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The Gemmorah in Moed Katan 17 says:

א"ר יוחנן... אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' יבקשו תורה מפיו
ואם לאו אל יבקשו תורה מפיו

Rabbi Yoḥanan said as follows: ... If the teacher is similar to an angel [malakh] of the Lord, then seek Torah from his mouth, etc

How does (should) an angel of Hashem look/behave that a Rabbi must resemble him?

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The prophet Zachariya (3,7), according to the Targums explanation, refers to angels as "those that stand by".

'Thus saith the LORD of hosts: If thou wilt walk in My ways, and if thou wilt keep My charge, and wilt also judge My house, and wilt also keep My courts, then I will give thee free access among these that stand by.

The accepted reason that angels are called "those that stand by" is because they are created at a specific spiritual level and have no way to climb higher, as apposed to us humans who's life mission is to reach higher and higher.

Rabbi Yoḥanan is teaching us that one should only learn from a Rabbi who is similar to an angel in this aspect, that he is willing to halt his own self-growth in order to allow his students to grow.

I heard this explanation from Rabbi Yehoshua Heshil Eichenstein Rosh Yeshiva of Yad Aharon some 20 odd years ago.

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In his diary entry for August 6th, 1754 R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai describes meeting R. Jacob Joshua Falk:

ותכף הלכתי לקבל פני הרב בעל פני יהושע הנז' ומראהו כמראה מלאך האלדים

I went immediately 'to receive the countenance' of the Rabbi, the author of P'nei Yehoshua aforem. 'And his appearance is as the appearance of an angel of the L-rd'!

(Cymerman translation)

Thus, to answer your question, an approximation of what an angel looks like is what R. Falk looked like. So if a rabbi looks like R. Falk, he should be okay.

  • אלדים is intended? – Dr. Shmuel Oct 17 at 2:50
  • @Dr.Shmuel That’s how it’s written in the sefer. – Alex Oct 17 at 2:56
  • Does "if a rabbi looks like R. Falk, he should be okay" really add anything to "if a rabbi looks like an angel, he should be okay"? In what way is it easier to compare people to what we know of Rabbi Falk's appearance than to what we know of angels' appearance? (Even if we do take this statement 100% literally, which I'm sure wasn't intended...) – b a Oct 17 at 14:44
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An answer may lie with interpretations of the phrase רבנן...דמצייני כמלאכי השרת רבנן found in Nedarim 20a.

Furthermore, see Maharal, Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Haemes 3:3:

כי אין התורה בארץ רק שהאדם שיש בו התורה נחשב בשמים מצד התורה שהיא מן העליונים, ומפני כך אמרו בכל מקום (נדרים כ', ב') מאן מלאכי רבנן שבשביל התורה שיש עמהם אשר התורה היא מן השמים נחשבו רבנן מלאכים.

It is not that the Torah is here on earth, rather that one who is here on earth with Torah in him is as if he is elevated to the heavens, for the Torah is from the upper heavenly realms. This is why it is frequently stated ‘who are angles? Rabbis!’, since they have acquired Torah knowledge, which is from the heavens, they are considered like angles.

Thus, instead of figuring out if the teacher is similar to an angel, perhaps discern if an angel is similar to him — and through that one can certainly be successful.

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This question was answered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, you can watch the full content here with English subtitles, worthwhile to listen to the entire explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVFXZK6LDb8

Summary of the answer -

Torah instructs: "Provide yourself with a mentor." But how does one know who to choose as a spiritual guide? The Talmud Tractate Berachos teaches: "A mentor must be like an angel of G-d". In his code of Jewish law, Maimonides offers a clue to the conduct of an angel: He describes the future world, "when there will be no envy, rivalry, war or hatred," and concludes: "At that time the righteous will resemble the Ministering Angels." So to resemble an angel of G-d means, to be free of the corruptions of one's body. The Talmud Tractate Yevamos also offers insight: "There are three identifying signs of a Jew: He is modest, compassionate, and giving." Observe whether the potential mentor has these selfless qualities. If he does, one may confidently turn to him for spiritual direction and life-guidance.

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