A golem (// 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.
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."
The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalm 139:16, which uses the word גלמי (golmi; my golem), that means "my light form", "raw" material, connoting the unfinished human being before God's eyes. 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. "Golem" passed into Yiddish as goylem to mean someone who is lethargic or beneath a stupor.
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 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.
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, thus changing the inscription from "truth" to "death" (mét מת, meaning "dead").
Samuel of Speyer (12th century) was said to have created a golem.
The Golem of Chełm
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." A similar account was reported by a Christian author, Christoph Arnold, in 1674.
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."
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."
The classic narrative: The Golem of Prague
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. 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. Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath (Saturday) began, so as to let it rest on Sabbath.
One Friday evening, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath. 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. The rabbi then managed to pull the shem from his mouth and immobilize him in front of the synagogue, whereupon the golem fell in pieces. The Golem's body was stored in the attic genizah of the Old New Synagogue, where it would be restored to life again if needed. 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.
According to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew's Golem still lies in the synagogue's attic. When the attic was renovated in 1883, no evidence of the Golem was found. 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. The attic is not open to the general public.
Sources of the Prague narrative
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
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.
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) 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) 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". Gershom Sholem observed that the manuscript "contains not ancient legends but modern fiction". 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. 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."[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." Furthermore, the Maharal himself did not refer to the Golem in his writings. 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 published in 1718 does not mention a golem.
The Golem of Vilna
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. 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.
Theme of hubris
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.
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.
Culture of the Czech Republic
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", and a Czech monster truck outfit calls itself the "Golem Team".
Abraham Akkerman preceded his article on human automatism in the contemporary city with a short satirical poem on a pair of golems turning human.
Clay Boy variation
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.
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.
Golem in popular culture
- Pete Hamill's 1997 novel Snow in August includes a story of a rabbi from Prague who has a golem.
- Michael Chabon's 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, features one of the protagonists, escape artist Josef Kavalier, smuggling himself out of Prague along with the Golem. Petrie describes the theme of escape in the novel, culminating in Kavalier's drawing of a modern graphic novel centered on a golem.
- In the Michael Scott novel The Alchemyst, the immortal Dr. John Dee attacked Nicholas Flamel with two golems, which, along with being made of mud, each had a pair of shiny stone "eyes".
- Jonathan Stroud's children's fantasy book The Golem's Eye centers on a golem created by magicians in an alternative London. The story depicts the golem as being impervious to magical attacks. The golem is finally destroyed by removing the parchment of creation from its mouth.
- In Byron L. Sherwin's 2006 novel The Cubs and the Kabbalist, rabbis create a golem named Sandy Greenberg to help the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.
- Helene Wecker's debut novel The Golem and the Jinni (known as The Golem and the Djinni in the United Kingdom),was published by Harper in April, 2013. It combines the genre of historical fiction with elements of fantasy, telling the story of two displaced magical creatures, including a female Golem, in 19th century New York City. A sequel, The Hidden Palace, was published in June, 2021.
- In Elizabeth Knox's Dreamhunter Duet novels both the main character Laura and her Father Tziga create golems from the earth within an other-dimensional realm entitled "the Place".
Film and television
Golems are frequently depicted in movies and television shows. Programs with them in the title include:
- The Golem (German: Der Golem, shown in the US as The Monster of Fate), a 1915 German silent horror film, written and directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen.
- The Golem and the Dancing Girl (German: Der Golem und die Tänzerin), a 1917 German silent comedy-horror film, directed by Paul Wegener and Rochus Gliese.
- The Golem: How He Came into the World (German: Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, also referred to as Der Golem), a 1920 German silent horror film, directed by Paul Wegener and Carl Boese.
- Le Golem (Czech: Golem), a 1936 Czechoslovakian monster movie directed by Julien Duvivier in French.
- Supernatural S08 E13 "Everyone Hates Hitler". Written by Ben Edlund, directed by Phil Sgriccia. Protagonists Sam and Dean help a dead rabbi's grandson with a golem fight the Thule Society. 
- CBS Radio Mystery Theater aired an episode entitled "The Golem", which takes place during the Holocaust in the final episode of 1974, airing on December 30 (episode 193.)
- The Mysterious Golem of Prague: A Dramatic Passover Story, written by Chaim Clorfene and Simcha Gottlieb and starring Leonard Nimoy, was broadcast as part of JewishKids.org's Jewish Story Time.
- 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 and by Karl-Errnst Sasse.
- In 1962, Abraham Ellstein's opera The Golem, commissioned by the New York City Opera, premiered at City Opera, New York.
- In 1994, composer Richard Teitelbaum composed Golem, based on the Prague legend and combining music with electronics.
- Marvel Comics resurrected the Golem of Prague as a heroic character created by Len Wein and John Buscema, first appearing in #134 of the second series of The Incredible Hulk, then in issue #174 of Strange Tales in 1974, lasting for only two more issues (#176 & 177), then reappearing sporadically in other Marvel Comics series.
- In James Sturm's 2001 graphic novel The Golem's Mighty Swing, a Jewish baseball team in the 1920s creates a golem to help them win their games.
- Mendy and the Golem is a series featuring a boy and the golem he found in his father's synagogue. 
Tabletop and video games
- Golems appear in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (first published in the 1970s), and the influence of Dungeons & Dragons has led to the inclusion of golems in other tabletop role-playing games, as well as in video games.
- Golems appear in the video game Minecraft, and have been featured at Minecon.
- Golem, Golurk and Golett are three Pokémon which resemble a golem.
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- Rosenberg, Yudl; tr. Leviant, Curt (2008). The Golem and the Wondrous deeds of the Maharal of Prague (first English translation of original in Hebrew, Pietrkow, Poland, 1909). Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12204-6.
- Salfellner, Harald (2016). The Prague Golem: Jewish Stories of the Ghetto. Prague: Vitalis. ISBN 978-80-7253-188-2.
- Tomek, V.V. (1932). Pražské židovské pověsti a legendy. Prague: Končel. Translated (2008) as Jewish Stories of Prague, Jewish Prague in History and Legend. ISBN 1-4382-3005-2.
Media related to Golem at Wikimedia Commons
- Background on the Golem legends
- Historical figures in the golem legends
- Essay about the golem and Jewish identity
- Listen to "The Mysterious Golem of Prague" on Jewish Story Time
- See Rabín a jeho Golem on YouTube
- See It! (aka Curse of the Golem) on Internet Archive
- See Myths of Mankind: The Golem of Prague on YouTube