views updated Jun 11 2018


GOLEM (Heb. גֹּלֶם), a creature, particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by virtue of a magic act, through the use of holy names. The idea that it is possible to create living beings in this manner is widespread in the magic of many peoples. Especially well known are the idols and images to which the ancients claimed to have given the power of speech. Among the Greeks and the Arabs these activities are sometimes connected with astrological speculations related to the possibility of "drawing the spirituality of the stars" to lower beings (see *Astrology). The development of the idea of the golem in Judaism, however, is remote from astrology: it is connected, rather, with the magical exegesis of the Sefer *Yeẓirah ("Book of Creation") and with the ideas of the creative power of speech and of the letters.

The word "golem" appears only once in the Bible (Ps. 139:16), and from it originated the talmudic usage of the term – something unformed and imperfect. In philosophic usage it is matter without form. Adam is called "golem," meaning body without soul, in a talmudic legend concerning the first 12 hours of his existence (Sanh. 38b). However, even in this state, he was accorded a vision of all the generations to come (Gen. R. 24:2), as if there were in the golem a hidden power to grasp or see, bound up with the element of earth from which he was taken. The motif of the golem as it appearsin medieval legends originates in the talmudic legend (Sanh. 65b): "Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zera. The latter spoke to him but he did not answer. He asked, 'Are you one of the companions? Return to your dust.'" It is similarly told that two amoraim busied themselves on the eve of every Sabbath with the Sefer Yeẓirah (or in another version Hilkhot ẓezirah) and made a calf for themselves and ate it. These legends are brought as evidence that "If the righteous wished, they could create a world." They are connected, apparently, with the belief in the creative power of the letters of the Name of God and the letters of the Torah in general (Ber. 55a; Mid. Ps. 3). There is disagreement as to whether the Sefer Yeẓirah or Hilkhot Yeẓirah, mentioned in the Talmud, is the same book called by these two titles which we now possess. Most of this book is of a speculative nature, but its affinity to the magical ideas concerning creation by means of letters is obvious. What is said in the main part of the book about God's act during creation is attributed at the end of the book to *Abraham the Patriarch. The various transformations and combinations of the letters constitute a mysterious knowledge of the inwardness of creation. During the Middle Ages, Sefer Yeẓirah was interpreted in some circles in France and Germany as a guide to magical usage. Later legends in this direction were first found at the end of the commentary on the Sefer Yeẓirah by *Judah b. Barzillai (beginning of the 12th century). There the legends of the Talmud were interpreted in a new way: at the conclusion of profound study of the mysteries of Sefer Yeẓirah on the construction of the cosmos, the sages (as did Abraham the Patriarch) acquired the power to create living beings, but the purpose of such creation was purely symbolic and contemplative, and when the sages wanted to eat the calf which was created by the power of their "contemplation" of the book, they forgot all they had learned. From these late legends there developed among the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz in the 12th and 13th centuries the idea of the creation of the golem as a mystical ritual, which was used, apparently, to symbolize the level of their achievement at the conclusion of their studies. In this circle, the term "golem" has, for the first time, the fixed meaning indicating such a creature.

In none of the early sources is there any mention of any practical benefit to be derived from a golem of this sort. In the opinion of the mystics, the creation of the golem had not a real, but only a symbolic, meaning; that is to say, it was an ecstatic experience which followed a festive rite. Those who took part in the "act of creation" took earth from virgin soil and made a golem out of it (or, according to another source, they buried that golem in the soil), and walked around the golem "as in a dance," combining the alphabetical letters and the secret Name of God in accordance with detailed sets of instructions (several of which have been preserved). As a result of this act of combination, the golem arose and lived, and when they walked in the opposite direction and said the same combination of letters in reverse order, the vitality of the golem was nullified and he sank or fell. According to other legends, the word emet (תמא; "truth"; "the seal of the Holy One," Shab. 55a; Sanh. 64b) was written on his forehead, and when the letter alef was erased there remained the word met ("dead"). There are legends concerning the creation of such a golem by the prophet *Jeremiah and his so-called "son" *Ben Sira, and also by the disciples of R. *Ishmael, the central figure of the Heikhalot literature. The technical instructions about the manner of uttering the combinations, and everything involved in the rite, proves that the creation of the golem is connected here with ecstatic spiritual experiences (end of commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah by *Eleazar of Worms; the chapter Sha'ashu'ei ha-Melekh in N. Bachrach's Emek ha-Melekh (Amsterdam, 1648); and in the commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah (Zolkiew, 1744–45) attributed to *Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon). In the legends about the golem of Ben Sira there is also a parallel to the legends on images used in idol worship which are given life by means of a name; the golem expresses a warning about it (idol worship) and demands his own death. It is said in several sources that the golem has no intellectual soul, and therefore he lacks the power of speech, but opposite opinions are also found which attribute this power to him. The opinions of the kabbalists concerning the nature of the creation of the golem vary. Moses *Cordovero thought that man has the power to give "vitality" alone to the golem but not life (nefesh), spirit (ru'aḥ), or soul proper (neshamah).

