amulet iconThings they didn't teach you in Hebrew school.


Qualities of the Golem

By: F. Levine

First Published: 2000-06-15

Last Modified: 2006-04-29

A golem may look human, but it is not. In some ways it is greater than we are—larger, stronger, fearless, endowed with supernatural abilities—but in many other respects, no matter how fantastic it seems, it is less, a cleverly-disguised and versitile tool whose sole reason to exist is to protect something far more valuable than itself: the Jewish community.

The Spiritual and Mental Qualities of a Golem

The golem possesses no spiritual qualities, because, quite simply, it does not have a human soul. It has been given the ruah, the "breath of bones", or "animal soul", the basic life force in all living things, but possesses nothing higher. It is typically not given a name. It is not considered a human being, nor does anyone in written accounts particularly concerned with its well-being or express any sadness at its deactivation. This isn't cruelty so much as emotional indifference. The golem is simply an animated thing, like a robot, with no real life or desires of its own. The act of creation is holy, and more important than the creature itself.

Ironically, the golem's lack of a soul endows it with a supernatural and useful ability to see spirits. Citing his father-in-law Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Marharal of Prague, Rabbi Yitzchak Katz writes:

The golem had the power to see spiritual entities, although on a low level, but more so than birds and animals, and on a slightly lesser level than demons and spirits. An ordinary human being, however, who has a soul and the intellectual freedom of choice, is unable to perceive spiritual things even if he is a tzadik, a righteous person, unless he has been granted special powers (or authorization) to do so.

Translated in Winkler, The Golem of Prague, p.281.

The golem's mental prowess seems to vary from story to story. In some versions it is quite perceptive and intelligent, even literate, while in others it behaves more like a well-trained dog. Regardless of intelligence, it does possess a sense of self-preservation (despite a lack of fear) The golem also typically has difficulty with nuances of language and implied meanings, and the instructions it receives must be very explicit. In one of the popular stories about Rabbi Loew's golem Yosele, the rabbi's wife Pearl decides to make use of him while her husband is away, despite warnings not to. She asks him to draw water to fill a barrel but doesn't say anything about stopping, and soon the house is flooded as Yosele continues to pour bucket after bucket.

The golem seldom acts without explicit orders, and in most circumstances takes commands only from its chief creator. This is in part becase it has a special purpose, and in part to avoid the sort of mishap described above, or worse.

Lacking a soul, the golem is usually devoid of emotion, inclanations toward good or evil, or sexuality, but there are exceptions. In some versions of the story it becomes attrated to one of Rabbi Loew's daughters or other female character (a bad situation in one way or another); in the 1920 silent film by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, it is distracted (rather like the later Frankenstein's monster) by a friendly little girl. "Love-story" angles seem to appear only in later-to-modern depictions.

Physical Qualities of a Golem

As demonstrated by the creation techniques, there are a several common "ingredients" to most golems' physical composition: virgin soil, fresh water, and often a Name which is inscribed upon or carried by it. There are also a number of common physical qualities attributed to the creature.

Precise descriptions of these creatures are often vague. Though often depicted in art as a large, murky, muddy creature, or as "humanoid", original literary sources suggest they appeared to be human men (or in a rare case or two, a woman). Rabbi Zeira is not aware that the man sent to him is Rava's creation until he tries to speak to it. Rabbi Loew and his assistants dress their golem in common clothes and present him as a servant (albeit a large and strong one), and no one except a select few ever know what he really is.

Almost without exception, the golem is mute, since the power of speech is connected with the soul, and only God can grant a man a soul. Instances to the contrary I have most often found in children's books, in which the creature says a few words or argues not to be deactivated, but this seems to be more of a plot device than anything else. Moshe Idel relates a story about Ben Sira and his father Jeremiah in which the pair create a golem which promptly asks to be destroyed and tells them how to do it, lest people believe the two mortal men are gods themselves. This is another plot device used to tell a moral and cautionary tale.

The more elaborate stories of Rabbi Loew's golem (which he calls Yosele) describe the creature as a very physical. He was a large "man", possessed of great strength and acute hearing. He did not get sick, Rabbi Katz writes, citing Rabbi Loew, "for he had no lusts." While in some versions Yosele is impervious to fire and water (drowning), in others he can be injured and he bleeds, but recovers quickly. Rabbi Katz also tells us Rabbi Loew told him that the golem could sense the time of day without a clock, and could not be stopped from performing any task from ten cubits below ground to ten cubits above.

In many golem stories (of Loew or others), the creature, empowered by the Name of God on its person, continues to grow larger or stronger from day to day, until it is either no longer practical or too dangerous to keep active. Sometimes it eventually runs amok, and in these cases the ultimate moral is fairly clear: only God should partake in Creation.

The Golem and Jewish Law

Some medieval rabbis actually debated the hypothetical social situations which might arise if dealing with a golem: is it considered murder when you deactivate it? Does it count as a person when you need the minyan (ten people) required to have synagogue services? Should its corpse be handled as a Jewish corpse, and does nonstandard handling of its corpse cause impurity?

Rabbi Katz, citing Rabbi Loew, provides some answers:

The general consensus was that the golem is a non-human entity, because it does not possess a soul, nor was it born. It is also suggested that golem animals, like the three year-old calf mentioned in the Talmud, need not be slaughtered according to kosher laws and may be eaten with milk/cheese/etc., because it was not born of a mother. (This in reference to the prohibition of eating dairy products and meat together.)

So what is it? Tofu? Parve?

Suggested Reading

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 »

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.