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In Jewish folklore, a golem (// GOH-ləm; Hebrew: גולם) is an animated anthropomorphic being, magically created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material (usually out of stone and clay) in Psalms and medieval writing.
The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalms 139:16, which uses the word גלמי (galmi; my golem), meaning "my unshaped form", connoting the unfinished human being before God’s eyes. The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person: "Seven characteristics are in an uncultivated person, and seven in a learned one," (שבעה דברים בגולם) (Pirkei Avot 5:6 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 under others. "Golem" passed into Yiddish as goylem to mean someone who is clumsy or slow.
The oldest 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 forming a "shem" (any one of the Names of God). The shem was written on a piece of paper and inserted either in the mouth or in the forehead of the golem, thus bringing it into life and action.
In some tales, (for example, some versions of those of the golems of Chełm and Prague, as well as in Polish tales and version of Brothers Grimm), a golem is inscribed with Hebrew words, such as the word emet (אמת, "truth" in Hebrew) written on its forehead. The golem could then be deactivated by removing the aleph (א) in emet, thus changing the inscription from "truth" to "death" (met מת, meaning "dead"). Other versions add that after creating an entity out of clay, it would be brought to life by placing into his mouth a shem with a magic formula, and could later be immobilized by pulling out the shem, or by reversing the creative combinations, for, as Rabbi Jacob ben Shalom, who arrived at Barcelona from Germany in 1325, remarked, the law of destruction is the reversal of the law of creation.
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." A similar account was reported by a Christian author, Christoph Arnold, in 1674.
Rabbi Jacob 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."
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."
The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late 16th century rabbi of Prague, also known as the Maharal, who reportedly created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from antisemitic attacks 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. The Golem was called Josef and was known as Yossele. It was said that he could make himself invisible and summon spirits from the dead. The only care required of the Golem was that he can't be alive on the day of Sabbath (Saturday). Rabbi Loew deactivated the Golem on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath began, so as to let it rest on Sabbath. One Friday evening Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem, and feared that the Golem would desecrate the Sabbath. 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 going on a murderous rampage.
The rabbi then managed to pull the shem from his mouth and immobilize him in front of the synagogue, whereupon the golem fell in pieces. 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. When the attic was renovated in 1883, no evidence of the Golem was found. 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 Žižkov Television 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. A film crew who visited and filmed the attic in 1984 found no evidence either. The attic is not open to the general public.
Some strictly orthodox Jews believe that the Maharal did actually create a golem. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the last Rebbe of Lubavitch) wrote that his father-in-law, Rabbi 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. The evidence for this belief has been analyzed from an orthodox Jewish perspective by Shnayer Z. Leiman.
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 Robert Zucker, "the golem legend about R. Chełm moved to Prague and became related with" Rabbi Loew of Prague about mid-18th century. According to John Neubauer, the first writers on the Prague Golem were:
There is also a published account from 1838, written by the German Czech journalist Franz Klutschack. 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, although doubts have been expressed as to whether this date is correct. The earliest known source for the story thus far is the 1834 book Der Jüdische Gil Blas by Josef Seligman Kohn. 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 and that they may have been based on Jewish oral tradition.
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) originated the idea that the narrative dates from the time of the Maharal. Rosenberg published Nifl'os Maharal (Wonders of Maharal) (Piotrków, 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 Maharal "is generally recognized in academic circles to be a literary hoax". Gershom Sholem observed that the manuscript "contains not ancient legends but modern fiction". 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 cites the historical work Zemach David by David Gans, a disciple of the Maharal, published in 1592. 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." 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." Furthermore, the Maharal himself did not refer to the Golem in his writings. Rabbi Yedidiah Tiah Weil (1721–1805), a Prague resident, who described the creation of golems, including those created by Rabbis Avigdor Kara of Prague (died 1439) and Eliyahu of Chelm, did not mention the Maharal, and Rabbi Meir Perels' biography of the Maharal published in 1718 does not mention a golem.
There is a similar tradition relating to the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797). Rabbi Chaim Volozhin (Lithuania 1749–1821) reports in an introduction to Siphra Dzeniouta (1818) 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 such clarity, 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. The Vilna Gaon wrote an extensive commentary on the Sefer Yetzira, Kol HaTor, in which it is said that he had tried to create a Golem to fight the power of evil at the Gates of Jerusalem. As far as we know, the Vilna Gaon is the only rabbi who has actually claimed that he tried to create a Golem; all such stories about other rabbis were told after their time.
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 Chełm 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.[clarification needed] 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 Čapek denied that he modeled the robot after the Golem, there are many similarities in the plot.
