Saturday 10 December 2022

409) Polemics of Intercession

Pachad Yitzchak by R. Yitzchak Lampronti (1679-1756)


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor David Malkiel,[1] looks at a fascinating but understudied anthology of eighteenth-century rabbinic ideas, debates and polemics between mystical and rationalist rabbis on various issues. These include intercessory prayer through the angels, appealing to the deceased, and appealing to various Divine ‘attributes.’ These debates and responsa are recorded in a section of a larger work, the Halachic encyclopedia entitled Pachad Yitzchak.[2] The seventeenth and eighteenth-century rationalist rabbis claim that the belief in these intercessional agents has its origins in non-Jewish sources, while their mystical counterparts counter-charge their interlocuters with the same offence.

Early prayer rites

As a background to this debate, we first turn to some classical Talmudic and rabbinic sources. The earliest form of the Jewish prayerbook, Seder Rav Amram haShalem, dating from the tenth century, records the Machnisei Rachamim (Ushers of mercy) prayer, where angels are tasked with transporting petitionary prayers to God. This prayer, or request, to the angels is recited during Selichot services between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur.

Of course, the question is: Aren't Jews supposed to direct their prayers directly to God without any intermediaries whoever or whatever they may be?

Rav Amram was the Gaon of Pumbedita during the ninth century and his siddur, only produced later during the tenth century, is known to have had additions in his name that may not have actually emanated from him. However, the Siddur of Rav Saadia Gaon, produced in tenth-century Sura also contains the Machnisei Rachamim prayer. This all indicates that the prayer for angelic intercession was certainly well-established in the liturgy around the tenth century.

Ironically, it was Rav Saadia’s Karaite rival, Abu Yussuf Ya‘aqub al-Qirqisani, who objected to the prayer which seemed to conflict with the principles of monotheism.

In addition to appealing to angels, there are early prayer rites that, while not appealing to angels, appeal to:

“God’s attributes (e.g. mercy, patience) for intercession on behalf of human petitioners, and the legitimacy of these was also explored by medieval scholars” (Malkiel 2003:170 n. 2).

The notion of angels transporting prayers seems to have its origins in the Midrash Rabba (21,4). Sandalfon is said to be the name of the angel usually tasked with this duty. All this suggests that the rabbinic roots of these concepts were quite substantial in supporting the idea of angelic and other forms of intercession and these prayers remained relatively unchallenged right up to the eighteenth century. There were, however, some exceptions to this rule, like Maimonides who had his own issues with the nature of angels in general and the challenges intercession poses to monotheism.

Pachad Yitzchak

An important and lengthy work of fourteen volumes was produced by R. Yitzchak Lampronti of Ferrara and known as Pachad Yitzchak. It contains huge amounts of writings and Sheelot uTeshuvot (responsa) by dozens of seventeenth and eighteenth-century rabbis not recorded elsewhere. One of its longest sections, extending over twenty-five folios, deals with the issue of intercessory prayer (Malkiel 2003:171).

The unusual heading under which this lengthy debate takes place in Pachad Yitzchak is “Let one not petition for his needs in Aramaic.” This title is taken from the Talmud (b.Shabbat 12a) where R. Eleazar is recorded as wishing a sick person a healthy recovery, in Aramaic. R.  Yehuda responded one should never petition in Aramaic and R. Yochanan joined in and said that angels do not understand Aramaic. The problem is resolved by the Talmud explaining that a sick person is always in the presence of God so the angels not understanding Aramaic is not an issue.

Another difficulty raised in a further Talmudic section (b. Sota 33a) is that on the one hand, the Mishna says one may pray in any language but the same R. Yehuda and R. Yochanan are still adamant that one may not pray in Aramaic. The issue is resolved by the Talmud concluding: לָא קַשְׁיָא הָא בְּיָחִיד הָא בְּצִבּוּר – there is no argument because only private prayer should not be in Aramaic but public prayer may be in Aramaic.

Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-c. 1006)

These Talmudic discussions prompted the residents of Qairwan, in North Africa (today Tunisia), to write to Rav Sherira Gaon in 992. Their question was how do they deal with these Talmudic statements about prayer in Aramaic when they have traditions from their ancestors indicating that they indeed prayed in Aramaic. They had liturgical texts in Aramaic as evidence.

Rav Sherira responded that since prayers are directed to God, they certainly may be said in any language, even Aramaic. And then he added that the only time Aramaic may not be used, is in supplications to the Angels:

“angels…are known to enjoy a degree of autonomy in responding to human supplications; for example, they are the direct addressees of amulets” (Malkiel 2003:173).

