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Angel of Death

ANGEL OF DEATH (Heb. מַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת, malakh ha-mavet). The polytheistic concept of a specific deity of *death who is responsible for the origin and constant occurrence of death on earth (cf. the Canaanite idea of the god Moth) was rejected by Jewish monotheism. According to the Bible, God is the master of death and of life. The origin of death is motivated not by the actions of an anti-human supernatural being, but through man's own sin (cf. the formulation of Adam's punishment in Gen. 3:22–23). Death, however, is often personified in the Bible; the fact that he has emissaries and a host of angels alludes to his independence of God (cf. Prov. 16:14; Hos. 13:14). These allegorical notions, probably survivals of a polytheistic influence on the Bible, are dominated by the more pervasive concept that only God possesses the power to return mortal man to dust (cf. Job 10:9). This power He delegates to a "messenger" (malakh), one of His many angel servants. A cruel snatcher of souls, the "Angel of the Lord" who "smites" and "destroys" human beings (cf. II Sam. 24:16; Isa. 37:36) is called the destroyer (Ex. 12:23; II Sam. 24:16) and is described as standing between earth and heaven, with a drawn sword in his hand (I Chron. 21:15–16). The Bible only refers to a temporary messenger and the instances in the Bible in which death is personified (Prov. 16:14; 17:11; 30:12; Ps. 49:15; 91:3; Job. 18:14) do not point to a constant sacred power or to a permanent angel whose function it is to terminate life on earth.

Only in post-biblical times did the concept of an Angel of Death who acted independently emerge. In popular belief, he was conceived as an amalgam of forms and concepts which had their biblical associations with death, cruelty, and wretchedness. The Angel of Death was also identified with the horrifying and dreadful ogres and demons described in the oral tradition, in the literature of the ancient Near East, and in the literatures of medieval Europe ("devil" and "Satan"). An active supernatural being, interested not only in fulfilling God's orders, but also on his own initiative, in fighting, harming, and destroying man, the Angel of Death is identified in the Talmud (BB 16a) with *Satan ("Samael") and with yeẓer haraʿ ("evil inclination"). He symbolizes the demoniac forces, which were responsible for Adam's fall and which continue to fight his descendants.

In folklore, the Angel of Death is described allegorically: He is full of eyes (nothing escapes him), a diligent reaper (cf. Jer. 9:20), an old man holding a sword dripping poison into the mouths of mortals, etc. (cf. Av. Zar. 20b; Ar. 7a). But mostly he appears disguised as "a fugitive and wanderer" (cf. Gen. 4:12 on Cain, the first being to take another man's life), a beggar, a peddler, and an Arab nomad. Since the Angel of Death is only a messenger in Jewish tradition, his powers are limited and depend on his master's (God's) decrees and orders. Thus there are remedies to overcome the Angel of Death and weapons against him. In general folk literature, the combatants of death endeavor to find the "herb of life" (cf. the Gilgamesh epics), or go in quest of magic means to attain *immortality. In normative Jewish legends, the study of the Torah, or some exceptional act of piety or benevolence, replaces the magic weapons generally used against death (cf. the folk exegesis on Prov. 10:2; 11:4 – Charity delivers from Death). There are, therefore, many heroes, most of them biblical, who defeated the Angel of Death with their efficacious prayer, constant study, and outstanding acts of charity for a short or longer period. In the numerous versions of the legend about the death of *Moses (Midrash Petirat Moshe), Moses succeeds in chastising Samael who comes to fetch his soul. Only God's promise that He Himself would take the soul induces Moses to lay down his staff with the engraved Ineffable Name which had made the Angel of Death flee in terror. One of the post-biblical heroes who defeated the Angel of Death was R. *Joshua b. Levi. He seized the slaughtering knife and even came close to abolishing death forever. Only God's intervention brought about the sage's surrender (Ket. 776).

