The Tradition of the Golem

A golem, perhaps the best known of the Jewish legends, is an automaton, typically humanoid and typically male, created as the result of an intense, systematic, mystical meditation. The word golem means (or implies) something unformed and imperfect, or a body without a soul. The word appears once in the Bible, in Psalms 139:15-16. In most golem stories, the creature, empowered by the Name of God on its person, continues to grow larger and stronger from day to day, until it is either no longer practical or too dangerous to keep active. In some stories it eventually run amok. In these cases the ultimate moral is fairly clear: only God should partake in creation of this sort.

While animated, 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 Jewish tradition of the Golem is a vast subject, on which entire books have been written. Only a brief overview is attempted here; the reader is referred to the references cited below for further information. The creation of a golem by Rabbi Abba ben Rav Hamma ("Rava") is first recorded in the Babylonian Talmud (4th century C.E.).

Rava said: "If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written: 'Your inequities are a barrier between you and your God.'" For Rava created a man and sent him to R[abbi] Zeira. The rabbi spoke to him [the man] but he did not answer. Then he [Zeira] said: "You are from the pietists. Return to your dust." (Translation: Moshe Idel.) (Sanhedrin 65b)

The Talmud mentions this episode in passing, during a discussion of other topics. To the Sages of the Talmud, the creation of a Golem was not in and of itself particularly remarkable. Anyone who could cleave to God sufficiently would be able to perform such a feat. According to Jewish tradition, many other holy Rabbis and Sages also created human and animal Golems, such as Rabbis Channina and Hoshia, Ben Sira, Joseph's eleven brothers, and the Patriarch Abraham. But by far the most famous Golem is the one created by Rabbi Yehudah Levi ben Betzalel of Prague, known as "the Maharal".

This statue of the Golem of Prague stands at the entrance to the city's Jewish sector. (Photo from "The Golem of Prague")

The Maharal created his Golem, named "Yossele," to help save the Jews of Prague from the blood libel. (For those of you who do not know, the blood libel was the belief that Jews used the blood of a Christian child during the Passover Seder. This malicious libel was frequently invoked to explain the disappearance of a child, and it was not uncommon for a dead or murdered Christian child to be planted in a Jewish house, often by a priest who would then "discover" this child and lead the masses on a murderous rampage through the ghetto, during which much Jewish property could be confiscated for the church.) Many stories are told about "The Golem of Prague."

The Maharal reportedly deanimated Yossele after he had fulfilled his purpose and locked his body in the attic of Prague's "Old-New Synagogue." It is a matter of record that the Maharal enacted a ban on anyone entering the attic of the "Old-New Synagogue" and it is widely believed that the body of Yossele the Golem rests there to this day. The "Old-New Synagogue" miraculously survived the destruction of synagogues by the Nazis, and its attic was not entered even by the Gestapo.

How to Make a Golem

Instructions for making a Golem, from the commentary of Rabbi Eliezar Rokeach on the Book of Formation.

How does one actually make a golem? Rashi (10th century) commenting on the Talmudic account cited above explains that Rava made his Golem "by means of the Book of Formation" and all the sources agree that this is how a Golem is made. The procedure is described by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

An initiate should not do it alone, but should always be accompanied by one or two colleagues. The Golem must be made of virgin soil, taken from a place where no man has ever dug. The soil must be kneaded with pure spring water, taken directly from the ground. If this water is placed in any kind of vessel, it can no longer be used. The people making the Golem must purify themselves totally before engaging in this activity, both physically and spiritually. While making the Golem, they must wear clean white vestments… One must not make any mistake or error in the pronunciation… no interruption whatsoever may occur…

There is also evidence that creating a Golem was primarily not a physical procedure, but rather, a highly advanced meditative technique. By chanting the appropriate letter arrays together with the letters of the Tetragrammaton, the initiate could form a very real mental image of a human being, limb by limb… Once the conceptual Golem was completed, this spiritual potential could be transferred to a clay form and actually animate it. This was the process through which a physical Golem would be brought to life.