But then the Jews of Qairwan wrote back to Rav Sherira asking why the angels do not heed prayers in Aramaic – and Rav Sherira seems to respond that he was not too sure. He also offers some examples of Aramaic used in rabbinic prayers and he does not know why the Talmudic objection to praying in Aramaic was not taken more seriously. He also mentions that the Talmudic view is difficult to understand (merchak memrehon min sevara).

Rashi (1040-1105)

A short time later, Rashi tried to reconcile the two Talmudic positions on prayer in Aramaic, by suggesting that a well-wisher might need to appeal for angelic intercession but the patient him or herself has direct access to God. That’s how he deals with the first Talmudic reference to R. Eleazar vs R. Yehuda and R. Yochanan (b.Shabbat 12a).

Then regarding the second Talmudic reference, Rashi suggests that God always heeds the communal prayers of a group and that’s why they may be said in Aramaic, but the individual prayer is not so powerful so it must be recited in Hebrew (b. Sota 33a).

Rashi’s view of angelic intercession is most likely reflective of the worldview of Ashkenaz, medieval Germany, which was strongly influenced by the older form of the mysticism of ancient Palestine, known as Heichalot.

Babylonian and Palestinian Talmudim

While angelic intercession is taken for granted in the Babylonian Talmud, the Talmud Yerushalmi is more uncomfortable with this idea: The Talmud Yerushalmi) states:

“If troubles come upon a person, let him cry neither to Michael nor to Gabriel, but let him cry unto Me, and I shall answer him forthwith” (y. Berakhot 9:12, 13a).

There appears to be a general divide on this issue of angelic intercession split down the middle between the Bavli and Yerushalmi.

Objections and explanations

This anti-intercessional position of the Yerushalmi may have paved the way for Maimonides’ fifth principle which regards intercession as a form of idolatry. Nachmanides similarly, but perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, considers prayers like Machnisei Rachamin to possibly be idolatry.[3]

R. Yosef Zuckmentel also seems to have issues with the recitation of Machnisei Rachamin on Yom Kippur afternoon and writes:

“All day we stood before God and now we come before the angels?”[4]

And Jacob ibn Habib of sixteenth-century Salonika claims in no uncertain terms that the payer is prohibited and additionally, he finds the Talmudic notion of Angels being unfamiliar with Aramaic to be difficult to comprehend.

The twelfth century R. Judah ben Yakar claims that the Talmud uses the expression “makirin” which means they do not “recognize” Aramaic, rather than mean that they don’t “know” or “understand” it.

Menahem haMeiri, of fourteenth-century Provence, inverts the matter and claims that it is the supplicants who do not understand Aramaic and therefore prayer in Aramaic was prohibited because most people are incapable of praying correctly.

Avigdor Kara of fifteenth-century Prague writes that intercessory prayer “is spreading everywhere” (mitpashet be-chol hagelilot) and because of that he feels compelled to legitimise it as it is already “an accomplished fact.”[5]

The deceased as intercessors for, or recipients of, prayer

This section of Pachad Yitzchak is a record of debates and polemics on the matter of intercession. Diverse points of view are collected and expressed. Some texts in Pachad Yitzchak actually call for intercession to be ‘expanded’ to include asking the dead to intercede on behalf of the living. This is a common belief still held today amongst many mainstream Jews. The text then even calls for the intercession to be taken one step further by permitting prayer to the deceased themselves:

“a number of medieval authors held this point of view, but the polemicist argues that the dead are oblivious to the concerns of this world, and are therefore incapable of intercession” (Malkiel 2003:185).

Christian liturgy

In a forthright challenge to all forms of intercessory prayer, we find another challenging position equating these ideas with Christianity and therefore not of Jewish origin:

“Prayers for angelical intercession…are not found in Sephardic or Italiani prayer books, nor in those of the Jews of the Ottoman empire and north Africa; German and Polish Jewry are the only centers to have incorporated them into their liturgy, and moreover, this practice is a relatively recent innovation, dating back a mere three hundred years. He[7] goes on to express amazement that Ashkenazic Jews should transgress the biblical sin of adhering to ‘the laws of the gentiles’ (hukkot ha-goyyim)…How, he asks, could they, whose punctilious behavior is known to all, be so careless with their words as to echo the Christian petitionary prayer: ‘Omnes sancti Angeli et Arcangeli orate pro nobis’ (‘All the holy angels and archangels – pray for us’)?” (Malkiel 2003:184).

