Angels and Agents
A “messenger of
Radak in Sefer HaShorashim writes that the root of the word malach is LAMMED-ALEPH-CHAF and that the letter MEM at the beginning of the word is not part of the root. This understanding is somewhat perplexing because there is no other Hebrew word with such a root. Nonetheless, archeology has proven Radak correct. Texts found at the site of the ancient city Ugarit (in modern-day Lebanon) are written in a Semitic language (known by linguists as Ugaritic) that closely resembles Hebrew. In that language the root of the verb for “sending” is not SHIN-LAMED-CHET (e.g., shlach) like it is in Hebrew, but the root is LAMMED-ALEPH-CHAF, the exact root which Radak claims is at the heart of the word malach!
In an approach similar to Radak’s, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the root of the word malach is LAMMED-CHAF — lech, “go”. According to these understandings, the difference between malach and shaliach is not really in the roots of the words, because “go” and “send” are essentially the same. The difference, then, must lie in the nature of the mission on which the messenger is sent.
To this effect, both Rabbi Pappenheim and the Malbim explain that the word malach is only used to denote an agent charged with doing the type of mission which the sender would do himself. It is not necessarily a sign of subservience to be a malach. The malach is sent only on prestigious assignments and, in a way, attains a position of honor. The Malbim adds that a malach is not required to report back to whoever sent him.
Based on this primary meaning of the term, malach is also applied to angels whom
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that the word malach is related to the Hebrew word malachah (“creative labor”) because a malach is an agent — whether angelic or not — who carries out a certain task on one’s behalf. Though the comparison between these two words is not readily understood, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) offers a penetrating insight: The word malachah denotes the thinking man’s ability to bring his ideas into reality through creative work, while malach is the personification of the thinking man’s ability to use a proxy to realize his ideas. He also writes that the word malach sometimes refers directly to
Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum of Lissa (1760-1832) explains that a shaliach is somebody who is given a choice about whether or not he will accept his mission and — should he choose to accept it — when he executes his mission he is acting of his own volition. Sometimes,
Another, less common, word which appears to be synonymous with shaliach is tzir. This word appears fewer than ten times in the Bible. The Vilna Gaon (in his commentary to Proverbs 13:17) implies that a tzir is specifically an agent who had been used many times (e.g., a professional courier), thus slightly differentiating between that word and shaliach. The truth is that the word tzir is always used to refer to a messenger in a diplomatic setting (e.g., an envoy, ambassador, or attaché). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word tzir refers to the idea of attaching distant (political) entities. He finds other examples of words related to tzir that refer to the concept of connection. The Malbim explains that a tzir is a messenger whose job is not simply to relay a message for his dispatcher, but also to report back to him.
In Aramaic, there are two words that mean “sending”: shagar (whose primary meaning seems to be “flow”) and shadar. The Modern Hebrew word shagrir (“ambassador”) is derived from the word shagar. Shadar entered the Hebrew vernacular in a conceptually-related way as a contraction of the phrase, shaliach de’rabanan (“emissary of the rabbis”). That term was used to describe rabbinic envoys charged with collecting charitable donations on behalf of public institutions. In Modern Hebrew the word shadar means to broadcast a message in the context of radio and/or television.
- L'Ilyu Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir