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A Prague reproduction of the Golem

A golem (/ˈɡləm/ GOH-ləm; Hebrew: גּוֹלֶם, gōlem) is an animated anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore which is entirely created from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). In the Psalms and medieval writings, the word golem was used as a term for an amorphous, unformed material.[1]

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. Many tales differ on how the golem was brought to life and controlled. According to Moment Magazine, "the golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be a victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries, it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope, and despair."[2]


The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalm 139:16,[3] which uses the word גלמי (golmi; my golem),[4] that means "my light form", "raw" material,[5] connoting the unfinished human being before God's eyes.[4] The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person: "Seven characteristics are in an uncultivated person, and seven in a learned one", (שבעה דברים בגולם) (Pirkei Avot 5:7 in the Hebrew text; English translations vary).

In Modern Hebrew, golem is used to mean "dumb" or "helpless". Similarly, it is often used today as a metaphor for a mindless lunk or entity who serves a man under controlled conditions, but is hostile to him under other conditions.[2] "Golem" passed into Yiddish as goylem to mean someone who is lethargic or beneath a stupor.[6]


Earliest stories[edit]

The oldest stories of golems date to early Judaism. In the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b), Adam was initially created as a golem (גולם) when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless husk". Like Adam, all golems are created from mud by those close to divinity, but no anthropogenic golem is fully human. Early on, the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. Sanhedrin 65b describes Rava creating a man (gavra). He sent the man to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to him, but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, "You were created by the sages; return to your dust".

During the Middle Ages, passages from the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) were studied as a means to create and animate a golem, although there is little in the writings of Jewish mysticism that supports this belief. It was believed that golems could be activated by an ecstatic experience induced by the ritualistic use of various letters of the Hebrew alphabet[1] forming a "shem" (any one of the Names of God), wherein the shem was written on a piece of paper and inserted in the mouth or in the forehead of the golem.[7]

A golem is inscribed with Hebrew words in some tales (for example, some versions of Chełm and Prague, as well as in Polish tales and versions of the Brothers Grimm), such as the word emét (אמת, "truth" in Hebrew) written on its forehead. The golem could then be deactivated by removing the aleph (א) in emét,[8] thus changing the inscription from "truth" to "death" (mét מת, meaning "dead").

Samuel of Speyer (12th century) was said to have created a golem.

Rabbi Jacob ben Shalom arrived at Barcelona from Germany in 1325 and remarked that the law of destruction is the reversal of the law of creation.[9]

One source credits 11th century Solomon ibn Gabirol with creating a golem,[10] possibly female, for household chores.[11]

Joseph Delmedigo informs us in 1625 that "many legends of this sort are current, particularly in Germany."[12]

The earliest known written account of how to create a golem can be found in Sodei Razayya by Eleazar ben Judah of Worms of the late 12th and early 13th century.[13]

The Golem of Chełm[edit]

The oldest description of the creation of a golem by a historical figure is included in a tradition connected to Rabbi Eliyahu of Chełm (1550–1583).[1][4][12][14]

A Polish Kabbalist, writing in about 1630–1650, reported the creation of a golem by Rabbi Eliyahu thus: "And I have heard, in a certain and explicit way, from several respectable persons that one man [living] close to our time, whose name is R. Eliyahu, the master of the name, who made a creature out of matter [Heb. Golem] and form [Heb. tzurah] and it performed hard work for him, for a long period, and the name of emet was hanging upon his neck until he finally removed it for a certain reason, the name from his neck and it turned to dust."[1] A similar account was reported by a Christian author, Christoph Arnold, in 1674.[1]

Rabbi Jacob Emden (d. 1776) elaborated on the story in a book published in 1748:

"As an aside, I'll mention here what I heard from my father's holy mouth regarding the Golem created by his ancestor, the Gaon R. Eliyahu Ba'al Shem of blessed memory. When the Gaon saw that the Golem was growing larger and larger, he feared that the Golem would destroy the universe. He then removed the Holy Name that was embedded on his forehead, thus causing him to disintegrate and return to dust. Nonetheless, while he was engaged in extracting the Holy Name from him, the Golem injured him, scarring him on the face."[15]

