Saturday 25 March 2023

423) Maimonides calls the belief in Angels an “evil and blind foolishness”



By all accounts, Maimonides (1135/8-1204) had some interesting views on Angels. He certainly did not view angels the same way as most other rabbis did, especially the mystics. In this article, although the style is somewhat cumbersome, we turn to Maimonides’ text in Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed 2:6) to see his actual words describing his position. 

The first challenge often posed to Rambam’s view that angels do not exist as the spiritual beings most understand them to be, is that the Torah mentions angles in contexts that seem to support these popular conceptualisations. However, Rambam does not read angels that way. 

Rambam (in his own words) on Angels 

Rambam writes (all quotations are from Rambam and the loose translations are mine): 

וכבר קדם לנו בזה המאמר פרק בבאור המלאכים אינם גופות. וזה גם כן הוא מה שאמרו אריסטו; אלא שהנה – התחלפות שם, הוא יאמר שכלים נפרדים, ואנו נאמר: ׳מלאכים׳

“…[A]ngels are not bodies (beings). This (opinion) coincides with the view of Aristotle. The only difference is that he calls them ‘separate Inteligences’ and we call the ‘Angels.’ 

Rambam goes on to explain that according to Aristotle, these “separate Inteligences” (Sichlim Nifradim) are “intermediate energies” (Emtzaim) between G-d and creation, but they are not the ‘angelic beings’ we imagine them to be. Instead: 

ושבאמצעותם יתנועעו הגלגלים, אשר הוא סיבת היות ההוות 

“Through their agency, the celestial spheres maintain their motion, and this sustains all existence.” 

Accordingly, these terms “Intelligences” or “Angels” describe nothing other than the forces of nature, not ‘angelic beings’: 

וכל עושה מעשה מצוה הוא ׳מלאך׳ 

“And every commanded mission is referred to as (the work of an) ‘angel’…” 

   עד שהיסודות יקראו גם כן ׳מלאכים׳ 

“Even the Elements are called ‘angels.’” 

ויאמר על הכוחות החיוניות 

“and human energies are also (referred to as ‘Angels’).” 

Thus, in Rambam’s perception, all the cosmic forces and the powers of nature, including human drives and human nature, are included in the category known as “Angels.” 

ודברינו הנה אמנם הוא ב׳מלאכים׳ אשר הם שכלים נפרדים, שתורתנו לא תכחיש היותו ית׳ מנהיג זה המציאות באמצעות ה׳מלאכים׳ 

“When we speak of what the Torah calls ‘Angels,’ which are the ‘Inteligences,’ we mean that G-d directs this world through the agency of these (natural) forces (or energies)…” 

Maimonides calls the belief in ‘Angels’ an “evil and blind foolishness” 

Having defined ‘Angels’ as not ‘spiritual beings’ but rather as ‘natural’ and universal forces found within the cosmos, Rambam paints a dim picture of those who continue to believe in ‘Angels’ in the usual or traditional sense. Notice his typically harsh language when he refers to those who harbour what he considers to be such common beliefs. 

Rambam makes mention of the belief, upon which a whole rabbinic literature developed, that verses like Genesis (1:26), “Let us make man in our image,” allude to G-d consulting with the heavenly hierarchy of ‘angelic beings’ before He created the universe. 

ואין הכונה באלו המאמרים כולם מה שיחשבוהו הפתאיים שיש לו ית׳ דברים, או מחשבה או התבוננות אל שאלת עצה והעזר בדעת אחרים – ואיך יעזר הבורא במה שברא 

“These verses are not meant to be taken in the way ignorant people interpret them as G-d discussing with, or seeking the opinion of, the very (angelic) beings He is said to have created.” 

Here Rambam has no issues with referring to many important rabbinic dictums that do insinuate such discussions with the ‘Angels’ having taken place as words of the foolish (petaim). And again, Rambam reiterates that ‘Angels’ in the traditional sense do not exist. Instead: 

כי הכוחות כולם מלאכים 

“All the (natural) forces (of the universe) are (called) Angels.” 

ומה מאד רע עורון הסכלות ומה מאוד מזיק 

“How very evil is the blindness of ignorance, and how very damaging is it!” 

Rambam then, in the following statement, becomes facetious and most disrespectful of those “Sages of Israel” who allude to a belief in an almost creative power of the ‘Angels’: 

אילו אמרת לאיש אחד מאשר יחשבו שהם ׳חכמי ישראל׳ שהאלוה ישלח מלאך שיכנס בבטן האשה ויציר שם העובר ייטב לו זה מאוד ויקבלהו 

“If one were to say to a man who is considered to be among the ‘Sages of Israel’ that G-d sends an angel to enter the womb of a woman and to form a foetus he will be happy with this concept and accept it (as accurate).” 

ויראה זה עוצם ויכולת בחוק האלוה וחכמה ממנו ית׳ 

 “and he will see in this (statement) a depiction of the G-d’s greatness, strength and wisdom.” 

Rambam points out that such an individual will not notice an inherent inconsistency in such a belief, and if it is noticed, it will be put down to just another miracle: 

עם האמינו גם כן שה׳מלאך׳ גוף מאש שורפת שיעורו כשליש העולם כולו – ויראה זה כולו אפשר בחק האלוה 

“Even though he believes that (by his own definition) the Angel has a body which consists of burning fire, and its size is as large as third of the Universe, still, he will believe it possible as (the Angel simply carries out the) dictates of G-d (who so deems it).” 

