357px-Golem by Philippe Semeria

An illustration of a golem.

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing.[1]

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague.



The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalm 139:16, which uses the word גלמי, meaning "my unshaped form".[2] The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person: "Seven characteristics are in an uncultivated person, and seven in a learned one", Pirkei Avos 5:9 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 brainless lunk or entity who serves man under controlled conditions but is hostile to him and others. "Golem" passed into Yiddish as goylem to mean someone who is clumsy or slow.

Earliest storiesEdit

The earliest 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. They were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God. A very holy person was one who strove to approach God, and in that pursuit would gain some of God's wisdom and power. One of these powers was the creation of life. However, no matter how holy a person became, a being created by that person would be but a shadow of one created by God.

Early on, it was noted that 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 magicians; return to your dust."

During the Middle Ages, passages from the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) were studied as a means to attain the mystical ability 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]

In some tales, (for example those of the Golem of Chelm and the Golem of Prague) a golem is inscribed with Hebrew words that keep it animated. The word emet (אמת, "truth" in the Hebrew language) written on a golem's forehead is one such example. The golem could then be deactivated by removing the aleph (א) in emet, thus changing the inscription from 'truth' to 'death' (met מת, "dead"). Legend and folklore suggest that golems could be activated by writing a specific series of letters on parchment and placing the paper in a golem's mouth.

The Golem of ChelmEdit

The earliest known written account of the creation of a golem by a historical figure reported a tradition connected to Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm (1550–1583).[1][3][4] Moshe Idel comments, "This tradition in one form or another is the blueprint of the later legend of the creation of the Golem by Eliayahu's famous contemporary R. Yehudah Leow of Prague."[1][5]

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 Yaakov 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."[6]

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][7]

The classic narrative: The Golem of PragueEdit

Golem and Loew

Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899.

The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century chief rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks[8] 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. To protect the Jewish community, the rabbi constructed the Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations. As this golem grew, it became increasingly violent, killing gentiles and spreading fear. 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 turning on its creator or attacking other Jews.[8]

The Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to destroy the Golem, promising to stop the persecution of the Jews. To deactivate the Golem, the rabbi rubbed out the first letter of the word "emet" (truth or reality) from the creature's forehead leaving the Hebrew word "met", meaning dead. 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. According to legend, the body of Rabbi Loew's Golem still lies in the synagogue's attic. 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 great Žižkovská tower now stands. A recent legend tells of a Nazi agent ascending to the synagogue attic during World War II and trying to stab the Golem, but he died instead.[9] When the attic was renovated in 1883, no evidence of the Golem was found.[10] A film crew who visited and filmed the attic in 1984 found no evidence either.[10] The attic is not open to the general public.[11]

Some strictly orthodox Jews believe that the Maharal did actually create a golem. Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the last Rebbe of Lubavitch) wrote that his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, told him that he saw the remains of the Golem in the attic of Alt-Neu Shul. Rabbi Chaim Noach Levin also wrote in his notes on Megillas Yuchsin that he heard directly from Rabbi Yosef Shaul Halevi, the head of the Rabbinical court of Lemberg, that when he wanted to go see the remains of the Golem, the sexton of the Alt-Neu Shul said that Rabbi Yechezkel Landau had advised against going up to the attic after he himself had gone up.[12] The evidence for this belief has been analyzed from an orthodox Jewish perspective by Shnayer Z. Leiman.[10][13]

Sources of the Prague narrativeEdit


Synagogue of Prague with the rungs of the ladder to the attic on the wall.

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[14]

Cathy Gelbin finds an earlier source in Philippson's The Golem and the Adulteress, published in the Jewish magazine Shulamit in 1834, which describes how the Maharal sent a golem to find the reason for an epidemic among the Jews of Prague,[3][15] although doubts have been expressed as to whether this date is correct.[16] The earliest known source for the story thus far is the 1834 book Der Jüdische Gil Blas by Josef Seligman Kohn.[17][18] The story was repeated in Galerie der Sippurim (1847), an influential collection of Jewish tales published by Wolf Pascheles of Prague.

All 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[3][5] and that they may have been based on Jewish oral tradition.[5] There is a Hebrew source in Megillat Yuchasin (1864).

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)[19] originated the idea that the narrative dates from the time of the Maharal. Rosenberg published Niflaos Maharal: Ha Golem Al Prague (Wonders of the Maharal: The Golem of Prague) (Warsaw, 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 the Maharal "is generally recognized in academic circles to be a literary hoax".[1][13][20] Gershom Sholem observed that the manuscript "contains not ancient legends but modern fiction".[21] 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 gives David Gans, a disciple of the Maharal, as a source for the story, citing his historical work Zemach David, published in 1592.[22][23] 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."[24] 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."[10][14] Furthermore, the Maharal himself did not refer to the Golem in his writings.[10] Rabbi Yedidiah Tiah Weil (1721–1805), a Prague resident, who described the creation of golems, including those created by Rabbi Avigdor Kara of Prague, did not mention the Maharal, and Rabbi Meir Perels' biography of the Maharal published in 1745 does not mention a golem.[3][10]

