Uses for the Golem
First Published: 2000-06-15
Last Modified: 2006-04-20
Why create a golem? Early accounts seem to use it to prove a point: that a man could, if righteous enough, "create a world". The idea of creating an golem animal to eat, as presented in the Talmudic-era stories, is certainly an interesting one, but I have not yet encountered any stories in which a golem is used to save people from starvation.
Uses as Described in Folklore
In the medieval period, Rabbi Samuel, father of Judah the Pious, was said to have had a golem as his valet. By the late sixteenth century, another legend of the golem as a servant had appeared. Rabbi Elija of Chelm was said to have created one as a servant as well. Powered by the Name of God, the golem created by Elija grew larger and more unruly each day, until he feared it would outgrow the house and become dangerous. Elija could barely reach up to remove the Name of God attached to it to deactivate it. As soon as he had done so, the golem transformed back into a pile of earth, which collapsed on its crator, injuring him slightly.
Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Marharal of Prague, used his golem Yosele (a.k.a. Yosef, Joseph) to protect the Jews of his community, who were under constant threat of slander and attack from the local Christians, who believed the Jews killed Christian children and used their blood in rituals, or to make Passover matzot. (This is naturally absurd, not just for the obvious reasons, but because the handling and use of blood is forbidden by kosher laws). Yosele was sent to patrol the Jewish quarter of Prague, on the lookout for wrongdoers; he rooted out evidence against the people trying to frame the Jews for murder; he helped round up sinners; he assisted the rabbi in investigations. It was only when Emperor Rudolf II decreed there would be no more blood libels against the Jews and Thaddeus, the primary instigator of the accusations, had been discredited, that Rabbi Loew deactivated Yosele. The golem's clay remains in the attic of the synagogue, which was then proclaimed off-limits.
A somewhat disturbing variation of the golem-creation methodology involves the temporary raising of the dead. A number of stories exist in which a person is brought back to life by undergoing a ritual similar to the creation of a golem, which culminates in a Name of God being written on the deceased's arm, or having a paper bearing the Name put into their mouth. This was only done under dire circumstances; for example, if the dead person could do something or provide information which would save an innocent life. When the task is done, the Name is removed, and the body instantly collapses, either suddenly decomposed or turning to dust. I was surprised to learn these kinds of stories existed, since in my mind it really crosses the line between what God's ability and man's (more so than with the golem), and it has airs of necromancy.
The Golem as a Contemplative Experience
Despite its popular image as servant and protector, the golem was not always a physical result of meditation and ritual. Some believed the golem was never meant to be literal, but rather was a vision of enlightenment at the conclusion of the meditations to create it. In this case, the golem is a sign of an influx of divine wisdom, and a symbol of the mystic's knowledge and potential.
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, I recommend:
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 »
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 »
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.