According to the Polish Kabbalist, "the legend was known to several persons, thus allowing us to speculate that the legend had indeed circulated for some time before it was committed to writing and, consequently, we may assume that its origins are to be traced to the generation immediately following the death of R. Eliyahu, if not earlier."[1][16]

The classic narrative: The Golem of Prague[edit]

Rabbi Loew statue at the New City Hall of Prague
Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899
Old New Synagogue of Prague with the rungs of the ladder to the attic on the wall. Legend has Golem lying in the loft
Jewish museum with a statue of Golem in Úštěk

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly "created a golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks" and pogroms.[17][18] Depending on the version of the legend, the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed under the rule of Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The Golem was called Josef and was known as Yossele. It was said that he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead.[18] Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath (Saturday) began,[7] so as to let it rest on Sabbath.[7]

One Friday evening, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath.[7] A different story tells of a golem that fell in love, and when rejected, became the violent monster seen in most accounts. Some versions have the golem eventually going on a murderous rampage.[18] The rabbi then managed to pull the shem from his mouth and immobilize him[7] in front of the synagogue, whereupon the golem fell in pieces.[7] The Golem's body was stored in the attic genizah of the Old New Synagogue,[18] where it would be restored to life again if needed.[19] Rabbi Loew then forbade anyone except his successors from going into the attic. Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, a successor of Rabbi Loew, reportedly wanted to go up the steps to the attic when he was Chief Rabbi of Prague to verify the tradition. Rabbi Landau fasted and immersed himself in a mikveh, wrapped himself in phylacteries and a prayer-shawl and started ascending the steps. At the top of the steps, he hesitated and then came immediately back down, trembling and frightened. He then re-enacted Rabbi Loew's original warning.[20]

According to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew's Golem still lies in the synagogue's attic.[7][18] When the attic was renovated in 1883, no evidence of the Golem was found.[21] Some versions of the tale state that the Golem was stolen from the genizah and entombed in a graveyard in Prague's Žižkov district, where the Žižkov Television Tower now stands. A recent legend tells of a Nazi agent ascending to the synagogue attic, but he died instead under suspicious circumstances.[22] The attic is not open to the general public.[23]

Some Orthodox Jews believe that the Maharal did actually create a golem. The evidence for this belief has been analyzed from an Orthodox Jewish perspective by Shnayer Z. Leiman.[24][25]

Sources of the Prague narrative[edit]

The general view of historians and critics is that the story of the Golem of Prague was a German literary invention of the early 19th century. According to John Neubauer, the first writers on the Prague Golem were:

  • 1837: Berthold Auerbach, Spinoza
  • 1841: Gustav Philippson, Der Golam, eine Legende
  • 1841: Franz Klutschak, Der Golam des Rabbi Löw
  • 1842: Adam Tendlau Der Golem des Hoch-Rabbi-Löw
  • 1847: Leopold Weisel, Der Golem[26]

However, there are in fact a couple of slightly earlier examples, in 1834[27][28] and 1836.[29][30]

All of these early accounts of the Golem of Prague are in German by Jewish writers. It has been suggested that they emerged as part of a Jewish folklore movement parallel with the contemporary German folklore movement.[14]

The origins of the story have been obscured by attempts to exaggerate its age and to pretend that it dates from the time of the Maharal. It has been said that Rabbi Yudel Rosenberg (1859–1935)[31] of Tarłów (before moving to Canada where he became one of its most prominent rabbis) originated the idea that the narrative dates from the time of the Maharal. Rosenberg published Nifl'os Maharal (Wonders of Maharal) (Piotrków, 1909)[31] which purported to be an eyewitness account by the Maharal's son-in-law, who had helped to create the Golem. Rosenberg claimed that the book was based upon a manuscript that he found in the main library in Metz. Wonders of Maharal "is generally recognized in academic circles to be a literary hoax".[1][25][32] Gershom Sholem observed that the manuscript "contains not ancient legends but modern fiction".[33] Rosenberg's claim was further disseminated in Chayim Bloch's (1881–1973) The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague (English edition 1925).

