But this, in turn, raises an additional question. Why would we invoke angels as mediators? Do we not address our prayers directly to G-d? Rashi (Shabbos 12b; also Sotah 33a, where our sugya is tangentially repeated) describes the angels as “bringing our prayers behind the Curtain,” or “delivering our prayers,” which offers us but a glimmer in the way of understanding this phenomenon.
We should note here that there is a clear difference between individual prayer (tefillat yachid) and communal prayer (tefillat hatzibur), as stated by the Gemara (Berachot 8a) quoting a verse from Job (36:5), “Hen Kel kabbir lo yim’as – G-d does not despise the prayer of a congregation.” The Gemara seems to indicate, based on this verse, that the prayers of a congregation are assured of delivery on high. Why is an individual’s prayer not treated likewise?
Discussing whether ministering angels indeed know the innermost thoughts of man, the Noam Elimelech (Parshat Be’ha’alotecha) suggests that the angels in charge of bringing our prayers to G-d have been given the ability to discern between prayers that are pure and those that are tainted with improper thoughts. How are they able to do that if they do not know the innermost thoughts of man? A man’s actions create an aura around him. While bad deeds produce a negative, repelling aura, good deeds create a fragrant emanation similar to incense. Likewise, pure prayers create a good aura and improper prayers produce a negative aura, enabling angels to recognize which prayers are worthy of being brought up to G-d. Thus, it is through man’s prayers that angels are capable of discerning whether man’s thoughts are good or bad.
While this somewhat clarifies how angels understand man’s inner thoughts, we still don’t understand why their detection of man’s thoughts doesn’t apply when people pray in Aramaic. The various interpretations offered result in different rulings among the poskim. The Rif states that tefillat yachid is permitted only in Hebrew, whereas the “chachmei Tzorfat” (the Sages of France) allow an individual to pray in any language, except when he is praying for his own needs. The Rosh opines that even personal requests can be made in languages other than Hebrew – with the exception of Aramaic.
Rabbenu Yona’s commentary on the Rif (7a) at the beginning of the second chapter of Berachot – parallel to the topic discussed in Shabbos 12b and Sotah 33a – furnishes us with the Scriptural source of the angels’ role in the purveyance of our prayers to G-d. It is written (Job 33:23), “Im yesh alav mal’ach meilitz echad mini alef – If there be for him an interceding angel, one of a thousand….”
Rabbenu Yona notes, however, that it is only the individual, not the congregation, who is in need of an interceding angel. This approach also offers us a better understanding of the Noam Elimelech’s interpretation of the angels’ role in regard to prayer, for they judge the validity of prayers on an individual basis and not in a congregational situation.
(To be continued)
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.