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In Jewish folklore, a golem (pron.: // GOH-ləm; Hebrew: גולם) 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.
The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century Chief Rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the Golem was brought to life and afterwards controlled. In the Prague tale he was an entity created by the Rabbi Loew out of clay that was brought to life by inserting into his mouth a shem (capsule containing the Name of God) with a magic formula. The rabbi also wrote the word emet (Hebrew word for truth) on his forehead. To immobilize it, he pulled the shem out. In the movie The Emperor and the Golem, the shem had the form of a small ball placed in his forehead. In Polish tales and version of Brothers Grimm he was brought to life by inscripting the word emet (truth) on his forehead and to deactivate him, the first letter of the word emet was rubbed out, leaving the Hebrew word met, meaning dead.
The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalms 139:16, which uses the word גלמי, meaning "my unshaped form". 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 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.
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 oldest description of the creation of a golem by a historical figure is included in a tradition connected to Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm (1550–1583). 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 Loew of Prague" (= R. Judah Loew ben Bezalel; "Judah" is the English form of the Hebrew name יְהוּדָה "Yehudah".)
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 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."
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 chief 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 only care required of the Golem was that he can't be alive on the day of Sabbath (Saturday), rabbi Loew once forgot to remove it and he became furious. 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.
The rabbi then managed to pull the shem from his mouth and immobilize him. 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 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. When the attic was renovated in 1883, no evidence of the Golem was found. 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. 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. 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 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 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". 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 gives David Gans, a disciple of the Maharal, as a source for the story, citing his historical work Zemach David, 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 Rabbi Avigdor Kara of Prague, 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 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.
The Golem is a popular figure in the Czech Republic. There are several restaurants and other businesses whose names make reference to the creature. 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.
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 Rabbi Loew. Another famous treatment from the same era is H. Leivick's 1921 Yiddish-language "dramatic poem in eight sections" The Golem. Nobel prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer also wrote a version of the legend. Elie Wiesel wrote a children's book on the legend.
In 1958, Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges published a poem about the Golem using the image of the creature the Golem and the creator/creature Rabbi Loew who is called Juda Leon, in relation to the creator of the creator the divinity, as part of a circular argument between the creator and the creation, the name,and the meaning of the name using the argument of Cratylus expressing the immanence rather than the trascendence of the name the figures and their existence.
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. Grundy the Golem is also a character in his Xanth series
Harry Turtledove's fantasy novel Christmas Bestiary features a short story "In This Season" (1992) in which a golem that aids the escape of three Jewish families from a Nazi-occupied Polish town on the first night of Hanukkah.
Marge Piercy's 'He She and It (Body of Glass' (1993) introduces the Rabbi Loew as a distant relative of the protagonist and interweaves the plot line of the golem's creation and subsequent plea for the right to a human life within the story of a future in which robots become too similar to humans.
The novels of Terry Pratchett in the fictional setting of Discworld also include several Golems as characters, with them being a plot device in the 1996 novel Feet of Clay. In this novel, 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.
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 the Quentin Tarantino's 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds, the character of Adolf Hitler is furious over a widespread superstitious fear among German occupation soldiers in France that a resistance fighter known as the "Bear Jew" is the "Golem".
In 2011, the Golem is used as the name of a hitman in British crime drama Sherlock series, in the episode The Great Game.
Inspired by Gustav Meyrink's novel was a German classic set of expressionistic silent movies (1915-1920), 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.
A 1997 episode of Chris Carter's television series The X-Files called "Kaddish" (15th, Season 4) was focused on golems. The plot involved a Jewish man dying from an Anti-Semitic attack, then being resurrected by his fiancée to kill the men who murdered him.
The 2003 manga and anime Soul Eater features golems as a minor plot point during the Arachnophobia arc, in which the protagonists visit Loew village (named after the Rabbi Loew from the legend), a town full of men and women who fashion golems from clay, and animate them with the emit (אמת) mark.
In 2013 the fantasy/horror series Supernatural, a Golem is used by a secret association of rabbis, in the thirteenth episode Everybody Hates Hitler of the 8 season.
Golems appeared in the fantasy role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons". The influence of "Dungeons and Dragons" has led to the inclusion of golems in video games and other tabletop role-playing games.
Golem is also a rock/ground type creature (Pokémon #76) in the animated TV show, video game series, and card game Pokémon. Golem is the evolved form of Graveler, who is in turn the evolved form of Geodude, and they all first appeared in the 1996 game Pokémon Red and Blue. In Generation V, two other Pokémon heavily based on the Golem were introduced: Golett and Golurk.
In Minecraft the player can create a Golem in an Iron or Snow form.
A golem is the subject of a new video game by Moonbot Studios. The Golem is set to release in April 2015 pending completion of a Kickstarter Campaign.
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