The Golem is a popular figure in the Czech Republic. There are several restaurants and other businesses whose names make reference to the creature, a Czech strongman (René Richter) goes by the nickname "Golem", and a Czech monster truck outfit calls itself the "Golem Team".
Abraham Akkerman preceded his article on human automatism in the contemporary city with a short satirical poem on a pair of golems turning human.
A Yiddish and Slavic folktale is the Clay Boy, which combines elements of the Golem and The Gingerbread Man, in which a lonely couple make a child out of clay, with disastrous or comical consequences. In one common Russian version, an older couple whose children have left home make a boy out of clay, and dry him by their hearth. The Clay Boy comes to life; at first the couple are delighted and treat him like a real child, but the Clay Boy does not stop growing, and eats all their food, then all their livestock, and then the Clay Boy eats his parents. The Clay Boy rampages through the village until he is smashed by a quick-thinking goat.
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Mainstream European society adopted the golem in the early 20th century. Most notably, Gustav Meyrink's 1914 novel Der Golem is loosely inspired by the tales of the golem created by Rabbi Loew. Another famous treatment from the same era is H. Leivick's 1921 Yiddish-language "dramatic poem in eight sections", The Golem. In 1923, Roumanian composer Nicolae Bretan wrote the one-act opera The Golem, first performed the following year in Cluj and later revived in Denver, Colorado, US in 1990. Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote a version of the legend,[clarification needed] and Elie Wiesel wrote a children's book on the legend.[clarification needed]
In 1958, Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges published a poem about the golem using the image of the golem creature and the creator/creature Rabbi Loew, called Juda Leon. The work addressed a circular argument among the creator and the creation, the name, and the meaning of the name using the argument of Cratylus.
Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series of novels (1980–1990), which features two parallel worlds—one ruled by technology and the other by magic—draws a parallel between robots and golems. Additionally, Grundy the Golem is a character in his Xanth series.
The novels of Terry Pratchett in the fictional setting of Discworld also include several golems as characters. For example, they are a plot device in the 1996 novel Feet of Clay, in which the golems create their own golem. The golems of Discworld are also much more intelligent than most representations; though still bound to obedience, if they feel they are mistreated they will take an obstructively literal interpretation of their orders as a form of rebellion. The golems also figure into the sub-series featuring "Moist von Lipwig" that begins with "Going Postal." Von Lipwig's love interest, "Adora Belle Dearheart", runs the Golem Trust, whose purpose is to free all golems on the Discworld. Although this also becomes the stated purpose of the golem Dorfl from Feet of Clay, he and the Golem Trust have not interacted professionally as of "Making Money".
In Cynthia Ozick's 1997 novel The Puttermesser Papers, a modern Jewish woman, Ruth Puttermesser, creates a female golem out of the dirt in her flowerpots to serve as the daughter she never had. The golem helps Puttermesser become elected Mayor of New York before it begins to run out of control. Pete Hamill's 1997 novel Snow In August includes a story of a rabbi from Prague who has a golem.
Michael Chabon's 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, features one of the protagonists, escape artist Josef Kavalier, smuggling himself out of Prague along with the golem. Petrie describes the theme of escape in the novel, culminating in Kavalier's own drawing of a modern graphic novel centered around a golem.
In James Sturm's 2001 graphic novel The Golem's Might Swing, a Jewish baseball team in the 1920s creates a golem to help them win their games. The 2004 novel, The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud, revolves around a golem.
Joe Golem was created by Mike Mignola in the Hellboy comic books, published by Dark Horse comics.
In Byron L. Sherwin's 2006 novel "The Cubs and the Kabbalist", rabbis create a golem named Sandy Greenberg to help baseball's Chicago Cubs win the World Series.
In 2009, horror writer Edward Lee released the novel Golemesque, later retitled The Golem when released in mass market paperback form in which corpses are transformed into golems via mystic rites performed by a satanic sect of Kaballah and by covering the bodies with special clay taken from the banks of the Vltava river in the Czech Republic.
The BioWare role-playing video game series Dragon Age includes Golems as a group of warriors built by dwarves to battle the dark spawn. The 2009 Dragon Age: Origins introduces them, with the golem Shale as a possible companion, and they also appear in the 2011 game Dragon Age II.
In the 2013 Charlayne Crawford novel The Golem & The Tzaddik, the golem named Yossi kills government agents whom persecute Anna. In a sequel, The Golem Of Fire Mountain, Crawford resurrects the golem when more evil agents come town to destroy the golem and kill Anna.
Golems appear in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons (first published in the 1970s), and the influence of Dungeons and Dragons has led to the inclusion of golems in other video games and in tabletop role-playing games.
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