Project Genesis


Ghosts and Psychopomps

Question: I was reading about psychopomps, or ones that guide souls to heaven, and read that the only ones were Abraham, Sariel, Gabriel, Lailah, and either Elijah or Sandolphon. Three questions arose: 1)why are there ghosts if there are psychopomps (I know you can’t know for sure, I’d just like a rabbi’s/scholar’s serious opinion). 2)if there are billions of people, why are there so few psychopomps, and, together with the second, do you think some less religious Jews might be chosen by G-d to become psychopomps?

Answer: Thank you for your excellent question.

Jewish tradition attributes different roles to different angels, including in the realm of Psychopompistry. Among the persons you mentioned, the only one who is not an angel is Abraham.

Abraham’s Psychopomp role is to prevent any Jew from going to Gehinnom (temporary Hell). He stands at the gate of Gehinnom and keeps out any Jew who was properly circumcised and did not have relations with someone from another religion.

People rarely become angels. Two exceptions were Enoch, who became Metatron and Elijah who became Sandalphon. However, one Kabbalist Rabbi explained to me that we find reference to Metatron before the “taking” of Enoch to heaven. Thus, he said, Metatron is a type of Angel, which the human being Enoch transformed into when God took him to heaven. So, too, with Elijah into Sandalphon, who is the partner of Metatron.

Sandalphon is mentioned in the Sukkos Machzor as the angel who takes our prayer to Heaven. I have not found reference to his being a Psychopomp, but that doesn’t mean he is not.

Lailah is sort of a Psychopomp in reverse. This angel, whose name means “Night” is in charge of bringing souls to earth to be born.

I am not familiar with the roles of Sariel and Gabriel as Psychopomps. Gabriel’s name means “Strong one of God”. Sariel means “Prince of God”.

In any event, these angels are generally not recognized as individual beings, but rather a type or role that angels can fill. Thus there can be many angelic psychopomps, to accommodate people who die.

Another psychopomp mentioned in the Talmud is the Angel of Death, who is the same as the Satan and the Evil Urge, according to the Talmud. This can be explained that when the Evil Urge (Yetzer Hara) tempts one to sin, then the Satan (Accuser) brings the complaint to heaven. If the punishment deemed is death, then the Angel of Death (Malach HaMaves) carries this out. The Angel of Death is described in the Talmud as having many eyes, and having a fiery glow.

The reason there are still ghosts despite there being angels to bring us to Heaven (called Psychopomps in Greek), is because not all souls are worthy to go to Heaven, or even to Gehinnom on the way to Heaven. These souls may be so connected to the desires of this world, that they simply do not want to leave, so they stay here as ghosts. Sometimes (very, very rarely) these ghosts may possess a living person. This is called a dybbuk. This is a marked difference between the view of Judaism and other religions as far as possession and exorcism. Other religions speak of demonic possession. According to Judaism, demons do not have much interest in possessing a living person by entering into them and taking over their body. Instead they may feed off of people, but not possess them. This is because the lifestyle of human beings is much different in many ways than that of demons, thus they do not choose to possess people usually. On the other hand, disembodied human souls, or ghosts, desire strongly to relive the life of being in a human body, so are more interested in possessing living people. Thus the reason there are ghosts is because some people just don’t want to experience spiritual bliss, because they are so attached to earthly life, so they simply stay here and wander around. They often recognize the folly of their ways then, but it is too late, and they need to have a Tikkun (correction) made for them by someone who is still alive to attain redemption. This is also true for souls that may have been reincarnated into animals, plants, or inanimate object. A Tikkun can also be made for souls already in Heaven, as they are judged on a higher level each year so they can advance in their heavenly growth (and since they no longer have free will, we on earth can make the Tikkun for them). We can make a Tikkun for departed souls by doing Mitzvos (thus being a sort of living Psychopomp). The Kabbalists teach that when one recites the blessing over blooming fruit trees, which is recited once a year during the month of Nissan, we should pray that any souls stuck in that tree, or other trees and plants, should have a Tikkun. Similarly, it is customary to study Torah, especially Mishnah, light a candle or candles, and to recite brachos over foods on a Yahrtzeit to provide a Tikkun for the soul that is celebrating the Yahrtzeit.

The answer to the second question is that there are not necessarily so few psychopomps, as these names are not necessarily individuals, but rather types, of which there may be a high number of individual angels providing that task as needed, as sent by God.

The third question was addressed above, as the role of Psychopomp is mainly an angelic one, and not a human one, and that people who die do not become angels. (Those who were taken to heaven alive, like Elijah and Enoch, do become angels, but not people who die). However, I have heard stories that people can also serve part of the psychopomp role, whether being dead or alive. A major part of the traditional Jewish funeral rites have the people involved be sort of living psychopomps, to make sure the departed has a safe journey. We usually say that the soul remains close to the body until it is buried, and is not always immediately aware of their death, thus we are required to have respect when performing purification and burial rites, and avoid talking too much as so not to annoy the dead, who may try to talk back and be fustrated that they cannot be heard.

There is no such thing a Jew who believes in the Torah as true being less or more religious. Nobody is perfect, and Hashem understands our faults, and He forgives us as long as we repent, and do not insist that we are right if we do something He says is wrong according to the Torah. It is our job to learn as much as we can, and try our best to live up to the Torah, and not to justify our own sins, but rather to humbly admit them to God and ask Him to help us to be better. Every Jew has tremendous spiritual powers, and the Torah is our guide to actualize them. When we do any mitzvah we accomplish huge spiritual acts, helping to fix both the spiritual and physical world.

Rabbi Joe Kolakowski
Richmond, VA

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