels and asking them for blessings? First, perhaps there is room to differentiate between praying to God through an intermediary and receiving berakhot from God through another being. By praying to angels we imply that God is not the only entity to whom it is fitting to pray; no such implication is present, however, for one who requests and receives such a blessing. In regard to Barchuni le-Shalom, moreover, one might suggest that the blessing here is not a true blessing, but merely a positive greeting. If that’s the case, the stanza of Barchuni Le-Shalom is innocuous and presents no theological difficulty whatsoever.

The Niggun
Recently, it has become increasingly common to hear the piyyut Machnisei Rachamim sung in our shuls, and for good reason: it has been set to a gorgeous tune. As noted by others, however, this raises a serious problem as a song, no matter how stirring, is a problematic way to decide a long-standing dispute concerning matters of theology. Given the high stakes of Rambam’s charge of heresy as well as the range of views on the issue, it reflects poorly on our attitude to the fundamentals of faith for such a dispute to be decided by what appears to be little more than a popularity contest.

My personal reaction to this critique is mixed. On the one hand, I think the observation is basically right. We ought decide matters of faith in a principled fashion. A niggun is not a serious proof regarding questions of theology. I would further suggest that this raises a more general question as to the seriousness with which we relate to Jewish thought in an age of pan-halakhism; this, however, is a discussion for another time.

On the other hand, two important points should be made in response to the critique. First, as mentioned last week, according those who substitute “yachnisu” with “hachnisu,” one can have one’s cake and eat it too by simply singing the piyyut with this slight modification. For those opposed to the recitation of “Machnisei Rachamim,” one is not forced to choose between theology and inspiration.

But there’s an even more fundamental point to be made. Even if it is indeed wrong to settle matters of theology by popular practice, the rousing success of Machnisei Rachamim ought be instructive to those of us involved in religious leadership. The song’s popularity reminds us that intellectual stimulation is not enough to meet the spiritual needs of most people. For so many of us, emotional inspiration – often evoked by song and other vehicles of inspiration – speaks directly to our deeply-seated human existential and religious needs. The story of Machnisei Rachamim reminds us to never overlook the emotional side of our religious experiences when thinking about what we aspire toward in our schools, shuls, and communities.

Ultimately, Machnisei Rachamim demonstrates both the importance but also the limits of intellectualism. The question of praying to angels is a rich and wide-ranging dispute comprising nearly a millennium of discussion, a striking illustration of the importance of serious engagement with matters of faith. Is it right to decide a principle of faith by way of song? Absolutely not. The argument continues unabated, and the arguments should continue to be made on both sides of the controversy. But at the same time, should we closely heed and embrace what a song tells us about the needs of our religious communities? To my mind, the answer is an equal and opposite resounding yes.