Joseph Dan


A 1567 Oxford Ms. contains a collection of theological and esoteric works written by Rabbi Judah the Pious (died 1217), spiritual leader of the Ashkenazi Hasidic movement. "The Book of Angels" is one of the shorter treatises in this collection and the text is published here.

Rabbi Judah's discussion of the role of the angels is divided into two sections: the first deals with the functions of the angels in the created world, particularly as regarding human affairs; the second provides a detailed description of the roles of the archangels surrounding the "Throne of Glory" and the Holy Chariot.

In the first part, Rabbi Judah deals with the basic theological problems of divine providence. His belief in predestination and determinism is complete: no human being can do anything which is not decreed by God. The main duty of the multitude of angels in the created world is to carry out the divine decrees. According to his description, the angels do this by constantly exerting an influence over man's thoughts, guiding and moulding them so that every decision taken by man actually complies with divine intentions.

Such a concept necessarily raises the problem of free religious and ethical choice, as well as that of divine justice. Rabbi Judah confronts these problems in a radical and profound manner. There is no doubt, he states, that every person will be punished by God not only for his autonomous thoughts and actions, but also for every sin caused by ideas implanted into his mind by these angels. The justification for this attitude is that the decree itself is a result of a person's basic religious and moral inclinations: the angels cause him to act upon desires that are originally autonomous. According to this concept, there is a basic religious and moral standard within every person, which determines the sort of decrees and angels' thoughts which direct his actions. There is a suggestion, however, that there are some people who can overcome the divine decrees and drives implanted by the angels, achieving a supreme religious standard in spite of their pre-determined destiny. This idea, however, is not developed here, though it is found in other works by the Ashkenazi Hasidim.

The second part of the work concentrates on the roles of the archangels found surrounding the Throne of Glory and the Holy Chariot, especially as described in Biblical verses dealing with prophetic revelation. The most detailed section of this description discusses the allegory comparing the Holy Chariot to a nut. The various nuts and the composition of their respective kernels are here related to different parts of Ezekiel's revelation. This strange allegory, which probably originated in Jewish mystic circles of the Talmudic period, appears in several versions in Ashkenazi Hasidic literature.

This short treatise, closely related to the major works of the Ashkenazi Hasidic school, helps to clarify some important bibliographical and historical problems. A paragraph from the work was incorporated in the Sefer Hasidim, The Book of the Pious, a major accomplishment of this school in the field of ethics. It was probably included by the disciples of Rabbi Judah the Pious. There are close parallels between some parts of this book and the "Sodey Razaya", an extensive, five-volume theological work written by Rabbi Eleazar of Worms after the death of his teacher, Rabbi Judah. It seems that Rabbi Eleazar edited the works of his teacher, adding sub-titles, shortening many homilies, but in the main, presenting the reader with the basic teachings of Rabbi Judah. Thus, this treatise helps us discover Rabbi Judah's theology not only from his few surviving works, but also from the vast literary output of his disciples, written with the actual utilization of his writings.

Répertoire bibliographique / Bibliographic Repertory