What Is a Golem? Introduction to the Creature from Jewish Folklore

The Golem at the Jewish Museum Berlin
Artist Joshua Abarbanel's concept of the Golem, part of the exhibition: 'Golem' at the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2017. Getty Images / Getty Images News / Sean Gallup

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an artificial humanoid made of clay, soil, or dust brought to life by a series of rituals and magical formulas. According to legend, golems could only be created by a powerful rabbi, who either inscribed the word 'emeth (truth) on the golem's forehead or placed a piece of parchment bearing the word Schem (name) in the golem's mouth. 

Golem Key Takeaways

  • A golem is a mythical Jewish creature. According to medieval legend, he is a man made of earthen materials brought to life by a rabbi through ancient rituals. 
  • According to the Judeo-Christian Bible, the first golem was Adam, formed from clay and created by God. 
  • Golems are often found in literature. Examples of well-known works featuring golems include The Hulk and Frankenstein.

Golems were typically speechless and soulless. Any sin the golem performed was considered the sin of their creator. The rabbi could only kill his golem by modifying the word 'emeth on his forehead to read meth (death), or by removing the parchment from the golem's mouth.

The legend of golems is the underlying historic tale behind the "golems" featured in Pokemon and Minecraft. 

History of Golems

The earliest reference to golems is in the book of Psalms in the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, 139:16, written in the 4th/5th century BCE. That verse is a reference to the creation of the first man, Adam, who was the original golem: a man made from the earth. "Adamah" means "one taken from the earth" in Hebrew.

In many Bronze Age mythologies, God is depicted as a potter. For example, a relief at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt depicts the creator god Khnum at his potter's wheel making human bodies from clay. In the biblical book of Job (33:6), believed to have been written between 600–450 BCE, Job says to Adam, "You and I are the same before God, I too was nipped from clay." The definitive account of God's creation of Adam as a golem is in the Babylonian Talmud (written 200–500 CE). 

There are many different versions of the legend documented in Jewish medieval literature, many of which have been compiled by the German historian Maureen T. Krause

Legend of Rabbi Löew

The primary golem legend cited is that of Rabbi Yude-Leyb ben-Betsalel, the Maharal ("Teacher") of Prague (1525–1609), popularly called Rabbi Löew. In 1580, Rabbi Löew and his congregation experienced great struggle and persecution. Their situation became truly dire when a rumor that Jewish Passover matzos were made with the blood of Christians was spread throughout Prague by the priest Thaddeus. This rumor became known as "blood libel." The Jews were forced into a ghetto and killed with alarming ferocity, while the Czech emperor did nothing to stop the violence.

The rabbi had a dream in which he asked for a way to combat the evil and end the suffering. Based on what he was told in the dream, he turned to the Jewish book of creation known as the "Sefer Yezirah" where he discovered the secret of creating a golem. On Feb. 2, 1580, the rabbi, his son-in-law, and his best pupil went to the banks of the Moldau River, where they built a man out of clay three cubits in length (about 54 inches). He inserted a piece of parchment inscribed with the word Schem into the golem's mouth and chanted sacred words from the Bible. The creature came to life and was sent to spy on the Jews' foes and shield them from persecution. 

Each Sabbath, Rabbi Löew took the parchment out of the golem's mouth to give him rest. However, one Sabbath, he forgot, and the golem went on a destructive rampage. The rabbi stopped him and, realizing that the golem had to be destroyed, performed a ritual until the golem perished. The rabbi and his assistants wrapped the corpse in two worn prayer shawls and placed him in the attic of the Altneuschul Synagogue, where the golem is said to remain today. 

Feminism and Golems

A feminist take on the golem myth wonders if the concept of golems is a veiled code for the role of women in Jewish culture. The primary function of golems is to save Jewish people from danger, but some golems assist with homemaking duties like lighting stoves on the Sabbath and fetching water.

The word golem means "unformed substance," and is traditionally associated with women. In fact, an unmarried woman is called a golem, since Jewish traditional sources consider her nature not fully rounded or formed until she is married, and sometimes not until she has given birth. In addition, golems are prohibited from actively performing in religious life, and golem creation is a birth narrative in which mothers are completely absent. 

Literary scholar Ruth Bienstock Anolik has explored the feminist aspect of golems in her academic work. Writers discussed by Bienstock Anolik who have explored this aspect of golems include Cynthia Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers) and Marge Piercy (He, She and It).

Golems in Contemporary Literature 

Many contemporary writers have found the golem to be a rich source of narrative potential in literature and film. Writers such as Elie Wiesel (The Golem), Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay), and Terry Pratchett (Feet of Clay) have told stories about golems. The Hulk, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, is an example of a mythical green golem. Going back to the 19th century, Mary Shelley's classic work Frankenstein offers a version of the golem legend.

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