The Golem of VilnaEdit

There is a similar tradition relating to the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797). Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (Lithuania 1749–1821) had reports in an introduction to a Gaon book, Sifra Dezniuta (1818)[25] 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 his clarity in this passage 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.[26] As far as we know, the Vilna Gaon is the only Rabbi who had actually claimed that he had tried to create a Golem (all such stories about other rabbis were in every case a very late legends created long after their time). The Gaon of Vilna had also written the most extensive commentary known on the Sefer Yetzira,[27] which shows his interest in the subject. According to the book Kol HaTor, the Gaon had tried to create the Golem to fight the power of evil at the Gates of Jerusalem.[28]

Hubris themeEdit

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 Chelm 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 hubris theme in Frankenstein, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and some golem-derived stories in popular culture. 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 Capek denied that he modeled the robot after the Golem, there are many similarities in the plot.[29]

20th and 21st centuriesEdit


Statue of Prague Golem created for the film Císaruv pekar — Pekaruv císar

In the early 20th century, the golem was adopted by mainstream European society. Most notably, Gustav Meyrink's 1914 novel Der Golem is loosely inspired by the tales of the Golem created by Judah Loew ben Bezalel. These same tales inspired a classic set of expressionistic silent movies, Paul Wegener's Golem series, of which The Golem: How He Came into the World (also released as The Golem, 1920, USA 1921: the only surviving film of the trilogy) is especially famous. In the first film the golem is revived in modern times before falling from a Tower and breaking apart. Another famous treatment from the same era is H. Leivick's 1921 Yiddish-language "dramatic poem in eight sections" The Golem. There was a 1966 film entitled It!, starring Roddy McDowall, about a golem. Also notable is Julien Duvivier's Le Golem (1936), a sequel to the Wegener film. Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote a version of the legend. Elie Wiesel wrote a children's book on the legend.

In 1974, Marvel Comics introduced "The Golem" as a recurring character in its Strange Tales comic book series.

As the 29th episode from the second season of Gargoyles, Golem, first aired on December 14, 1995, depicts Goliath, Elisa Maza, Goliath's daughter Angela and their gargoyle beast Bronx on their "Avalon World Tour" confronting the ailing millionaire Halcyon Renard in Prague, as the terminally ill Mr. Renard attempts to illicitly transfer his soul into the Golem of Prague to extend his existence.

Pete Hamill's 1998 novel Snow In August includes a retelling of the story of Rabbi Loew and the Prague Golem. The 2004 novel The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud revolves around a golem. Ted Chiang makes use of the myth of the golem in his novella "Seventy Two Letters".[30]

Michael Chabon's 2001 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay features one of the protagonists, Josef Kavalier, an amateur Jewish magician smuggling himself out of Nazi Europe along with the Prague Golem. The theme of vengeance against anti-Semites and subsequent regret of such deeds pervades the novel, culminating in Kavalier's own drawing of a modern graphic novel centered around a golem.

Some of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels have used golems as a central theme. The novel Feet of Clay revolves around the attempts of golems to free themselves, and Making Money describes the effect of free golems on the city of Ankh-Morpork's economy. Piers Anthony featured a golem character, Grundy, in the novel Golem in the Gears in his Xanth series.

David Brin's science-fiction novel, Kiln People, describes a future where humans make lower quality copies of themselves (dittos or golems) out of clay. After reaching their expiration date, the Golem's memories can be reintegrated to the original person or not. There are references to the Jewish legend such as the name of the character Yosil Maharal.

Marge Piercy's novel He, She and It tells the story of a cyborg, Yod, who is deliberately contrasted with the Golem of Prague.

The DC comic Swamp Thing #153, "Twilight of the Gods" by Mark Millar and Chris Weston is set in an alternate history where Germany won World War II and the US President attempts to evoke a golem in order to destroy the world.

The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror XVII" features Bart discovering the Golem of Prague in Krusty's storeroom.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges famously wrote a poem named "The Golem".

The X-Files episode "Kaddish" features a golem-like creature.

China Miéville's novel Iron Council centers around a golemist named Judah Low, a direct reference to Judah Loew ben Bezalel.


Golems often appear in the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons, where they may be constructed of nearly any material from wood to spider silk. The large influence of Dungeons and Dragons on video games and other tabletop role-playing games[31] has led to the inclusion of golems in many other tabletop and video games.

Culture of the Czech RepublicEdit

The Golem is a popular figure in the Czech Republic. There are several restaurants and other businesses whose names reference the creature.[8] Strongman René Richter goes by the nickname "Golem",[8] and a Czech monster truck outfit calls itself the "Golem Team".

A golem had a main role in the 1951 Czech movie "Císařův pekař" and "Pekařův císař" (released in the US as The Emperor and the Golem).

