[Note: The below is for information purposes only, as is everything on this site. The decision to act upon any of it or not is the personal decision of the reader and any details regarding the observance of any halakhah – especially those laws which are intricate, complicated, and/or severe – should be discussed with a competent rav.]
Learning through the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam, one will soon reach the seventh chapter of Hilkhoth Tefiyllah. The main subject of this chapter is the order and number of daily berakhoth and the general structure of the three daily prayers. However, in the fifth halakhah one encounters something apparently difficult in light of the general approach of the Rambam – a recitation that sounds very much like an entreaty or prayer to “angels.” The recitation is as follows:
וכל זמן שייכנס אדם לבית הכיסא אומר קודם שייכנס התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון שמרוני עד שאיכנס ואצא כי זה דרכן של בני אדם
“Each time that one enters the bathroom (beyth ha-kisse’), he says just before entering, ‘Be honored, O honored holy ones, servants of the Most High, guard me until I both enter and exit, for this is the way of human beings.'”
This version of the recitation is essentially the one that is found in the Talmudh Bavliy, but there are other versions. For instance, in the siddur of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon (p. 88) the text, mostly identical to that of the Rambam, differs slighty:
התכבדו מכובדים קדושים משרתי עליון עמדו במקומכם והזהרו בי שזו דרכן שלבני אדם
“Be honored, O honored holy ones, servants of the Most High, stand in your place and beware of me, for this is the way of human beings.”
[It is likely that the phrase in the text of the Rambam “shimruniy – guard me” (שמרוני) is not actually a request to guard the one saying it, but should be understood as a terse form of that which is in the text of Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, i.e. a warning that the “angels” should not follow the person into the place of uncleanness due to base human functions. At least, this is how I imagine that the Rambam understood it. In the intensely mystical Sassanian (Persian) environment of the Babylonian hakhamiym, it is likely that they did intend to entreat angels to guard them against “demons” or negative forces that they believed to be present in unclean places such as the bathroom. It is interesting to note that in some manuscripts of the Mishnah Torah the word המתינו (hamtiynu – “wait for me”) is found in place of שמרוני.]
Personally, as with most things, I believe that the original intention of this recitation is expressed in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy. The hakhamiym of Eress Yisra’el were generally more rational and divorced from superstition. There are several possible reasons for this, but in my opinion it is due to being surrounded by overtly idolatrous polytheism and their seeking to separate fully from it – seeing it for what it is – as opposed to the Zoroastrian culture which maintained an approximation to “monotheism” although not in pure form, the its abstract ideas being more subtle in their error than the concrete rituals of the Romans. As such, the popular astrological wisdom and superstitions regarding numbers and orientations of objects that was widespread in that part of the world – being unconnected with the worship of statues and various gods – had the appearance of wisdom and what we might call today “scientific knowledge” which was likely the basis that the hakhmey bavel allowed themselves to accommodate them. This can be understood similarly to how the halakhah requires that one rely on common medical knowledge to make determinations about when to profane the Shabbath for the sake of preserving life. Later readers and students of the Talmudh Bavliy, among both the Geoniym and the Rishoniym, tended to move the text away from such a context, alternately ignoring and/or reinterpreting the meaning of such statements, and many times choosing to base themselves on the more sensible (read, “less mystically-charged”) Talmudh Yerushalmiy.
