The History of the Golem
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-29
The golem, perhaps the best known of the Jewish legends, is an automaton, typically humanoid and typically male, created as the result of an intense, systematic, mystical meditation. The word golem means (or implies) something unformed and imperfect, or a body without a soul. The word appears only once in the Bible, in Psalms 139:15-16.
The best-known tales of the golem concern one Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Marharal of Prague (c. 1513-1609), who created the mythical being to protect the Jews from blood libels and plots often instigated by the priest Thaddeus. (A blood libel is a false accusation of murder against the Jews involving the supposed use of a Christian vitim's blood in their rituals, particularly the baking of Passover matzoh.) This story, in all of its variaions, may be one most people familiar with. But quite a number of Kabbalists, both practical and theoretical, have discussed the golem, from the Talmudic era on, in both physical and purely mystical contexts.
Early History: The Golem and Sefer Yetzitah
Stories of artificial creations made by Jewish sages appear very early, during the Talmudic era (prior to 500 C.E.). In theological discussions, Adam is described as a golem during the time of his formation, but prior to God breathing life and (more importantly) soul into him.
The earliest written story of such a creature occurs in the Babylonian Talmud, in Sanhedrin 65b:
Rava said: "If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written: 'Your inequities are a barrier between you and your God.'" For Rava created a man and sent him to R[abbi] Zeira. The rabbi spoke to him [the man] but he did not answer. Then he [Zeira] said: "You are from the pietists. Return to your dust."
Translation: Moshe Idel
By another early account Rava and Rabbi Zeira, through their meditations, created a calf, which they then slaughtered and ate; in another variant, Rabbis Khanina and Hoshaya did the same, just before each Sabbath.
The power of the written word, Torah, Hebrew alphabet, and the Names of God were well-known to these people, and it was believed that the secrets of the universe were locked within them. These hidden knowledges included the power of creation. Those who wished to study this sort of thing had a handbook: the Sefer Yetzira, the Book of Creation.
The golem and its creation not explicitly mentioned or discussed in the Sefer Yetzira, yet this small volume is of immense importance to the Kabbalists (theoretical and practical), and it sets up the framework which makes the idea and potential of a golem possible.
Written between the third and six centuries,Sefer Yetzira is a short, enigmatic book which proposes to explain God's creation of the universe, including the construction of the world and cosmos, by means of the Sefirot (divine emanations) and Hebrew alphabet. Letters are divided up into categories which parallel elements, seasons, parts of the body, heavens, etc., the premise being that the combinations of these letters and the Divine Name form the structure of all things, good and evil. In a sense, it suggests a divine periodic table or divine atoms. Theoretically, one who understands the means may then apply them to their own creative ends. It was by meditating on Sefer Yetzira (for up to three years, by a number of accounts), that pious mystics like Rava were able to create their own creatures.
Many translations of and commentaries on the Sefer Yetzira exist, from ancient times to modern. Since a full discussion of it is currently outside the scope of this site, I suggest referring to Gershom Sholem for commentary and history, and for a translation with commentary, Aryeh Kaplan.
Where the creation of a golem is concerned, mystics based their techniques on their own interpretations of the book.
The golem has been a popular subject in literature, appearing in many folktales, novels, children's books, and plays. It has inspired music, plays, and movies. It was even the subject of a tragic and creepy episode of "The X Files." (In which a librarian tells Agent Mulder, incorrectly, that the Sefer Yetzira discusses the golem and how to create one.)
The tales concerning Rabbi Loew of Prague did not become popular until the eighteenth century. How much the stories we know "belong" to him is a matter of some debate. Loew did comment on Sefer Yetzira and the story of Rava's created man, and had an audience with Emperor Rudolf II. His son-in-law Rabbi Yitzchak Katz recorded Loew's remarks about the golem, which in places imply that Loew is speaking of a particular golem, but nowhere does Katz have his father-in-law say "the golem I created" or refer to any of the well-known stories. (The closest the text gets is Katz saying Loew instructed the golem to perform certain commandments from the Torah in public.) Some historians claim that the popular stories about Yosele Golem have little relationship to the life and times of Loew.
In 1909 Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg of Warsaw published what was supposedly a 300 year-old (i.e., contemporary to Loew) manuscript by Katz containing the cycle of stories about his father-in-law's golem, but the authenticity of the piece has been doubted. It uses Slavic names for rivers and places whereas Katz would known and called them by Czech or Germanic names. There is no mention of the golem in the family history writen in 1727 by one of Loew's descendants. Finally, some scholars say, it seems unusual that in the stories there should be so many blood libels and other accusations against the Jews during the reign of Emperor Rudolf II, as he was known to have treated the Jews well. Rosenberg said he purchased the manuscript from someone who supposedly found it in the Library of Metz, but since he never produced his source, many now believe he was in fact the author.