For example, Eleazar of Worms, in his Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, wrote (in a somewhat twisted fashion) that after kneading virgin soil from the mountains with pure water, the first stage of creation is to form the "limbs" of the golem ("limb", in this case, seems to also represent the torso and head) . Each limb has a "corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah", and this letter is to be combined with every other letter of the Hebrew alphabet to form pairs. Then a more general permutation is done (again for each limb separately) of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet with every other letter into letter pairs, "each limb separately". This second, basic method of combination is called the "221 gates". Then you combine each letter of the alphabet with each vowel sound (apparently for each limb). That concludes the first stage, the formation of the golem's body. In the second stage you must combine each letter of the alphabet with each letter from the Tetragrammaton (YHVH), and pronounce each of the resulting letter pairs with every possible vowel sound. In this case the use of the Tetragrammaton, even though it is permutated, is the "activation word".

(For a translation of Eleazar of Worms' original text with an explanation, see Idel's Golem: Jewish Magic and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. For figures, tables, and a highly detailed explanation of the 221 gates, see Aryeh Kaplan's translation and commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah.)

The Kabbalist(s) involved in combination techniques were sometimes required to circle the golem, in varying numbers of times, one way to create, the other to destroy, while performing the recitations.

If combined with meditative, paced breathing and pronunciation techniques, some of these methods would have taken the Kabbalist 36 hours or more of uninterrupted meditation to complete!

In another combination method, the mystic was required to combine the 42-letter Name of God and the Tetragrammaton in special ways, then inscribe several Names on the golems forehead to bring it to life.

An even more direct method was to purify oneself, prepare the virgin soil-and-water mixture, and pronounce the ineffable 72-part Name of God over it. However, since the exact pronunciation of this Name was kept very secret due to the extreme powers it wielded, and since a single slip in pronunciation would likely result in the death of the speaker, it is to be suspected this method went largely unused.

By the time we arrive at the stories concerning Rabbi Loew and the golem of Prague, the method of creating the golem is greatly simplified, though perhaps for the sake of storytelling. In these accounts, the soil is prepared, and the Kabbalist(s) circle the golem-body, reciting "secret names". As they do so the soil body gradually takes on human qualities. When the body is complete, it is activated by means of placing a word or a name on its forehead or forearm, occasionally in its mouth (in one account an amulet bearing a Name of God is hung around the creature's neck).

Popular "activation" word choices were adam (the first man, created out of the earth) and emet (truth). When it came time to deactivate the golem, the first letter of these words would be erased: without aleph, Adam becomes dam (blood), and without ayin, emet becomes met (dead). When the "live" word became a "dead" word, the golem would shut down. If a Name of God had been written on a parchment placed in the mouth (or occasionally under the skin) to activate the golem, it was simply removed to deactivate it.

Rabbi Loew's procedure went as follows: After asking a dream question as to how he might protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, Loew is answered in his dream with the alphabetical Hebrew phrase, "Ato Bra Golem Devuk Hachomer V'tigsar Khavel Torfe Yisroel", which means, "Create a golem out of clay who will destroy all the enemies of Israel." He told this to his son-in-law, Isaac Ha-Cohen, and his best pupil, Jecob Ha-Levi. He said he needed their help because they were born under the signs of fire and water, respectively, and Rabbi Loew himself under the sign of air; together with the soil, they would have representatives of all the elements needed to create a golem.

The three went out to the river at dawn, and "on a clay bank… measured out a man three cubits long, and...drew his face in the earth, and his arms and legs, the way a man lies on his back." Loew then instructed his pupils to circle the golem seven times each, while reciting formulas (unspecified in the story) Loew revealed to them. First the figure glowed red hot, then cooled in the image of a formed man. Next, Loew himself circled the golem seven times with a Torah. Finally, the three of them recited the activation words, Genesis 2:7: "The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."


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