In the popular legend which adorned the figures of the leaders of the Ashkenazi ḥasidic movement with a crown of wonders, the golem became an actual creature who served his creators and fulfilled tasks laid upon him. Legends such as these began to make their appearance among German Jews in the 15th century and spread widely, so that by the 17th century they were "told by all" (according to Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo). In the development of the later legend of the golem there are three outstanding points:

(1) The legend is connected with earlier tales of the resurrection of the dead by putting the name of God in their mouths or on their arm, and by removing the parchment containing the name in reverse and thus causing their death. Such legends were widespread in Italy from the tenth century (in Megillat *Aḥima'az).

(2) It is related to ideas current in non-Jewish circles concerning the creation of an alchemical man (the "homunculus" of Paracelsus).

(3) The golem, who is the servant of his creator, develops dangerous natural powers; he grows from day to day, and in order to keep him from overpowering the members of the household he must be restored to his dust by removing or erasing the alef from his forehead.

Here, the idea of the golem is joined by the new motive of the unrestrained power of the elements which can bring about destruction and havoc. Legends of this sort appeared first in connection with Elijah, rabbi of Chelm (d. 1583). Zevi Hirsch *Ashkenazi and his son Jacob Emden, who were among his descendants, discussed in their responsa whether or not it is permitted to include a golem of this sort in a minyan (they prohibited it). Elijah Gaon of Vilna told his disciple Ḥayyim b. Isaac of *Volozhin that as a boy he too had undertaken to make a golem, but he saw a vision which caused him to desist from his preparations.

The latest and best-known form of the popular legend is connected with *Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague. This legend has no historical basis in the life of Loew or in the era close to his lifetime. It was transferred from R. Elijah of Chelm to R. Loew only at a very late date, apparently during the second half of the 18th century. As a local legend of Prague, it is connected with the Altneuschul synagogue and with an explanation of special practices in the prayers of the congregation of Prague. According to these legends, R. Loew created the golem so that he would serve him, but was forced to restore him to his dust when the golem began to run amok and endanger people's lives.

[Gershom Scholem]

Descriptions of creations of artificial anthropoids quite reminiscent of the medieval Jewish golem are found in Arabic magic predating Ḥasidei Ashkenaz and were available to some Jewish authors. In the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz and in the Jewish French esoterica, there are a variety of recipes for and views of the golem, which point to earlier traditions. In Kabbalah the golem legend has been interpreted in different ways, either as an entity created by astro-magic, or as a figure to be visualized in different colors, or even a symbol of the divine sphere. In Italian Renaissance, an interest in the subject of the golem is evident both in Jewish and Christian sources.

[Moshe Idel (2nd ed.)]

In the Arts

The legends concerning the golem, especially in their later forms, served as a favorite literary subject, at first in German literature – of both Jews and non-Jews – in the 19th century, and afterward in modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature. To the domain of belles lettres also belongs the book Nifla'ot Maharal im ha-Golem ("The Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Loew with the Golem," 1909), which was published by Judah Rosenberg as an early manuscript but actually was not written until after the *blood libels of the 1890s. The connection between the golem and the struggle against ritual murder accusations is entirely a modern literary invention. In this literature questions are discussed which had no place in the popular legends (e.g., the golem's love for a woman), or symbolic interpretations of the meaning of the golem were raised (the unredeemed, unformed man; the Jewish people; the working class aspiring for its liberation).