The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 cites the historical work Zemach David by David Gans, a disciple of the Maharal, published in 1592.[7][34] In it, Gans writes of an audience between the Maharal and Rudolph II: "Our lord the emperor ... Rudolph ... sent for and called upon our master Rabbi Low ben Bezalel and received him with a welcome and merry expression, and spoke to him face to face, as one would to a friend. The nature and quality of their words are mysterious, sealed and hidden."[35][better source needed] But it has been said of this passage, "Even when [the Maharal is] eulogized, whether in David Gans' Zemach David or on his epitaph …, not a word is said about the creation of a golem. No Hebrew work published in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (even in Prague) is aware that the Maharal created a golem."[26] Furthermore, the Maharal himself did not refer to the Golem in his writings.[24] Rabbi Yedidiah Tiah Weil (1721–1805), a Prague resident, who described the creation of golems, including those created by Rabbis Avigdor Kara of Prague (died 1439) and Eliyahu of Chelm, did not mention the Maharal, and Rabbi Meir Perils' biography of the Maharal[36] published in 1718 does not mention a golem.[14][24]

The Golem of Vilna[edit]

There is a similar tradition relating to the Vilna Gaon or "the saintly genius from Vilnius" (1720–1797). Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (Lithuania 1749–1821) reported in an introduction to Sifra de Tzeniuta that he once presented to his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, ten different versions of a certain passage in the Sefer Yetzira and asked the Gaon to determine the correct text.[37] The Gaon immediately identified one version as the accurate rendition of the passage. The amazed student then commented to his teacher that, with such clarity, he should easily be able to create a live human. The Gaon affirmed Rabbi Chaim's assertion and said that he once began to create a person when he was a child, under the age of 13, but during the process, he received a sign from Heaven ordering him to desist because of his tender age.[37]

Theme of hubris[edit]

Statue of the Prague Golem created for the film The Emperor and the Golem

The existence of a golem is sometimes a mixed blessing. Golems are not intelligent, and if commanded to perform a task, they will perform the instructions literally. In many depictions, Golems are inherently perfectly obedient. In its earliest known modern form, the Golem of Chełm became enormous and uncooperative. In one version of this story, the rabbi had to resort to trickery to deactivate it, whereupon it crumbled upon its creator and crushed him.[4]

There is a similar theme of hubris in Frankenstein, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and some other stories in popular culture, such as The Terminator. The theme also manifests itself in R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), Karel Čapek's 1921 play which coined the term robot; the play was written in Prague, and while Čapek denied that he modeled the robot after the Golem, there are many similarities in the plot.[38]

Culture of the Czech Republic[edit]

The Golem is a popular figure in the Czech Republic. There are several restaurants and other businesses whose names make reference to the creature, a Czech strongman (René Richter) goes by the nickname "Golem",[18] and a Czech monster truck outfit calls itself the "Golem Team".[39]

Abraham Akkerman preceded his article on human automatism in the contemporary city with a short satirical poem on a pair of golems turning human.[40]

Clay Boy variation[edit]

A Yiddish and Slavic folktale is the Clay Boy, which combines elements of the Golem and The Gingerbread Man, in which a lonely couple makes a child out of clay, with disastrous or comical consequences.[41]

In one common Russian version, an older couple, whose children have left home, make a boy out of clay and dry him by their hearth. The Clay Boy (Russian: Гли́няный па́рень, Glínyanyĭ párenʹ) comes to life; at first, the couple is delighted and treats him like a real child, but the Clay Boy does not stop growing and eats all their food, then all their livestock, and then the Clay Boy eats his parents. The Clay Boy rampages through the village until he is smashed by a quick-thinking goat.[42]

Golem in popular culture[edit]

Movie poster for Der Golem (1920)
The Hebrew letters on the creature's head read "emét", meaning "truth". In some versions of the Chełm and Prague narratives, the Golem is killed by removing the first letter, making the word spell "mét", meaning "dead".

