Hebrew for embryonic or incompletely developed substance, shapeless matter (used in the Bible, Ps. 139:16: “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect”). In Jewish folklore, a robotlike servant made of clay and brought to life by pronouncing the sacred name of God over its form, writing God’s name on a piece of paper and putting it in the golem’s mouth, or inscribing the word for truth (emeth) on its forehead. If the paper or inscription were removed, the golem would be reduced to a pile of clay.
In medieval times, the belief in the creation of golems was common and was attributed to various rabbis throughout Europe. In fact, this belief was so strong that Jewish scholar Rabbi Zvi Ashkenazi seriously debated the question of whether or not a golem could be included as part of a minyan (quorum of 10 adult men required to be present for a religious service). Belief in golems was also widespread among the Jews of Eastern Europe during the nineteenth century.
The golem of the early legends, though unable to speak, was a perfect servant that fulfilled all his master’s orders. Starting in the sixteenth century, he was characterized as the protector of persecuted Jews. It was not until the seventeenth century that the Frankenstein-like golem—who in some versions of the tale grew larger in size each day—was portrayed as a physical threat.
In some earlier versions of the legend, the golem is seen as dangerous not because of his potential for violence but because he poses the threat of idolatry. For example, in one thirteenth-century legend the golem supposedly created by Jeremiah and Ben Sira, this time endowed with the faculty of speech, warns the two men that their followers may begin to worship them for their seemingly extraordinary powers in bringing the clay man to life.
In one variation of this story, the golem himself removes a letter from the words inscribed on his forehead—YHWH Elohim Emeth, or “God is truth”—thereby changing truth to the word dead (meth). The resulting blasphemy, “God is dead,” is a clear message to the golem’s creators. As in most of the legends, man triumphs over golem; Jeremiah heeds the warning and destroys his creation.
The golem of Rabbi Loew
The most famous golem legend, which has several different variations and has inspired novelists and playwrights, is that of Rabbi Judah Loew (or Löw) of Prague (c. 1520–1609), a historical figure who was a practitioner of the Kabbalah and a Talmudic scholar. He is said to have created a clay man and endowed him with life in order to defend the Jews of Prague from superstitious Christians who accused them of using the blood of Christian babies to bake their matzohs (unleavened bread).
The golem served as the rabbi’s agent and successfully apprehended those who were spreading the false rumor. He would perform tasks for Rabbi Loew during the week, and every Friday evening the rabbi would turn him back into a heap of clay by removing the inscription from his forehead, because all creatures are supposed to rest on the Sabbath (or, as another version of the legend goes, because the rabbi feared that the golem would profane the Sabbath).
One Friday, however, the rabbi forgot to do this and the golem turned into a dangerous wildman just before the Sabbath began. Rabbi Loew pursued and finally caught up to his golem run amok, tore from his forehead the sacred name of God, and never brought him back to life again.
In popular culture
Rabbi Loew’s story was the basis for Gustav Meyrink’s famous novel Der Golem (1915), a German silent film based on Meyrink’s novel (1920) which served as an archetype for later films on the Frankenstein theme, and the play by H. Leivick, The Golem: A Dramatic Poem in Eight Scenes (1921).
Mark L. Prophet and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Lost Teachings on Your Higher Self, pp. 296–98.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Golem Is a Myth for Our Time,” New York Times, 12 August 1984.
Arnold L. Goldsmith, The Golem Remembered, 1909–1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981), pp. 15–20.
Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 180, 199, 202–03.
The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Golem.”