Vayechi: Hamalach Hagoeil: Halachic Issues I
“May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the lads.” (Genesis 48:16) The Gaonim, like the sages of the Talmud, never questioned the belief in angels. The Karaites were critical of the Rabbinic view that man can turn to angels to bring his petitions before God. A question addressed to the Gaon of Pumbedita by the sages of Kairouan in Tunisia in the year 992 concerns the role of angels in this matter. The Talmud (Shabbat 12b) tells of Rabbi Eliezer who would say to a sick person: “May God visit you in peace,” which he would say either in Hebrew or Aramaic. The Talmud objects: Rabbi Yehudah said that a man should never petition for his needs in Aramaic, and Rabbi Yochanan said, “When a man petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not heed him, for they do not understand Aramaic., and they cannot, therefore bring his prayers to God.” To this the Talmud replies that the case of a sick person is different because the Shechinah, the Divine presence, is with him – He does not require the mediation of the angels.
The Karirouan sages concluded that, with the exception of prayers for a sick person, prayers must not be recited in Aramaic.
But, they asked, why are many of the prayers composed by the ancients and still recited at Sura and Pumbedita, from where they have spread to other parts of the world, in Aramaic?
It might have benn argued that during the Ten Days of Repentance the Shechina is near and it is akin to the instance of the sick person; but as a matter of fact Aramaic prayers are regularly recited on other days as well as these – on public fast-days, for example. Moreover, the majority of the Gaonic compositions for both public and private worship are in Aramaic.
The Gaon first defends the practice of man’s entreating angels to do his behest and sees no objection to it. (Rav Yaakov Anatoli, in his Malmad HaTalmidim, page 68a, finds the practice condemned by the second of the Ten Statements.) This does not constitute any worship of the angels. It is simply that the angels are permitted to carry out some of man’s wishes without having first to obtain permission from God. An example of this is provided by the angel who did as Lot asked him. (See Genesis 19:21) It is only to this type of request, directed to the angels, that the Rabbis refer when they say that a man must not use Aramaic.
When the Talmud states that the sick person is different because the Shechina is with him, the meaning is that here the angels can do nothing without obtaining permission from God.
The Gaon concludes by saying that since some of the Talmudic Rabbis themselves reject the view that the angels do not know Aramaic, we too, are justified in rejecting it.