Techniques for Creating a Golem
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-20
How exactly does one create a golem? Although there are many variations in recorded methods and proceedures, there seem to be a number of elements and steps common to most. These are:
- The ritual cleansing and high qualifications of those creating the golem.
- The use of some form of soil (sometimes clay or dust) to form the body of the golem, particularly soil which has never been plowed or used in any way.
- The use of a verbal ritual to form the soil into a human form.
- A concluding word or Name of God is used to activate the creature.
Medieval techniques of creating a golem often revolved around a highly complex procedure which required the mystic(s) to recite, presumably from memory and probably while in a state of meditation, an array of Hebrew alphabet letter combinations and/or various permutation of one or more Names of God.
For example, Eleazar of Worms, in his Commentary on Sefer Yetzira, wrote (in a somewhat twisted fashion) that after kneading virgin soil from the mountains with pure water, the first stage of creation is to form the "limbs" of the golem ("limbs", in this case, also seem to represent the torso and head). Each limb has a "corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzira", and this letter is to be combined with every other letter of the Hebrew alphabet to form pairs. Then a more general permutation is done (again for each limb separately) of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet with every other letter into letter pairs, "each limb separately". This second, basic method of combination is called the "221 gates". Then you combine each letter of the alphabet with each vowel sound (apparently for each limb). That concludes the first stage, the formation of the golem's body. In the second stage you must combine each letter of the alphabet with each letter from the Tetragrammaton (YHVH, the four letter Name of God), and pronounce each of the resulting letter pairs with every possible vowel sound. In this case the use of the Tetragrammaton, even though it is permutated, is the "activation word".
It should also be noted that many rabbis and scholarsincluding Rabbi Yehuda Loew, who is supposed to have made the famous Golem of Praguebelieved (and still do believe) that it is not possible to create a golem simply by studying the Sefer Yetzira or by following Eleazar of Worms' directions. There are several reasons. Most often cited is the belief that there are errors and omissions in later editions of the book; others include the the kabbalist's need to have a thorough understanding of spiritual and physical manifestations of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and whether he is judged to be truly righteous by God. Loew explained that "the perception of creation" was so rooted in an individual's "personal comprehension" that even someone who had attained the proper level of mastery would find it nearly impossible to pass the knowledge on to someone else.
In simpler variations on Eleazar's technique, the letter combinations of AB through AK (aleph-bet to aleph-kaph) are used to create the golem, and the combinations of AL through AT (aleph-lamed to aleph-taph) are used to dismantle it. Rabbi Abraham Galante, a kabbalist from Safed, recorded a method of Ashkenazi (German-Jewish) origin in which the mystic(s) would spread a layer of "new" dust on the floor or the ground, and inscribe in it the name of the thing they wished to create. They would then combine each letter of the name of that thing with every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. To destroy the thing, they would reverse the recitation.
The kabbalist(s) involved in combination techniques were sometimes required to circle the golem, in varying numbers of times, one way to create, the other to destroy, while performing the recitations.
If combined with meditative, paced breathing and pronunciation techniques, some of these methods would have taken the kabbalist 36 hours or more of uninterrupted meditation to complete!
In another combination method, the mystic was required to combine the 42-letter Name of God and the Tetragrammaton in special ways, then inscribe several Names on the golem's forehead to bring it to life.
An even more direct method was to purify oneself, prepare the virgin soil-and-water mixture, and pronounce the ineffable 72-part Name of God over it. However, since the exact pronunciation of this Name was kept very secret due to the extreme powers it wielded, and since a single slip in pronunciation would likely result in the death of the speaker, I suspect this method was largely unused.
By the time we arrive at the stories concerning Rabbi Loew and the golem of Prague, the method of creating the golem is greatly simplified, though perhaps for the sake of storytelling. In these accounts, the soil is prepared, and the kabbalist(s) circle the golem-body, reciting "secret names". As they do so the soil body gradually takes on human qualities. When the body is complete, it is activated by means of placing a word or a name on its forehead or forearm, occasionally in its mouth (in one account an amulet bearing a Name of God is hung around the creature's neck). Popular "activation" word choices were adam (the first man, created out of the earth) and emet (truth). When it came time to deactivate the golem, the first letter of these words would be erased: without aleph, Adam becomes dam (blood), and without aleph, emet becomes met (dead). When the "live" word became a "dead" word, the golem would shut down. If a Name of God had been written on a parchment placed in the mouth (or occasionally under the skin) to activate the golem, it was simply removed to deactivate it.
Rabbi Loew's procedure, as recorded in popular literature, was as follows: After asking a dream question as to how he might protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, Loew is answered in his dream with the alphabetical Hebrew phrase, "Ato Bra Golem Devuk Hachomer V'tigsar Khavel Torfe Yisroel", which means, "Create a golem out of clay who will destroy all the enemies of Israel." He told this to his son-in-law, Isaac Ha-Cohen, and his best pupil, Jecob Ha-Levi. He said he needed their help because they were born under the signs of fire and water, respectively, and Rabbi Loew himself under the sign of air; together with the soil, they would have representatives of all the elements needed to create a golem.
The three went out to the river at dawn, and "on a clay bank...measured out a man three cubits long, and...drew his face in the earth, and his arms and legs, the way a man lies on his back." Loew then instructed his pupils to circle the golem seven times each, while reciting formulas (unspecified in the stories) Loew revealed to them. First the figure glowed red hot, then cooled in the image of a formed man. Next, Loew himself circled the golem seven times with a Torah. Finally, the three of them recited the activation words, Genesis 2:7: "The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."
For a broad sampling of golem-creation techniques from original sources, and a translation of Eleazar of Worms' original text on the subject with an explanation, see Moshe Idel's Golem: Jewish Magic and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. For figures, tables, and a highly detailed explanation of the 221 gates, see Aryeh Kaplan's translation of and commentary on the Sefer Yetzira.) These are dedicated sources, but many other books, fiction and scholarly, discuss the golem.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Creation). Weiser Books, 1997. Full Listing »
Fine, Lawrence. Safed Spirituality: Rules of Mystical Piety and the Beginning of Wisdom. Paulist Press, 1984. 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 »
Idel, Moshe. Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. State University of New York Press, 1990. 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.