AskDefine | Define seraph

Dictionary Definition

seraph n : an angel of the first order; usually portrayed as the winged head of a child [also: seraphim (pl)]

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plural seraphim, from Latin seraphim, from Hebrew שרף (saraf) "seraph".


  1. In the context of "Biblical": A six winged angel; the highest choir or order of angels in Christian angelology, ranked above cherubim, and below God. A detailed description can be found at the beginning of Isaiah chapter 6


highest order of angels

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Extensive Definition

A seraph (Heb. שׂרף, pl. שׂרפים Seraphim, lat. seraph[us], pl. seraphi[m]) is one of a class of celestial beings mentioned once in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh or Old Testament), in Isaiah. Later Jewish imagery perceived them as having human form, and in that way they passed into the ranks of Christian angels. In the Christian angelic hierarchy, seraphim represent the highest known rank of angels.

Seraphim in Isaiah

Isaiah (6:1–3) records the prophet's vision of the Seraphim:
''"... I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the Hekhal (sanctuary). Above Him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew."''
In the vision the seraphim cry continually to each other, '"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory"' (vi.3). The "foundations of the thresholds" of the Temple were moved by the sound of their voices.
This is the sole occurrence of the word "seraphim" in the canonic Hebrew Bible as heavenly beings.
Seraph is translated "fiery flying serpent" from the Hebrew (it adheres with to burn to burn out) and is the word used for the serpents that bit the Israelites in the wilderness. Num. 21:6 "So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died."

Seraphim in Judaism

Seraphim are part of the angelarchy of Orthodox Judaism, and Isaiah's vision is repeated several times in daily Jewish services, including at Kedushah prayer added as part of the repetition of the Amidah and in several other prayers as well.
Seraphim occupy the fifth rank of ten ranks of angels in Maimonides' exposition of the Jewish angelic hierarchy.
Conservative Judaism retains the traditional belief in angels, including references in the liturgy, although a literal belief in angels is by no means universal among Conservative Jews.
Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism generally do not believe in angels, although they may retain references for metaphorical purposes.

Seraphim in Christianity

The Seraphim and the Cherubim are, in Christian theology, two separate types of angels. The descriptions of the Seraphim, Cherubim and Ophanim are often similar, but still distinguishable.

Seraphim in Christianity

In medieval Christian neo-Platonic theology, the Seraphim belong to the highest order, or angelic choir, of the hierarchy of angels. They are said to be the caretakers of God's throne, continuously singing Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, i. e. "holy, holy, holy"—cf. "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of His Glory" (Isaiah 6:3). This chanting is referred to as the Trisagion.
Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial Hierarchy (vii), helped fix the fiery nature of seraphim in the medieval imagination. It is here that the Seraphim are described as being concerned with keeping Divinity in perfect order, and not limited to chanting the trisagion. Taking his cue from writings in the Rabbinic tradition, he gave an etymology for the Seraphim as "those who kindle or make hot":
"The name seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness" (Celestial Hierarchy, vii)
St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae offers a description of the nature of the Seraphim:
"The name 'Seraphim' does not come from charity only, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius (Coel. Hier. vii) expounds the name 'Seraphim' according to the properties of fire, containing an excess of heat. Now in fire we may consider three things.
"First, the movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly towards God.
"Secondly, the active force which is 'heat,' which is not found in fire simply, but exists with a certain sharpness, as being of most penetrating action, and reaching even to the smallest things, and as it were, with superabundant fervor; whereby is signified the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat.
"Thirdly we consider in fire the quality of clarity, or brightness; which signifies that these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others."
With the revival of neo-Platonism in the academy formed around Lorenzo de' Medici, the seraphim took on a mystic role in Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man (1487), the epitome of Renaissance humanism. Pico took the fiery Seraphim—"they burn with the fire of charity"—as the highest models of human aspiration: "impatient of any second place, let us emulate dignity and glory. And, if we will it, we shall be inferior to them in nothing", the young Pico announced, in the first flush of optimistic confidence in the human capacity that is the coinage of the Renaissance. "In the light of intelligence, meditating upon the Creator in His work, and the work in its Creator, we shall be resplendent with the light of the Cherubim. If we burn with love for the Creator only, his consuming fire will quickly transform us into the flaming likeness of the Seraphim."
St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian who was a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas, uses the six wings of the seraph as an important analogical construct in his mystical work The Journey of the Mind to God.
Seraphim are also mentioned in the Book of Revelation to be forever in God's presence and praising Him constantly: "Day and night they never stop saying: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.'"
As they were developed in Christian theology, seraphim are beings of pure light and have direct communication with God. They resonate with the fire symbolically attached to both purification and love. The etymology of "seraphim" itself comes from the word saraph. Saraph in all its forms is used to connote a burning, fiery state. Seraphim, as classically depicted, can be identified by their having six wings radiating from the angel's face at the center.
seraph in Bulgarian: Серафим
seraph in Catalan: Serafí
seraph in Czech: Seraf
seraph in Danish: Seraf
seraph in German: Seraph
seraph in Modern Greek (1453-): Σεραφείμ
seraph in Spanish: Serafín
seraph in French: Séraphin (Bible)
seraph in Italian: Serafino
seraph in Hebrew: שרף (מלאך)
seraph in Latin: Seraphim
seraph in Lithuanian: Serafimas
seraph in Dutch: Serafijn
seraph in Japanese: 熾天使
seraph in Norwegian: Serafer
seraph in Norwegian Nynorsk: Serafar
seraph in Polish: Serafin (anioł)
seraph in Portuguese: Serafim
seraph in Russian: Серафимы
seraph in Slovak: Seraf
seraph in Finnish: Serafi
seraph in Swedish: Serafim
seraph in Chinese: 熾天使
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