Several of the animals that achieved immortality, among them the milḥas or ziz birds (aggadic equivalents of the phoenix), as well as many of the persons who entered Paradise alive, "without tasting death" (cf. Ginzberg, Legends, 5 (1925), 96), reached their goal after a successful confrontation with the Angel of Death. The confrontation of mortals with the Angel of Death is a theme prevalent in folk literature and in popular traditions. The three main types of narrative in which the motif is found reflect man's ambivalent attitude toward death:

(1) Where the Angel of Death is defeated, mainly by means of deception. Legends of this kind have mostly a humorous tone, as the cheated and fooled Angel of Death is a grotesque and stupid character. Man's victory reflects his wishful thinking and longing to alter his mortal fate, or at least to postpone his time of death. The heavenly decree of death and the determination of each man's span of life are, indeed, irrevocable; since the executor, however, is not God Himself, the possibility exists to escape the messenger and to extend at least the span of life, if immortality in life itself cannot be attained. This narrative is associated with many motifs found in the universal tales of the "stupid ogre" and the "beaten devil." The Angel of Death is tricked into missing the right moment for taking the soul. He is fooled by the change of the doomed mortal's name (a tale still found in current folk literature in all Jewish communities); fails to identify the man whose soul he is supposed to fetch; marries a termagant who torments him and is at a loss to comprehend the queer conduct of Jews, etc. Already at creation the Angel of Death is cheated by the fox and the weasel: he thinks their reflections which he sees in the sea to be them. This fable in the Alphabet of *Ben Sira, which is similar to Far Eastern tales that originated in India, has been the subject of much comparative research and investigation.

(2) The cruel and stubborn Angel of Death as hero of tales of horror and magic. In this narrative, mortals upon meeting the terrible Angel of Death accept his authority submissively with their heart full of fear. In the Talmud, R. Naḥman is reported as having said: "Even if the Almighty were to order me back upon earth to live my life all over again, I would refuse because of horror of the Angel of Death" (MK 28a; see Rashi ibid.). In this narrative, the Angel of Death cannot be induced to swerve from his course; he is also the source of magic knowledge, including medicine. In the stories belonging to this type of narrative, the Angel of Death is a physician of excellent repute (or an assistant to a physician). He controls sickness, diseases, and plagues (his messengers). Sly, he takes man's life prematurely, frightens and harms people, and is merciless and brutal. In the Book of Jubilees (10:1–13), Noah prays that the wicked spirits will not destroy him and his sons, and God answers his prayer. However, He allows only one tenth of the "malignant ones" to remain, ruling that Noah be taught all of the medicines for their diseases so that he might cure them with herbs.

(3) The compassionate Angel of Death is the outgrowth of man's optimism and wishful thinking. In this narrative the Angel of Death, though inherently cruel, can be moved to mercy and concession by a mortal's exceptional deed. The narrative includes the numerous Jewish versions of the Greek Alcestis (Indian Savitri) motif (cf. A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 5 (19382), 152–4) where the wife offers the Angel of Death her own life as substitute for that of her husband or fiancé. In one of the versions (cf. M. Gaster, The Exempla of the Rabbis (19682), no. 139), the Angel of Death, seeing the devotion and readiness of self-sacrifice of the bride of Reuben the Scribe's son (after his parents had refused to serve as substitute), sheds a "tear of mercy." The Almighty then grants the couple 70 additional years of life, proclaiming: "If he who cruelly kills souls [i.e., the Angel of Death] has been filled with mercy for them, shall not I who am 'merciful and gracious' [Ex. 34:6] show compassion toward them?" To this narrative belong also the stories of the helpful Angel of Death who rewards a benevolent man, consoles people after a disaster, etc.

