Mysteries of the Angel Lailah


Before You Were Born retells the Jewish myth of Lailah, the angel of conception. According to this midrash, there is an angel, Lailah, who brings the soul and the seed together and then sees to it that the seed is planted in the womb. In doing so, Lailah serves as a midwife of souls. While the infant grows in the womb, Lailah places a lighted candle at the head of the unborn infant, so he or she can see from one end of the world to the other. So too does the angel teach the unborn child the entire Torah, as well as the history of his or her soul. Then, when the time comes for the child to be born, the angel extinguishes the light in the womb and brings forth the child into the world. And the instant the child emerges, the angel lightly strikes its finger to the child’s lip, as if to say “Shh,” and this causes the child to forget everything learned in the womb. Still, the story implies, that knowledge is present, merely forgotten, much like the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious.

This myth also explains the origin of the mysterious indentation every person has on their upper lip. The myth goes on to say that Lailah watches over the child all of his days, serving as a guardian angel. And when the time comes for a person to take leave of this world, Lailah leads him from this world to the next.

I first heard this intriguing tale from my mother when I was a child. I remember running my finger over my lip after hearing the story. It’s the only folktale I remember her telling me. At the time I didn’t realize it was a Jewish story. Many years later I learned that there is a brief reference to Lailah in the Talmud, where Rabbi Haninah says that “The name of the angel in charge of conception is Lailah” (BT Niddah 16b). But the full myth of Lailah is found in Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei 3, first published in Constantinople in 1522. This myth is a vivid example of how the oral tradition has remained alive in Judaism. Indeed, I have encountered many others who remember hearing this little mayseh when they were young.

As I began to explore Jewish folklore in the late 1970s, I discovered there were some very interesting aspects of the Lailah myth. The angel’s name means, of course, “night,” as in lailah tov, “good night.” This is a strange name for an angel. Almost all the other angels have names that end in “el,” God’s name, such as the archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. (Metatron, the heavenly scribe, who once was Enoch, is an exception.) Further, virtually all of the other angels have masculine names. Officially, angels are supposed to be sexless, but the array of masculine names suggests otherwise. This led me to wonder whether Lailah was a male or female angel. After all, Lailah is the angel of conception and all of the characteristics of this angel are related to some form of nurturing and therefore strongly suggest the feminine. It seemed to me that for these reasons and because Lailah is a feminine name, that Lailah was a female angel. However, I wasn’t able to prove this. Even Professor Dov Noy of Hebrew University, the world’s leading Jewish folklorist, was stumped by this question, as was Professor Marc Bregman of the University of North Carolina, the leading expert on Midrash Tanhuma. Both agreed that Lailah demonstrated distinct feminine qualities, but none had ever heard of a female angel.

Nevertheless, as far as I was concerned, Lailah’s name and role strongly implied a feminine role, whether or not this was explicitly acknowledged. And when I wrote Before You Were Born, I presented the story this way. Call it midrashic license. If anyone believes they can settle this question, please let me know.

There is another fascinating dimension of the myth of Lailah—the distinct parallels to the myth of Lilith. I had spent a great deal of time exploring the Lilith myth, especially in my book Lilith’s Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural. Lilith plays two mythic roles. In one she represents the incarnation of lust. In the other, she is a child-destroying witch who seeks to strangle infants, boys before the eighth days (i.e. before the Brit) and girls before the twentieth (or, some say, the thirtieth) day. Thus, while Lailah is a nurturing angel, Lilith is a destructive demoness. While Lailah protects the unborn child, Lilith seeks to strangle newborn infants. Clearly, they are polar opposites. So too are their names very close, and both are associated with night—Lilith is a night demoness and Lailah’s name means “night.” For all these reasons, I felt certain that Lailaih was indeed a female angel, even if this was never officially acknowledged. Like Lilith, she has been around a long time and, I suspect, she will live on in Jewish lore for a long time to come. I hope Before You Were Born will do its part in perpetuating this beautiful myth.

For more on the sources and background of the Lailah myth see Legends of the Jewsby Louis Ginzberg, note 20, vol. 5, pp. 75-78, as well as my book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, pp. 199-200.

Lailah tov.