Film and television[edit]

Golems are frequently depicted in movies and television shows. Programs with them in the title include:


  • There have been a number of scores written to accompany or based on the 1920 film, including by Daniel Hoffman and performed by the San Francisco-based ensemble Davka[49] and by Karl-Errnst Sasse.[50]
  • In 1962, Abraham Ellstein's opera The Golem, commissioned by the New York City Opera, premiered at City Opera, New York.[51]
  • In 1994, composer Richard Teitelbaum composed Golem, based on the Prague legend and combining music with electronics.[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Idel, Moshe (1990). Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-0160-X. page 296
  2. ^ a b Cooper, Marilyn. Jewish Word | Golem." Archived 2017-08-25 at the Wayback Machine Moment Magazine. 17 July 2017. 24 August 2017.
  3. ^ Bible: Psalm 139:16
  4. ^ a b c d Introduction to "The Golem Returns" Archived 2012-10-12 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2011-09-23.
  5. ^ J. Simpson; E. Weiner, eds. (1989). "golem". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-861186-2.
  6. ^ Bluestein, Gene (1998). Anglish/Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature. U of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803219148.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h GOLEM. Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  8. ^ Kerstein, Benjamin. Jewish Ideas Daily. 14 September 2010. 24 August 2017.
  9. ^ Trachtenberg, Joshua (2004) [Originally published 1939]. Jewish Magic and Superstition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 86. ISBN 9780812218626.
  10. ^ Bokser, Ben Zion (2006). From the World of the Cabbalah. Kessinger. p. 57.
  11. ^ Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Ibn Gabirol, Solomon ben Judah". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  12. ^ a b Trachtenberg, Joshua (2004) [Originally published 1939]. Jewish Magic and Superstition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 85. ISBN 9780812218626.
  13. ^ Kressel, Matthew (2015-10-01). "36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 24, The Golem of Prague". Matthew Kressel. Retrieved 2018-08-02.
  14. ^ a b c Gelbin, C . S., The Golem Returns – From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808–2008, University of Michigan, 2011
  15. ^ שו"ת שאילת יעב"ץ, ח"ב, סי' פ"ב Archived 2013-05-09 at the Wayback Machine. Cf. his בירת מגדל עוז, Altona, 1748, p. 259a; מטפחת ספרים, Altona, 1768, p. 45a Archived 2013-05-09 at the Wayback Machine; and מגילת ספר, ed. Kahana, Warsaw, 1896, p. 4 Archived 2013-05-09 at the Wayback Machine. See also שו"ת חכם צבי, סי' צ"ג Archived 2013-05-09 at the Wayback Machine, and the references cited in שו"ת חכם צבי עם ליקוטי הערות, Jerusalem, 1998, vol. 1, p. 421 and in the periodical כפר חב"ד, number 351 (1988), p. 51. Cited by Leiman, S.Z., "Did a Disciple of the Maharal Create a Golem?" Archived 2012-01-11 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ The tradition is also recorded in ה לחורבנה /תל-אביב: ארגון יוצאי חלם בישראל ובארה"ב, תשמ"א
  17. ^ Green, Kayla. "The Golem in the Attic." Archived 2017-08-25 at the Wayback Machine Moment Magazine. 1 February 2011. 25 August 2017.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Bilefsky, Dan (May 10, 2009). "Hard Times Give New Life to Prague's Golem". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 9, 2013. Retrieved 2013-03-19. According to Czech legend, the Golem was fashioned from clay and brought to life by a rabbi to protect Prague's 16th-century ghetto from persecution, and is said to be called forth in times of crisis. True to form, he is once again experiencing a revival and, in this commercial age, has spawned a one-monster industry.
  19. ^ "The Golem Legend". applet-magic.com. Archived from the original on 2013-01-02.
  20. ^ Winkler, Gershon (1980). The Golem of Prague. New York: Judaica Press. p. 60-63. ISBN 0-910818-24-X.
  21. ^ "TIME-LIFE Mysteries of the Unknown: Inside the World of the Strange and ...." Google Books. 24 August 2017.
  22. ^ Lee-Parritz, Oren. "The Golem Lives On". jewishpost.com. Archived from the original on 1 September 2010. Retrieved 12 January 2011.