Agudat Ezov and an attack against Maimonides

The responses to these challenges of Christian influence and other factors are included in a section called Agudat Ezov [6](A Bunch of Hyssop), and somehow it turns into an attack against Maimonides and his rationalism:

“Responding to the charge that intercessory prayer violates Maimonides’ fifth principle of faith, Agudat Ezov condemns Aristotelian philosophy and science. Quoting Menasseh ben Israel, he characterizes Maimonides as having denigrated prophecy by maintaining that the insights revealed to the prophets could be attained through rational enquiry. He piles on examples of biblical incidents which Maimonides interpreted as imagined, rather than prophesied, and cites Hasdai Crescas’ critique of this position. Then, in an abrupt reversal, Agudat Ezov voices doubt that Maimonides could have authored such unorthodox views, and quotes the well-known tradition that Maimonides was ultimately initiated into the mysteries of kabbalah and consequently rejected much of his earlier writing. He then argues that “Ushers of mercy” does not really contravene Maimonides’ fifth principle, since the petitioner does not attribute power to angels, but rather beseeches them to usher his prayer before the Omnipotent” (Malkiel 2003:184).

Legitimising intercession of the dead

And then Agudat Ezov designates an entire chapter to support the legitimacy of invoking the intercession of the dead. It refers to the great “pillars of the world” (fol. 48r) the classical and medieval rabbinic authorities who supported that notion. It also attempts to show that the souls of the deceased are indeed aware of everything pertaining to the living.

Bavli more authoritative than Yerushalmi

And regarding the view of the Talmud Yerushalmi being opposed to calling upon angels, Agudat Ezov brings the view of R. Shabbatai Elhanan Recanati of Ferrara. He claims that intercessory prayer has ancient roots, and anyway, the Talmud Bavli is later and therefore more authoritative than the Talmud Yerushalmi.


“Agudat Ezov had drawn heavily from the Zohar in defense of the German-Jewish tradition of intercessory prayer” (Malkiel 2003:188).

Attack against rationalism

Agudat Ezov continues its attack against rationalism:

“the method of investigation and reason, for such is the way of the philosophers: [they] believe only in what rational analogy requires... They became intoxicated by the pride of the Greeks and swayed by their arrogance, [as a result of which] they distort the Law... and scorn the wisdom of the true tradition [ha-qabbalah ha’amitit] etc” (Fol. 52v).

Agudat Ezov reiterates that the interlocutor should rather follow the example of Maimonides, and replace philosophy with Kabbalah!

Kabbalah has usage on its side

As a conclusion to all this debate on mysticism and rationalism, Agudat Ezov brings the opinion of the Italian R. Shimshon Morpurgo (1681-1740) who supports the Kabbalistic view. He claimed, for example, that the custom of Kapporet, recorded in R. Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh as a “custom of folly” was authored by typesetters, and not by R. Karo himself.

Regarding intercessory prayer, R. Morpurgo maintained that time-honoured usage and the authority of custom must always take preference. Idolatry is a thing of the past, he claims, and the average Jew (!) will not get confused by any forms of intercession nor confuse the angels with God. The objectors, who anyway were rationalists, must bow to the will of the majority (Malkiel 2003:189-190).


This fascinating eighteenth-century polemic reveals some of the fault lines that have always been, since the time of both Talmudim, inherent in Judaism. The schism is often covered up, and as we have seen, the mystical view has become the basic default setting of most of the Jewish worldview or Haskafa. Sometimes this was achieved in a rather forceful and dominating manner where markers other than logic and source material were used to support the mystical position. Pachad Yitzchak is a wonderful example of some of these tensions.

[1] Malkiel, D., 2003, ‘Between Worldliness and Traditionalism: Eighteenth-Century Jews Debate Intercessory Prayer’, JSIJ 2, 169–198.

[2] Nt to be confused by another work by the same name by R. Yitzchok Hutner.

[3] Moses b. Nahman, Kitvei Ramban, ed. Charles B. Chavel, Jerusalem 1963, vol. 1, p. 171.

[4] Leket Yosher, ed. Jakob Freimann, Berlin 1903-1904, pt. I, §4, p. 141.

[5] Ms. Oxford-Bodley Opp. 525, fol. 63r-66v.

[6] Not to be confused with other works by the same title.

[7]  I think this is referring to an unnamed polemicist.

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