The Golem: Talmudic Legend of a Clay Beast Created to Protect the Jews
The gothic horror novel, Frankenstein, is one of the most well-known stories in which man tries to play god by attempting to manufacture a living being. A similar story, that of the golem, exists in Jewish folklore and legend, albeit with some obvious differences. For instance, the Frankenstein monster is popularly depicted as an amalgamation of body parts from cadavers, whilst the golem is said to be made from clay. Additionally, it was science that gave life to the Frankenstein monster, whereas the golem is said to have been given life by mystical means.
Golem in the Bible
The word ‘golem’ is said to appear once in the Bible (Psalms 139:16), and means ‘shapeless mass’ or ‘unfinished substance’ in Hebrew. According to a Talmudic legend, Adam was a golem for the first 12 hours of his existence, indicating that he was a body without a soul. In another legend, the prophet Jeremiah is said to have made a golem. Some believe these legends regarding the creation of golems are merely symbolic in nature, and may refer to a person’s spiritual awakening.
A Rabbi creates a golem ( Wikimedia Commons )
There are others who interpret the stories of the golem literally, and believe that it is possible to create such creatures . In the Sefer Yetzirah (meaning ‘Book of Creation / Formation’), there are instructions pertaining the creation of golems, and several rabbinic commentaries on this book have provided different explanations as to how these directions should be carried out. In most versions, the golem is first formed into the shape of resembling a human being.
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The golem is first formed in the shape of a human being. Illustration of a golem by Philippe Semeria. The Hebrew word for Truth, one of the names of God, is written on his forehead. ( Wikimedia Commons )
How to Bring a Golem to Life
There are several ways, however, to bring a golem to life. In one version, for example, a golem may be brought to life if its creator were to walk or dance around it whilst saying a combination of letters from the Hebrew alphabet and the secret name of God. In another version, the letters aleph, mem, and tav (these letters combine to form the word emet, meaning ‘truth’) are required to be written on a golem’s forehead in order to give it life. A third way of bringing a golem to life is to write the name of God on a parchment, and stick it into its arm or mouth.
One of the most famous golem stories is that of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, an important Talmudic scholar, Jewish mystic, and philosopher. This rabbi is believed to have lived at the end of the 16 th century in Prague, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. At this time, the Empire was ruled by Rudolf II. Although Rudolf was an enlightened emperor, the Jews of Prague were subjected to anti-Semitic attacks. In order to protect the Jewish quarter, the rabbi created a golem. As the golem possessed incredible strength, it also helped out with physical labour in the rabbi’s household and the synagogue. Additionally, the golem was given a special necklace made of deerskin and decorated with mystic signs. This necklace made the golem invisible. Another version of the story states that a Jewish-hating priest tried to incite the Christians of Prague against the Jews near Easter during the spring of 1580. As a result, Rabbi Loew created the golem to protect his people during the Easter season .
Ladislav Šaloun's statue popularly ascribed to Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel at the new town hall of Prague in the Czech Republic. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Whilst the golem succeeds in protecting the Jews, the story has a less than happy ending. The golem grew stronger and stronger, but it became increasingly destructive as well. Instead of doing good deeds, the golem began to run amok and threatened innocent lives. As a result, Rabbi Loew removed the name of God from the golem, thus turning it back into a lifeless statue. Some believe that the golem was hidden by the rabbi in the attic of his synagogue. In addition, entrance to the attic was forbidden for centuries, and the stairs to the area removed. When the synagogue was finally explored hundreds of years later, there was no trace of anything resembling a golem.
Golems are such prominent figures in Jewish legend that they continue to inspire artists and writers to this day. For at least the past two hundred years these creatures have made their way into painting, sculpture, illustration, and more recently video and digital artwork. They still have an air of fascination and magic about them, but also remind us to question what it really means to be human .
Featured image: A Prague reproduction of the golem. ( Wikimedia Commons ).
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