Abraham Akkerman preceded his article on human automatism in the contemporary city with a short satirical poem on a pair of golems turning human.[32]

Composer Karel Svoboda finished his last musical based on the legend of the golem.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h 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. ^ J. Simpson, E. Weiner (eds), ed (1989). "golem". Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-861186-2.
  3. ^ a b c d Gelbin, C . S., The Golem Returns – From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808–2008, University of Michigan, 2011
  4. ^ Introduction to "The Golem Returns. Retrieved 2011-09-23.
  5. ^ a b c Golems, forgeries and images of disrobed women in rabbinic literature. (2010-05-06). Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  6. ^ שו"ת שאילת יעב"ץ, ח"ב, ס' פ"ב. Cf. his בירת מגדל עוז, Altona, 1748, p. 259a; מטפחת ספרים, Altona, 1768, p. 45a; and מגילת ספר, ed. Kahana, Warsaw, 1896, p. 4. See also שו"ת חכם צבי, ס' צ"ג, 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?"
  7. ^ The tradition is also recorded in ה לחורבנה / תל-אביב: ארגון יוצאי חלם בישראל ובארה"ב, תשמ"א
  8. ^ a b c d Bilefsky, Dan (May 11, 2009). "Hard Times Give New Life to Prague’s Golem". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-05-11. "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."
  9. ^ Lee-Parritz, Oren. "The Golem Lives On". Retrieved 12 January 2011.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Leiman, S. Z., The Golem of Prague in Recent Rabbinic Literature
  11. ^ Old New Synagogue located in Praha, Czech Republic|Atlas Obscura|Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  12. ^ Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg. Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg. Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  13. ^ a b Leiman, S.Z., " The Adventure of The Maharal of Prague in London: R. Yudl Rosenberg and The Golem of Prague", Tradition, 36:1, 2002
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ See also Jewish Encyclopedia (1906): "A legend connected with [the Maharal's] Golem is given in German verse by Gustav Philippson in Allg. Zeit. des Jud. 1841, No. 44 (abridged in Sulamith, viii. 254; translated into Hebrew in Kokebe Yiẓḥaḳ, No. 28, p. 75, Vienna, 1862)"
  16. ^ The real new earliest known source in print for the Golem of Prague?. (2011-03-04). Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  17. ^ The new earliest known source in print for the Golem of Prague. (2011-03-03). Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  18. ^ Kohn, J. S., Der jüdische Gil Blas, Leipzig, 1834, p.20
  19. ^ Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg and the Maharal's Golem
  20. ^ Sherwin, Byron L. (1985) The Golem Legend: Origins and Implications. New York: University Press of America
  21. ^ Sholem, G., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken, 1961
  22. ^ HUNGARIAN STUDIES 2. No. 2. Nemzetközi Magyar Filológiai Társaság. Akadémiai Kiadó Budapest [1986]. (PDF) . Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  23. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia. Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  24. ^ Gans, D., Zemach David, ed. M.Breuer, Jerusalem, 1983, p.145, cited Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg and the Maharal's Golem
  25. ^ Sefer Detail: ספרא דצניעותא – אליהו ב"ר שלמה זלמן מווילנא (הגר"א). Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  26. ^ [1] See also discussion in Hans Ludwig Held, Das Gespenst des Golem, eine Studie aus d. hebräischen Mystik mit einem Exkurs über das Wesen des Doppelgängers, München 1927
  27. ^ Sefer Detail: ספר יצירה ע"פ הגר"א. Retrieved on 2011-09-23.
  28. ^ [] (1942-01-31). Retrieved on 2011-09-23
  29. ^ Karel Capek. "R.U.R.- Rossums Universal Robots". translation By Voyen Koreis
  30. ^ "The Bridge Between Truth/Death and Power/Knowledge: Ted Chiang's Seventy-two Letters".
  31. ^ PC Gamer; How Dungeons & Dragons shaped the modern videogame
  32. ^ Akkerman, Abraham (2003/2004). "Philosophical Urbanism and Deconstruction in City-Form: An Environmental Ethos for the Twenty-First Century". Structurist 43/44: 48–61. Published also as Paper CTS-04-06 by the Center for Theoretical Study, Prague.

Further readingEdit

  • Bilski, Emily B. (1988). Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art. New York: The Jewish Museum. ISBN 8-7334-0493-0.
  • Bloch, Chayim; tr, Schneiderman, H. (1972). The Golem: Mystical Tales of the Ghetto of Prague (English translation from German. First published in 'Oestereschischen Wochenschrift' 1917). New York: Steinerbooks. ISBN 0-8334-1726.
  • Chihaia, Matei (2011). Der Golem-Effekt. Orientierung und phantastische Immersion im Zeitalter des Kinos. Bielefeld: transcript. ISBN 978-3-8376-1714-6.
  • Faucheux, Michel (2008). Norbert Wiener, le golem et la cybernétique. Paris: Editions du Sandre.
  • Dennis, Geoffrey (2007). The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. Woodbury (MN): Llewellyn Worldwide. ISBN 0-7387-0905-0.
  • Winkler, Gershon (1980). The Golem of Prague: A New Adaptation of the Documented Stories of the Golem of Prague. New York: Judaica Press. ISBN 0-9108-1825-8.
  • Goldsmith, Arnold L. (1981). The Golem Remembered 1909–1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-16832-8.
  • Idel, Mosche (1990). Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. Albany (NY): State University of New York Press. ISBN 0-7914-0160-X.
  • 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.
  • 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.

External linksEdit

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