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The Golem: A Protector of Clay


A note before reading: very importantly, we are going to be discussing certain methodologies of creating a golem. None of the methods I describe or include are complete or would be easy for someone to replicate without complex, in-depth study, but it's important to state that the creation of golems is purely and uniquely Jewish, meaning it is part of a closed practice. If you are not Jewish, this is not something you should even consider attempting. Understanding that you are a guest in listening and learning about Judaism and our history, folklore, and beliefs means understanding that some things are not for you.


There is also an important note that part of the Jewish writings on this subject specifically discuss how Gentiles (non-Jews) would not be able to complete the creation of a golem as it is a uniquely Jewish practice.


What is a Golem?

The simple definition is that a golem is an anthropoid automaton, a creature made of clay brought to life using Jewish magic, or the sacred names of G-d. According to famed scholar Gershom Scholem, “The golem is a creature, particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by the virtue of a magic art, through the use of holy names”. The plural for golem in english is Golem or golems, while in Hebrew it is Glammim.


In Psalm 139:16 we see the word golmi used, meaning my golem. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means, “my light form", "raw" material, connoting the unfinished human being before God's eyes”. According to Etymology Online, however, a golem is an, “artificial man, automaton," 1897, from Hebrew golem "shapeless mass, embryo," from galam, meaning “wrapped up, folded." This etymological pathway is unsubstantiated elsewhere.


Purpose of the Golem

While keeping in mind the adage of 2 Jews, 3 opinion, most can agree that the general purpose of a golem is to protect Jews and our communities. They were usually created as a means of bringing Divinity to earth to save us from persecution and oppression as we lived in lands where we were foreigners.


History of the Golem

The history of the golem is a long one. There are theories that it is alluded to in scriptures, as we mentioned earlier in the discussion of etymology, but the specific basis of golems comes from the mystical text, the Sefer Yetzirah.


The Sefer Yetzirah is an influential book of the Ma’asei-Bereshit mystical tradition and was probably written between the 3rd and 6th centuries. It is also known as the Book of Creation or the Book of Formation. The book is traditionally believed to have been written by Avraham (Abraham), the patriarch of Judaism. Within its depths, the Sefer Yetzirah consists of commentary and teaches upon mystical concepts, particularly the ability to create lesser forms of life using the sacred names of G-d.


We see that in certain commentaries there are claims that historical Jewish figures also made glammim– for example, Abraham, and the prophet Jeremiah being two examples. It was also believed that in the Medieval ages, a man named Solomon Ibn Gabirol created a maidservant for himself, which is referenced numerous times in various scholarly discussions as a golem.


Story of the Golem of Prague

Perhaps the most famous story of the golem, the story of the Golem of Prague has many iterations. Wherever you heard it first, there are a few staples to the story: The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, creates a golem to protect the Jews of his city from the antisemitic attacks which plague them. When the golem is no longer needed to protect his community, he relieves the golem of its duties, laying him to rest. Some versions see the golem laying in wait in the attic of the old synagogue in Prague, waiting until it is needed to once again protect the Jews of the city.


Another story is that presented in the book The Golem Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction, by Elizaheth R. Rae. “The Jews in sixteenth century Prague's Jewish Quarter were continually under threat from members of the surrounding non-Jewish community who, using many pretexts, would invade the ghetto and wreak havoc. Often the pretext was that of the blood libel… After repeated depredations, according to the legend, Rabbi Judah Loew, a real historical figure and the wise High Rabbi of Prague, directs a dream question to God, asking for help to stop the violence. God instructs Rabbi Loew to go with two trusted assistants to the banks of the Vltava River that bisects Prague. In the dark of night, they are to use the mud of the riverbank to fashion a humanoid figure and then perform a secret ritual to infuse the figure with life. Rabbi Loew names the figure Joseph/Yossele and provides him with clothing. Rabbi Loew explains to the figure, now a golem and usually mute, that he will be a servant to the rabbi and do his bidding under all circumstances.


In the tales that follow his creation, the golem performs many feats of rescue and strength. Sometimes he patrols the streets of Prague at night; at other times he provides evidence regarding a Jew who has been arrested on blood libel charges so that the accused is exonerated. Eventually, either because the golem becomes destructive or because his heroic qualities are deemed no longer necessary, Rabbi Loew determines to withdraw his life, often in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest operating synagogue in Europe. With his two assistants, Rabbi Low reverses the ritual with which he created the golem and life seeps out of him. In most versions, Rabbi Loew then covers the inert clay figure with an old tallit or pages from discarded Torah scrolls and forbids anyone to enter the synagogue attic thereafter.”


Methodologies

There is more than one way to make a golem. Generally, the golem is made of clay, or very rarely, stone. Infrequently, there are discussions of a framework made of wood or metal, but the most common formation is purely of clay. When made like this, they are formed like Adam was, from dust as part of the creation ritual. Then, the Divine names of G-d are used to bring it to life. The methodologies of doing this include writing down the Divine names on the “skin” of the golem or on a scroll that is placed within the body, normally the mouth, of the golem. One very common belief is to describe it with the word “emet”, or truth onto the forehead of golem in conjunction with other Divine names in the ritual of creation.


To quote from the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, here is one methodology of creation.

“Whoever studies Sefer Yetzirah has to purify himself, don white robes. It is forbidden to study alone, but only in two's and three's, as it is written... and the beings they made in Haran, (Gen.12:5) and as it is written, two are better than one, (Eccl. 4:9).…. It is required that he take virgin soil from a place in the mountain where none has plowed. Then he shall knead the soil with living water and shall make a body and begin to permutate the alef-bet of 221 gates, each limb separately, each limb with the corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah….Afterward, he shall appoint bet and likewise gimel and each limb with the letter designated to it. He shall do this when he is pure. These are the 221 gates. Another method also requires a circle dance to be performed around the inert form of the creature. This procedure is meant to mimic the Midrashic description of how God created Adam. In the writings of Sefardic Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia, the golem creation process includes creating 24 magical/purposeful circles as well.”


The method of creation dictates the method of destruction in most legends. For those who carve “emet” into its forehead, erasing the letter alef would make the word “met”, meaning death, thereby erasing the efficacy of the original spell and commanding the creature to die. Others require you to take out the scroll, or some combination of both. Others recommend saying the Divine names in reverse.


Most golem stories end with the golem either serving its purpose and therefore being laid to rest, or the golem serving its purpose and then becoming violent against its creator after having served its purpose. Essentially, when it is no longer needed, it is not wise to keep one around.


Golems and Humanity

The concept of golems as not human, halachically, has also been greatly discussed. Something that is important to note is that in this idea of halakha, Jewish law, is many times interpreted as only pertaining to natural-born creatures. There is a story that (to paraphrase) on a specific day of the week, the tribes of Israel would be able to use the Divine names of G-d to create calves that were not born of parents, but merely brought into the world through, and for lack of a better word, magic. These magically created animals were therefore rendered as existing outside of the laws of kashrut and kosher slaughter. Specifically, you could eat these animals however you wanted and it wouldn’t matter: including the extremely forbidden act of eating the animal before it was dead. So, because it was not a natural-born creature, it