In most of the legends in the three types of narratives, the encounter between the mortal and the Angel of Death takes place on the mortal's wedding night when either bride or bridegroom is doomed to die and opposes the executor. The evil demon Asmodeus (or Ashmedai) slays the seven husbands of Sarah so that she can become a wife to Tobias, in the apocryphal book of Tobit (3:8, 17). In another post-biblical work, the Testament of Solomon, Asmodeus informs the king that his object is to plot against the newly married and bring calamities upon them. Solomon learns how to subdue him (as in Tobit 8:2) and harnesses him for work in the building of the Temple. Jewish preachers and storytellers associated either the defeat or the concession of the Angel of Death, occurring specifically on that occasion, not only with the "wedding versus death" motif which intensifies the contrast in the narrative but also with the biblical prophecy, "And then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together, for I will turn their mourning into joy" (Jer. 31:12). Homiletic interpretation of this verse could easily associate it with the motifs extant in the "Angel of Death at the wedding" stories. The motif of a young girl unsuccessfully imploring the Angel of Death (an aged, white-haired gentleman) not to take her life is very common in Yiddish folk ballads (cf. N. Priluzki, Yidishe Folkslider, 2 (1913), 1–42: Songs and Tales of Death). Unlike the folktales, the ballads end tragically.

The Angel of Death played also an important role in the Jewish dance of death, where he capered with sinners (mostly misers) of all classes and professions. His movements, mostly grotesque, as was the whole dance (performed by wandering troupes of paupers), highlighted the feeling of "memento mori" (cf. Ecclus. 7:38). The performances given mostly on festive and gay occasions (weddings, Purim meals, etc.) offset the surrounding glamour, joy, and splendor. The dancing Angel of Death often recited or sang; in his song he stressed the vanity of mortal and perishable values and contrasted them to everlasting and immortal merits and piety.

In many of the Jewish folk customs related to death, *burial, *mourning, and folk medicine, the traditional acts are directed against the unseen source of the disaster, the Angel of Death. Practices which do not seem to bear a direct affinity to the Angel of Death (closing the eyes of the dead, pouring out the water in a house where death had occurred, breaking pots, mourners' meals, narrating *theodicy folktales, etc.) go back to old folk beliefs in which the Angel of Death, or demons affiliated with him, played a dominant role. Most of these beliefs are no longer current. A comparison of past and present mortuary and funeral customs, traditions, and beliefs in Eastern and Western Jewish communities and those in the culture areas of these communities can contribute toward a reconstruction of the original affinities between belief and rites with regard to the Angel of Death.

The impersonation of the Angel of Death led to the extension of his traits and characteristics to the members of his family and servants etc. Indeed, in Jewish-Islamic folk legends, Azrail (the name of the angel who removes the soul from the dying body) is married, has children, sends emissaries (diseases, old age), etc. This also holds true for Samael in East Europe who is often identified with the Angel of Death himself. He is married to *Lilith, who, beside her Satanic functions of luring and seducing men, also performs duties on behalf of her husband, the Angel of Death: she kills babies, harms pregnant women and those giving birth, etc. She fights life and human attempts to continue its successive chain in the same way as the Angel of Death. In many folktales, the Angel of Death is tormented by his wife (cf. Eccles. 7:26; where "death" became personified), his sons often suffer (one of them usually accepts his father's advice and becomes a physician), and all the family members suffer from various disasters and calamities. The motifs in these tales are mainly man's revenge on the Angel of Death and the consolation that man finds in this revenge; the concept being that as long as man has no other means to overcome his eternal and, in the end, always successful adversary, his only way out is through ridicule and irony.


C. Barth, Die Errettung vom Tode (1947); Key, in: JBR, 32 (1964), 239–47; J. Zandee, Death as an Enemy (1960); Ginzberg, Legends, 7 (1938), 31; J. Rabbinowicz, Der Todtenkultus bei den Juden (1898); JQR, 12 (1899/1900), 20; J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition (1961), 335; T.H. Gaster, The Holy and the Profane (1955), 242–7; H. Chayes, in: YIVO, Filologishe Shriftn, 2 (1928), 281–328; Zelkovitsh, in: Lodzher Visnshaftlekhe Shriftn, 1 (1938), 149–90; D. Noy, in: Haifa Yorbukh, 5 (1969), 177–224; Schwarzbaum, Studies in Jewish and World Folklore (1968), 430, 501–2; E.R. Lange, Sterben und Begraebnis im Volksglauben zwischen Weichsel und Memel (1955); S. Thompson, Motif Index of Folk Literature, 6 vols. (1955–58), D 1725, F 833, R 185, Z 111.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.