On the other hand, Rosenberg was a highly respected, well-known rabbi, scholar, author and former child Torah prodigy. He could have simply edited the work prior to publication, updating place names to those more familiar to his audience; and just because Rudolf got along with the Jews does not mean all of his subjects did. In fact, in onepart of the story cycle Loew realizes that Rudolf's favor cannot always protect them. Finally, we do have Katz's writings, even if by the time the family history was written the golem story had faded.
Some scholars believe the stories about Loew that emerged in the eighteenth century are most likely related to those of Rabbi Elija of Chelm. Elija was a real man, a contemporary of Loew, and the story of the golem was passed down through the generations of his family. It seems possible hiss story was "transferred" to Loew, but why is not entirely clear.
In Gustav Meyrink's novel Der Golem (published serially 1913-14, as a book in 1915), the golem actually has little to do with the story, appearing to the main character only a couple of times early in the book. When he appears to the protagonist, Pernath, a man who cannot remember his past, the plot is set in motion. It seems as if the golem, a mystery of the past, here represents the lost years and blank slate Pernath has become, or his state of mind: he simply goes through the motions of life without really understanding who he is. Or one could say Pernath is the golem, "unformed", robbed of his soul by madness and psychiatric treatment.
During the Second World War, the golem crops up again. It is recorded that a Holocaust survivor from Prague told a soldier:
The golem did not disappear and even in the time of war it went out of his hiding-place in order to safeguard its synagogue. When the Germans occupied Prague, they decided to destroy the Altneuschul. They came to do it; suddenly, in the silence of the synagogue, the steps of a giant walking on the roof began to be heard. They saw a shadow of a giant hand falling from the window onto the floor...The Germans were terrified and they threw away their tools and fled away in panic.
"I know that there is a rational explanation for everything; the synagogue is ancient and each and every slight knock generates an echo that reverberates many times, like the steps of thunder. Also the glasses of the windows are old, the window panes are crooked and they distort the shadows, forming strange shades on the floor. A bird's leg generates a shade of a giant hand on the floor...and nevertheless...there is something."
Archives of Jewish Folklore, Haifa, No. 11383, 1945.
I found this variation of the WWII tale posted by Avrohom Shlomo Levy on the B'Nei Baruch internet discussion forum, 6/8/97:
"I have heard more than one version of this story; the one that sounds most credible (as best I can remember) is as follows...When the nazis...conquered Prague, they entered the attic [of the the synagogue], and the officer in charge ordered one of the soldiers to bayonet the pile of shemos [various loose book pages containing the Name of God, which are said to cover the remains of golem]. This he did, and promptly collapsed and died as if he had been bayoneted. Exit nazis from attic."
Commenting that the golem is not a miracle, monster, or natural, but something entirely apart, Moshe Idel writes,
It is an entity that serves the role of silent witness of the creativity inherent in the tools which served God and men in their creative endeavors."
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
Stern and Mirsky, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives From Classical Hebrew Literature. Jewish Publication Society, 1990. Full Listing »
Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1974. Full Listing »
Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Shocken Books, 1965. Full Listing »
Bloch, Chayim. Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague. Kessinger Publishing, 1997. Full Listing »
Idel, Moshe. Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. State University of New York Press, 1990. Full Listing »
Ausubel, Nathan. A Treasury of Jewish Folklore. Crown Publishers, 1948. Full Listing »
Meyrink, Gustav. Golem, The. Dover Publications, 1985. Full Listing »
Neugroschel, Joachim. Great Tales of Jewish Occult and Fantasy. Wings Books, 1990. Full Listing »
Piercy, Marge. He, She, and It. Middlemarsh, Inc/Ballantine Books, 1991. Full Listing »
Rogasky, Barbara. Golem, The. Holiday House, 1996. Full Listing »
Sherwood, Francis. Book of Splendor, The. W.W. Norton and Co., 2002. Full Listing »
Singer, Issac Bashevis. Golem, The. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996. Full Listing »
Winkler, Gershon. Golem of Prague, The. Judaica Press, 1980, 1984. Full Listing »
For more titles on this and other topics, you may also wish to browse my annotated biblography for listings of all of my source texts, including descriptions and brief reviews.