  23. ^ Old New Synagogue located in Praha, Czech Republic|Atlas Obscura|Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations Archived 2011-08-29 at Wikiwix. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  24. ^ a b c Leiman, S. Z., The Golem of Prague in Recent Rabbinic Literature Archived 2011-09-24 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ a b Leiman, S.Z., " The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London: R. Yudl Rosenberg and The Golem of Prague", Archived 2017-09-17 at the Wayback Machine Tradition, 36:1, 2002
  26. ^ a b Neubauer, J., "How did the Golem get to Prague?", in Cornis-Pope, M., and Neubauer, J. History of The Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe, John Benjamins, 2010, see also: Dekel E., Gurley D.E., "How Did Golem \came to Prague", JQR, Vol. 103, No. 2 (Spring 2013), pp. 241–258 [1]
  27. ^ Glasenapp, Gabriele von (Jun 2, 2009). Haug, Christine; Mayer, Franziska; Podewski, Madleen (eds.). Populäres Judentum: Medien, Debatten, Lesestoffe (in German). Walter de Gruyter. p. 31. ISBN 9783484971042.
  28. ^ "Der jüdische Gil Blas" (in German). der Golam... des Rabbi Liwa, vom Volke der hohe Rabbi Löw genannt
  29. ^ Frankl, L. A. (1836). Kaltenbaeck, Johann Paul (ed.). Oesterreichische Zeitschrift für Geschichts- und Staatskunde (in German). Beck. p. 368.
  30. ^ Frankl, L. .A. (1836). Bahrgang, Bweiter (ed.). Defterreichilche Beitfchrift (in German). Oxford University. p. 368.
  31. ^ a b Kieval, Hillel J. "Golem Legend." Archived 2017-08-25 at the Wayback Machine The YIVO Encyclopedia. 24 August 2017.
  32. ^ Sherwin, Byron L. (1985) The Golem Legend: Origins and Implications. New York: University Press of America
  33. ^ Sholem, G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken, 1961
  34. ^ HUNGARIAN STUDIES 2. No. 2. Nemzetközi Magyar Filológiai Társaság. Akadémiai Kiadó Budapest [1986] Archived 2013-05-10 at the Wayback Machine. (PDF). Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  35. ^ Gans, D., Zemach David, ed. M.Breuer, Jerusalem, 1983, p.145, cited Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg and the Maharal's Golem Archived 2009-09-23 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Meir Perels (1718). Megilas Yuchsin. Prague. OCLC 122864700.
  37. ^ a b Chaim of Volozhin. "Sifra de Tzeniuta, Introduction." The Kabbalistic Tradition: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism, edited by Alan Unterman. Google Books. 24 August 2017.
  38. ^ Koreis, Voyen. Introduction. "Two Plays by Karel Capek: R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) & The Robber." Google Books. 25 August 2017.
  39. ^ B, Veronika (2020-01-25). "VIDEO: René Richter, the Czech Man With the Strongest Jaws in the World". Prague Morning. Retrieved 2020-05-29.
  40. ^ Akkerman, Abraham (2003–2004). "Philosophical Urbanism and Deconstruction in City-Form: An Environmental Ethos for the Twenty-First Century". 43/44: 48–61. Archived from the original on 2017-09-04. Retrieved 2017-08-18. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) Published also as Paper CTS-04-06 by the Center for Theoretical Study, Prague.
  41. ^ Cronan, Mary W. (1917). "Lutoschenka". The Story Teller's Magazine. Vol. 5 no. 1. pp. 7–9.
  42. ^ Ginsburg, Mirra (1997). Clay Boy. New York: Greenwillow. ISBN 9780688144098.
  43. ^ "Der Golem (1915) - IMDb". IMDb. 8 April 1915.
  44. ^ "Der Golem und die Tänzerin (1917) - IMDb". IMDb. 9 April 1917.
  45. ^ "Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) - IMDb". IMDb. 19 June 1921.
  46. ^ "Le Golem (1936) - IMDb". IMDb. 21 March 1937.
  47. ^ 石井博士ほか (1997). 日本特撮・幻想映画全集 (in Japanese). 勁文社. p. 170. ISBN 4766927060.
  48. ^ https://ryanharveyauthor.com/2020/10/10/it-1967-golem-movie/
  49. ^ Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Golem-Davka/dp/B0000DG02D/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=The+Golem&qid=1583245505&rnid=301668&s=music&sr=1-1. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  50. ^ Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Golem-Karl-Ernst-Sasse/dp/B000001WQI/ref=sr_1_33?keywords=The+Golem&qid=1583245976&s=music&sr=1-33. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  51. ^ "Abraham Ellstein's the Golem".
  52. ^ Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Golem-Shelley-Hirsch/dp/B000003YTH/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=The+Golem&qid=1583245145&s=music&sr=1-9. Missing or empty |title= (help)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to Golem at Wikimedia Commons