Making men of clay: Can imitating God extend to the creative realm?


A golem is a creature made out of clay into which life has been injected by magical means. The Hebrew word golem means something incomplete or unfinished, as in the verse (Psalms 139:16) referring to the human embryo: “Thine eyes did see mine unfinished substance (golmi).”

While the notion that it is possible to bring to life an artificial semi-human figure is found in the Talmud, the term golem for such a creature was not used until centuries later. In Ethics of the Fathers (5.7) the golem is contrasted with the wise man and thus denotes a stupid person, like ‘dummy’ in English slang.

In a talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 65b) it is stated that the Babylonian teacher Rava (fourth century CE) created a man and sent him to Rabbi Zera who tried to converse with him but when he saw that the man could not speak he said: ‘You belong to that crew (of the magicians), go back to dust.’

The passage continues that the two third-century Palestinian teachers Rabbi Haninah and Rabbi Oshea, with the aid of the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) created a calf every eve of the Sabbath which they ate on the Sabbath. This passage implies that the Rabbis brought these creatures into being by white magic in which, as it was later spelled out, divine names, the creative powers in the universe, were utilized.

Legends of the Golem

This formed the basis of the post-talmudic legends of the golem. In a manuscript of Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, discovered by Gershom Scholem, the technique for creating a golem (this is the earliest reference to the term for the creature) is described: “He who consults the Sefer Yetzirah must first perform a ritual immersion and put on white garments. He then takes virgin soil from a mountain which has not been dug by men, soaks it in water from a well, and makes the golem, forming each limb by reciting alphabetical permutations.”

In the year 1808, Jakob Grimm, of fairy-tale fame, wrote: “After saying certain prayers and observing certain fast days, the Polish Jews make the figure of a man from clay or mud, and when they pronounce the divine name over him, he must come to life. He cannot speak, but he understands fairly well what is said or commanded. They call him Golem and use him as a servant to do all sorts of housework.” This kind of legend evidently enjoyed a wide circulation.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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