Golems

Making Men of Clay: Can imitating God extend to the creative realm?

Print this page Print this page

 Reprinted from The Jewish Religion, A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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.

The Maharal of Prague

Mary Shelley is supposed to have based her story of Frankenstein on the golem legend.

The legend reached the city of Prague not earlier than the year 1730 where the famous Maharal of Prague was said to have created a golem in order to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms. When the golem began to get out of hand, the Maharal took the divine name from his forehead and restored the golem to his dust which is now supposed to reside in an attic in the Altneuschul. For the benefit of tourists, shops in Prague now sell models of the golem which closely resemble the figure of the Frankenstein monster.

When Gershom Scholem heard that the Weitzmann Institute at Rehovot had completed the building of a new computer, he suggested that in his opinion the computer should be called Golem I.

Behind all the golem legends lies the belief, especially prominent in the Kabbalah, that the mystics, by using the creative energy inherent in the divine names, repeat the divine creative processes. The whole fascinating legend owes its importance to this belief in which the doctrine of the imitation of God is applied to the creative as well as the ethical sphere.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.