However some of the Geoniym, most famously Rabbenu Hananel, began to learn the sughyoth of each Talmudh in a side-by-side comparative fashion, coming to conclusions on the meaning of the Mishnayoth on the basis of this type of contrastive study. It is likely that the Rambam also engaged in a similar type of study, as did Rav Sa`adyah Gaon, judging from their writings and halakhic rulings in various places which adopt the position of the Yerushalmiy over that of the Bavliy. This, despite the fact that the Bavliy was considered the more normative source of practical Jewish law. In a contemporary context, Rav David Bar-Hayyim יצ”ו of Makhon Shilo regularly holds classes wherein he has revived this method of study and pesaq, his close students referring to it as the “Bar-Hayyim method.” Even in the writings of Rav Hayye Gaon, there was at times a tendency to mention the halakhic practices of the yeshivoth of Eress Yisra’el with a tolerant attitude, even to the point of stating that although such was not the practice in Bavel, it was nevertheless acceptable to comport oneself according to their practices, should one personally elect to do so (cf. Ramban on b.Niddah 51b in reference to y.Berakhoth 2:3). This open attitude on the part of the Geoniym (and particularly Rav Hayye) speaks volumes with regard to the meqoriy understanding of regional mihaghiym, the elucidation of which is perhaps for another post.
The version preserved in the Talmudh Yerushalmiy is:
נכנס לבית הכסא מברך שתים אחת בכניסתו ואחת ביציאתו בכניסתו מהו אומר כבוד לכם המכובדים משרתי קודש דרך ארץ הוא פנו דרך ברוך האל הכבוד כשהוא יוצא מהו אומר ברוך אשר יצר את האדם בחכמה
“One who enters the bathroom (beyth ha-kisse’) makes the blesses twice; once on the occasion of his entering and one on the occasion of his exiting. On entering, what does he say? ‘Honor to you, O the honored ones, servants of the Holy One, this is the way of the world, turn to your path. Blessed is the honorable God.’ When he exits, what does he say, ‘Blessed [are you, HaShem Eloheynu, King of the universe,] who formed the man with wisdom.'”
In this version, the “angels” are simply enjoined not to follow, as if the one entering the bathroom is merely taking a respectful leave of their presence. It also lacks an entreaty of any kind, whether for protection or for them to “wait.”
Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, in his commentary to Hilkhoth Tefiyllah 7:5, seems to prefer the version of the Yerushalmiy since it is obviously less problematic in its phrasing. Rav Qafih there [הערה יז], after commenting on the problems of adulteration to the printed texts of the Gemara and the Rambam (as opposed to the uncensored handwritten manuscripts), quotes the Yerushalmiy and then writes, ונאה ויאה בהתאם למטרה (“…and [this version] is pleasing and befitting in accordance with the goal [of saying it in the first place].”) However, as we shall see, the Rambam did not consider it problematic because of his rational meqoriy understanding of who or what these “angels” truly are and the overall function of the recitation (referred to by the Yerushalmiy as a “blessing”) in the first place.
Never did the Rambam understand this declaration as a “prayer,” nor at any time did he deem requests or favors as permissible when asked of mal’akhiym (“angels”). In the fifth of his thirteen foundations (note: יסודות not עיקרים) of Jewish faith, the Rambam states emphatically that
The fifth foundation [of faith] is that God, blessed be he, is worthy that we serve him, to glorify him, to make known his greatness, and to perform his commandments, but not to do this to those that are below him, that is, in the creation. Not to the angels, or to the stars, or the planets – or anything else – for they are all created things in nature and in their function, there is no volition or judgment [of their function] except by God himself. It is also not fitting to serve them as intermediaries to God. Only to God should you incline your thoughts and your actions. This is the fifth principle and it warns against `avodhah zarah (idolatry) and most of the Torah speaks out against this.
From here it is clear as to what the exact position of the Rambam was regarding the concept of entreating entities other than God himself. He forbade it completely and considered it to be completely outside the realm of proper monotheistic faith. But with all of the other adjustments in the Mishneh Torah that the Rambam makes in order to present the halakhah in a way that is free from superstitious concerns, why did he not simply leave out this recitation before entering the bathroom? Did the Rambam indeed codify a prayer to angels?
No, he did not.
