An artificial man-monster of Jewish legend created from
clay by a magic religious ceremony. The word golem was first
used in talmudic references to the creation of Adam to indicate
formless matter before the inception of a soul. Talmudic stories
of the third and fourth centuries suggest that certain rabbis
might have been able to create a manlike creature by magic
that followed the divine process of creation. In medieval kabbalistic
legends, such stories revolved around the symbolism of
the Sepher Yetsirah (Book of Creation), in which numbers and
letters are associated with parts of the body and astrological
correspondences. Much of Western occult practice is related to
such texts.
Jakob Grimm refers to such legends in his 1808 book Zeitung
für Einsiedler (Journal for Hermits) ‘‘The Polish Jews, after
having spoken certain prayers and observed certain Feast days,
make the figure of a man out of clay or lime which, after they
have pronounced the wonderworking Shem-ham-phorasch over
it, comes to life. It is true this figure cannot speak, but it can
understand what one says and commands it to do to a certain
extent. They call it Golem and use it as a servant to do all sorts
of housework; he may never go out alone. On his forehead the
word Aemaeth (Truth; God) is written, but he increases from day
to day and can easily become larger and stronger than his
house-comrades, however small he might have been in the beginning.
Being then afraid of him, they rub out the first letters
so that nothing remains but Maeth (he is dead), whereupon he
sinks together and becomes clay again.’’
In the sixteenth century, such legends crystallized around
Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (ca. 1520–1609), who was said to
have created a golem who not only worked as a servant but also
saved the Jews from persecution arising from false accusations
of ritual murders. The tomb of Rabbi Loew may still be visited
in the old Jewish Cemetery of Prague in Czechoslovakia.
In the seventeenth century, such stories were recorded in a
manuscript titled ‘‘Nifloet Mhrl’’ (Miracles of Rabbi Loew),
which formed the basis of the enchanting Der Prager Golem of
Chayim Bloch, translated into English by Harry Schneiderman
as The Golem Legends of the Ghetto of Prague, published in Vienna
in 1925. The book contains photographs of the Altneuschul
and the monument to Rabbi Loew in Prague. One of the legends
related by Bloch is ‘‘The Golem as Water Carrier,’’ and
there is a tradition that this story inspired Goethe’s ballad The
Sorcerer’s Apprentice during his visit to Prague.
The Prague legends also stimulated production of the German
silent film Der Golem, directed by Henrik Galeen and Paul
Wegener, released in 1915 and remade in 1920, as well as later
Czech and French films on the same theme. It also seems likely
that golem legends may have influenced British novelist Mary
Shelley in the creation of her famous novel Frankenstein, first
published in 1818. A later literary work influenced by the legend
was the powerful occult novel The Golem, by Gustav
Meyrink (1928).
Bloch, Chayim. Der Prager Golem. Translated by Harry Schneiderman
as The Golem Legends of the Ghetto of Prague. Vienna,
Meyrink, Gustav [G. Meyer]. The Golem. London, 1928. Reprint,
New York, 1964.
Scholem, Gershom G. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New
York Schocken Books, 1965.
Sherwin, Byron L. The Golem Legend Origins and Implications.
Lanham, Md. University Press of America, 1985.
Wiesel, Elie. The Golem The Story of a Legend. New York
Summit Books, 1983.
Winkler, Gershon. The Golem of Prague. New York Judaica
Press, 1980.