Rambam then juxtaposes this highly imaginative belief with a simpler belief involving a natural development and process, and points out how the ’believer’ would shy away from a less miraculous explanation: 

אמנם אם תאמר לו שהאלוה שם בזרע כח מציר יעשה תמונת אלו האברים ויתארם והוא – ה׳מלאך׳ או ההצורות כולם מפעולת השכל הפועל והוא – ה׳מלאך׳ והוא – ׳שרו של עולם׳ אשר יזכרוהו ה׳חכמים׳ תמיד – יברח מזה כי לא יבין ענין זה העוצם והיכולת האמיתיים והוא – המצאת הכוחות הפועלות בדבר אשר לא יושגו בחוש 

“However, if you tell him that G-d placed within the seed a power to form a (human) shape with limbs, and that this energy is just called an ‘Angel,’… he will turn away from you because he cannot comprehend a subtle (non-angelic) creative power which he cannot see, active in a body...” 

Rambam finds some correspondence to his interpretation of ‘Angels’ as either cosmic, creative, natural forces or even human drives and energies, in other rabbinic writings, which he interprets according to his broader leaning. Here is one example of an “Angel” taking on the role of a more natural human energy, as opposed to a ‘supernatural spiritual being’ capable of miraculous feats. It is found in Bereishit Rabba (lxxxv): 

ושם נאמר בענין ׳יהודה ותמר׳: ״אמר ר׳ יוחנן ביקש לעבור וזימן לו הקב״ה מלאך שהוא ממונה על התאוה״ – רצונו לומר: כח הקושי – הנה כבר קרא הכח הזה גם כל ׳מלאך׳ 

“Regarding the (physical) relationship between (the biblical) Yehuda and (his daughter-in-law) Tamar: ‘R. Yochanan said that Yehuda was just intent on passing her by (although she was disguised at the roadside as a woman of ill-repute) but G-d prepared the angel of lust (to direct him otherwise).’ Now (even) this lustful energy is called an ‘Angel.’” 

Thus, in Maimonides’ view as found in his Moreh Nevuchim, ‘Angels’ as ‘beings’ in the classical, biblical, rabbinical and traditional sense do not exist. Instead, he is convinced that they are ‘natural’[1] energies of various sorts which all form part and parcel of the creation, maintenance and functioning of this material universe. Gravity, seasons, sunlight and the power to procreate are all examples of energies called ‘Angels.’


Further reading


Kotzk Blog: 104) PRAYING TO ANGELS?




[1] It must be pointed out that things do get a little more complicated, because in Moreh Nevuchim (2:7) Rambam adds a caveat: 

כבר בארנו, שיתוף שם ׳מלאך׳ ושהוא כולל השכלים והגלגלים והיסודות כי כולם עושים מצוה 

“We have already explained that the expression ‘Angel’ is a synonym used to describe the Inteligences and the spheres, and the elements because they all do what they are commanded to do (by G-d).” 

אבל לא תחשוב שהגלגלים או השכלים – כדמות שאר הכוחות הגשמיות, אשר הם טבע ולא ישיגו פעולתם 

“But do not think that these spheres and Intelligences are like other natural physical energies which function unaware of their actions.” 

אבל הגלגלים והשכלים משיגים פעולותיהם ובוחרים ומנהיגים 

“The spheres and Intelligences are conscious and select and control their activity.” 

והיות להם רצון ובחירה במה שהושפע להם מן ההנהגה כמו שיש לנו רצון במה שהושפע לנו 

“And they have free choice over where they exert their influence, just like we do…” 

ואין אצלם כי אם הטוב 

“Except their (choices are ultimately always) for the good.” 

הנה כבר התבאר לך כי אשר אמרו אריסטו גם כן בהיות הגלגל משיג מציר – מסכים לדברי נביאינו וחכמי תורתנו והם ה׳חכמים ז״ל׳ 

“The opinion of Aristotle, that the spheres are able to comprehend and conceive also corresponds to the words of our prophets and sages of the Torah…” (2:5,3). 

It is in this sense that we need to understand Rambam’s depiction of ‘Angels’ as ‘natural’ energies. The way I understand the “intelligence” of the forces of nature, is like a tree in a forest bending its way through the foliage, using its “intelligence” to find the sun. Rambam’s ‘Angels’ are, therefore, not blind mindless energies or forces of nature – but neither are they like the commonly and traditionally perceived ‘supernatural angelic beings’ usually associated in rabbinic literature with the word ‘Malach’ or ‘Angel.’ 

The following link to ‘Providence’ may explain Rambam’s understanding of the “intelligences” that take care of matter like “Hashgacha Kelalit”: Kotzk Blog: 097) 'A LEAF FALLS FROM A TREE' - ACCIDENT OR PROVIDENCE?



  1. So he did . And therefore ?
    WE have long been aware He had his areas, where he missed the boat, or was of inferior rank.
    We leave/have left those for eons already for inferior lesser breeds who are unable ,whether by ommision or commision, to muster past that bare value system
    WE,by and large, have silently move past that for eons & have had little necessity to broadcast it

  2. So how does the Rambam interpret "angels" that came to destroy Sodom? The "angel" that came to Manoach and wife?

    1. Ha'Rambam interpreted it as a dream. The issue arises how much was a dream? Just the angels pushing Lot and his family to flee but the actual destruction did occur? I guess we could understand Rambam viewing the account as Lot getting this strong unshakable feeling to flee but the towns people didn't surround his house and Lot urged his wife and daughters instead of the angels.

  3. Thanks for writing up this article! I was wondering how did Ha'Rambam interpret the angelic encounter Manoach and his wife experienced? A shared vision/dream?

  4. Thank you Dawidh. I'm hesitant to try explaining how Rambam interpreted such encounters without some textual support. I've learned that Rambam's thoughts are complicated and without really knowing the answer, I'd not want to second guess him. But I like your answer to Tomolak.