In an article by Rabbi Dr. Hananel Sari (Shevat 5773) written for the monthly newsletter of the organizations Makhon Mosheh and Halikhoth `Am Yisra’el entitled Or HeHalikhoth, the position of the Rambam from his own writings is explained as regards the nature of mal’akhiym and specifically the purpose and identity those that are constantly referred to by Hazal as accompanying each individual (cf. b.Ta`aniyth 11a).
The following is my translation of the article by Rabbi Dr. Sari:
…The mal’akhey ha-shareyth that the Gemara describes, such as that they accompany a person home from the beyth kenesseth on Shabbath, appear to be the same mal’akhiym that are mentioned in other places in the sayings of Hazal. They testify to the deeds of a person if he acts in a way that is not appropriate (cf. Ta`aniyth 11a), and it seems that a person is supposed to separate and take leave of them by reciting various apologies before they enter to perform their needs (i.e. use the bathroom – cf. b.Berakhoth 60b).
The Shulhan Arukh writes that today we no longer have the custom to say this apology, called hithkhabdu mekhubadim (“Be honored, O honored ones…” cf. Orah Hayyim 3:1), since we are not so strong in our yirath shamayyim (“fear of Heaven”) that mal’akhiym accompany us (cf. Mishnah Berurah). In the halakhic work Kaf HaHayyim an opinion is brought in opposition to this that there are mequbaliym who recommend to say it also in our times, since these mal’akhiym continue to accompany each person also today. This mahloqeth, whether mal’akhiym still accompany people in our generation or not and if it is feasible to turn to them (for they comment on their observation that reciting this passage accomplishes not only positive assistance to those who say it, but it is also an important part of promoting a more meticulous inspection of our deeds), these issues are debated due to a conception of mal’akhiym which is far removed from that of the Rambam.
In the Moreh Navokhiym (2:6, 3:22) the Rambam, in dealing with the explanation of the nature of mal’akhiym, mentions that the meaning of the “mal’akh” is not always consistent, however the basic meaning is always “shaliyah” (emissary). Because of this, each naviy is worthy of being called by this name and even the forces of nature through which the Holy One, blessed be he, manages His world, all of them are worthy to be called “mal’akhiym” and they are known as the pamalya shel ma`alah (i.e. the entourage of the Holy One, blessed be he). After this introduction, the Rambam brings a passage from Midrash Qoheleth that tells how when a person sleeps “nafsho omereth le-mal’akh umal’akh omer le-keruv – his soul speaks to the ‘angel’ and the angel speaks to the ‘cherub’.” And from here he learns that in the language of Hazal the creative faculty of a person is called a “mal’akh” (‘angel’) and his intelligence is called “keruv” (‘cherub’).
The Rambam knew that the majority of people were not accustomed to designating these parts of the soul as being mal’akhiym and would even resist accepting this fact. Therefore, he continues and says, “How important this is for the one who knows, and how ugly it is to those who are fools.” We find therefore who these mal’akhiym are according to the Rambam that accompany a person to every place that he goes, and it is clear now that in his opinion each person is accompanied by these two mal’akhiym also in our times. Now it only remains to clarify who is the “evil mal’akh” and who is the “good mal’akh.” The question is not so difficult, yet the Rambam also deals with this question, but in another chapter of the Moreh (2:12) – see there.
Making requests – either for intercession or favors – from objects or beings other than HaShem is a violation of the fifth foundation of Jewish faith and is the basis of all idolatry. Even nevi’iym who received their prophecies through the agency of a mal’akh didn’t ever make requests of them. Instead, they prayed directly to God and allowed God to use whatever means he deemed necessary to answer them.
This short recitation instituted by Hazal amounts to little more than a dual reminder to oneself while tending to regular bodily needs: (a) to hold off thinking holy and religiously-constructive thoughts while in the bathroom until we are finished and exit, and (b) that our intellects – our rational capacity (צלם א-להים sselem Elohiym)- are intensely powerful tools for serving the One and only Creator of the Universe, blessed is he.
So, we truly do have two angels sitting just above our shoulders. Now, that is something to think about.