Interest in the golem legend among writers, artists, and musicians became evident in the early 20th century. The golem was almost invariably the benevolent robot of the later Prague tradition and captured the imagination of writers active in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Germany. Two early works on the subject were the Austrian playwright Rudolf *Lothar's volume of stories entitled Der Golem, Phantasien und Historien (1900, 19042) and the German novelist Arthur *Holitscher's three-act drama Der Golem (1908). The Prague German-language poet Hugo *Salus published verse on "Der hohe Rabbi Loew" and by World War i the theme had gained widespread popularity. The outstanding work about the golem was the novel entitled Der Golem (1915; Eng., 1928) by the Bavarian writer Gustav Meyrink (1868–1932), who spent many years in Prague. Meyrink's book, notable for its detailed description and nightmare atmosphere, was a terrifying allegory about man's reduction to an automaton by the pressures of modern society. Other works on the subject include Johannes Hess' Der Rabbiner von Prag (Reb Loeb)… (1914), a four-act "kabbalistic drama"; Chayim Bloch's Der Prager Golem: von seiner "Geburt" bis zu seinem "Tod" (1917; The Golem. Legends of the Ghetto of Prague, 1925); and Ha-Golem (1909), a story by the Hebrew writer David *Frischmann which later appeared in his collection Ba-Midbar (1923). The Yiddish dramatist H. *Leivick's Der Golem (1921; Eng., 1928) was first staged in Moscow in Hebrew by the Habimah Theater. Artistic and musical interpretations of the theme were dependent on the major literary works. Hugo Steiner-Prag produced lithographs to accompany Meyrink's novel (Der Golem; Prager Phantasien, 1915), the book itself inspiring a classic German silent film directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen (1920), and a later French remake by Julien Duvivier (1936). The screenplay for a post-World War ii Czech film about the golem was written by Arnost *Lustig. Music for Leivick's drama was written by Moses *Milner; and Eugen d'Albert's opera Der Golem, with libretto by F. Lion, had its première at Frankfurt in 1926, but has not survived in the operatic repertory. A more lasting work was Joseph *Achron's Golem Suite for orchestra (1932), composed under the influence of the Habimah production. The last piece of this suite was written as the first movement's exact musical image in reverse to symbolize the disintegration of the homunculus. Der Golem, a ballet by Francis Burt with choreography by Erika Hanka, was produced in Vienna in 1962.


Ch. Bloch, The Golem (1925); H.L. Held, Das Gespenst des Golems (1927); B. Rosenfeld, Die Golemsage und ihre Verwertung in der deutschen Literatur (1934); G. Scholem, Onthe Kabbalah and its Symbolism (1965), 158–204; F. Thieberger, The Great Rabbi Loew of Prague: His Life and Work and the Legend of the Golem (1954). add. bibliography: E. Bilsky (ed.), Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art, foreword by Isaac Bashevis Singer, with essays by M. Idel and E. Ledig (1988); M. Idel, "Golems and God: Mimesis and Confrontation," in: O. Krueger, R. Sarioender, A. Deschner (eds.), Mythen der kreativitaet (2003), 224–68; idem, Golem; Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (1990); H.J. Kieval, "Pursuing the Golem of Prague; Jewish Culture and the Invention of a Tradition," in: Modern Judaism, 17:1 (1997), 1–23; P. Schaefer, "The Magic of the Golem; the Early Development of the Golem Legend," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 46 (1995), 249–61; B.L. Sherwin, The Golem Legend: Origins and Implications (1985); idem, Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate the Biotech Century (2004).


views updated May 17 2018


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, 1925.

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.


views updated Jun 11 2018


According to Jewish legend, a golem was a human-shaped object brought to life by a magic word. Usually the golem functioned like a robot and could perform simple tasks. However, in some tales, the golem became a violent monster that could not be controlled, even by its creator.

Although the idea of a golem goes back to biblical times, most legends about the creature appeared during the Middle Ages. Typically, the golem came to life when a special word such as truth or one of the names of God was written on a piece of paper and placed on the golem's forehead or in its mouth. At any point, the creator of the golem might end its life by removing the paper with the sacred word.

In a famous story from the 1500s, Rabbi Judah Low ben Bezulel of Prague created a golem from clay. In another legend, set in Poland, a golem made by Rabbi Elijah of Chelm became so powerful and dangerous that the rabbi hurriedly changed it back into a lifeless heap.

See also Semitic Mythology.


views updated May 29 2018

Golem (Heb., ‘shapeless matter’). An embryo (Psalms 139. 16) or stupid person (Avot 5. 9), and eventually a creature brought into being artificially through the use of God's name. At the outset, they are created as useful servants, but they use their great strength malignantly and get completely out of control.


views updated May 17 2018

Golem. Opera in 2 parts (Prelude and Legend) by Casken, to lib. by composer and Pierre Audi, comp. 1988–9. F.p. London, 1989; f. Amer. p. Omaha, 1990. Won first Britten Award for Composition, 1990. Also an opera by Larry Sitsky, f.p. Sydney, NSW, 1993.


views updated May 21 2018

golem in Jewish legend, a clay figure brought to life by magic; an automaton or robot. The word is recorded from the late 19th century, and comes via Yiddish from Hebrew gōlem ‘shapeless mass’.