History of the Golem: accounts of the creation of golems

The first account of a golem being created is of God creating Adam. "In the second hour, [Adam] became a golem... During the third hour, his limbs were stretched out. In the fourth hour, the soul was cast into him..." (B. Sanhedrin 38b). In the Tehillim, the Hebrew word GoLeMI is translated as the process by which God created man. Jeffrey Smith says, "We ourselves are golemim and golemahot until God comes along and makes us fully human, making us living souls by breathing in the 'breath of life.'" It is believed that Abraham studied God's teachings and wrote the Sefer Yetzirah. He studied with Shem, son of Noah, and tradition holds that he created souls with this knowledge.

Abba Ben Rav Hamma (299-353 C.E.), better known as Rava, studied the Sefer Yetzirah along with Rabbi Zera. They studied for three years, created a cow, forgot the knowledge, studied for another three years, and created another cow. The Talmud goes on to say that Rava has surpassed the need for an assistant. "Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zera. The rabbi spoke to him but he did not answer. Then he said, 'You are from the pietists. Return to your dust.'" (B, Sanhedrin, 65b). This is the only man-shaped golem mentioned in the Talmud. However, In B Sanhedrin 67b it states that every Friday Rabbis Hanina and Hoshia studied the Sefer Yetzirah to create a prime calf, which they ate as their Sabbath dinner (Honigsberg).

The most famous golem is that one created by Rabbi Lw, the Marharal of Prague, in the 16th century to protect the Jews from blood libel (false accusations that the blood of a Christian child is used in Passover ceremonies, a rumor that persisted for many centuries). Some stories say that Rabbi Lw discovered the secret of creating a golem while studying the Sefer Yetzirah, and others say that God told him the secret in a vision. The golem was given the name Yoselle, and it looked just like a man, but it had no voice, a great strength and no will other than to carry out explicitly its master's orders.

In some stories, the golem works for the whole community, doing chores and things. In others, he works in the synagogue, others, only in the Rabbi's household. The most likely is that he exposed the false accusations of blood libel, catching those trying to plant a dead child as "evidence" that the Jews kill Christian children. Some taller tales involve the golem actually defending the synagogue, the representation of the Jewish community, from thieves or marauders, or an angry mob of Christians. However, if a golem ever did this, it is not recorded, nor does it apply to the story of Rabbi Lw's golem. This golem was rare in that it was built for a purpose, rather than simply to show mastery of the Sefer Yetzirah.

It eventually became necessary to destroy the golem, but most accounts involve the golem going wild on the Sabbath and running through the streets, forcing Rabbi Lw to catch it before it could do damage to the synagogue. The most common story is that the Rabbi used a shem, a slip of paper with God's name written on it, to keep the golem animated. The shem, placed within the mouth of the golem, gave it life. The shem was supposedly removed every Friday afternoon so that the golem would not profane the Sabbath by working. One week, the Rabbi forgot, and the golem flew into a destructive rage, and the Rabbi either chased it down from his home or came out of the synagogue and met it. The Rabbi removed the shem, causing the golem to crumble into a heap of clay. Another tale is that the golem, who started out with no will and no voice, was able to learn. Eventually, the golem sometimes learned to speak and became enraged at its slavery, desiring to be a man. Rabbi Lw was forced to remove the life-principle from it, but in some tales, the golem escapes and hides somewhere in the world. The spirit of the golem, however, lives on, either in the lifeless mass, which all stories agree was hidden away in the attic of the synagogue AltNeueSchul (old-new synagogue) for the day when the Jews would again need it, or the spirit lives on trying to become human, but never fully able.


Incidentally, if one wants to believe in Rabbi Loew's Golem, the fact that somebody crawled into the attic of the Staronov Skola (AltNeueSchul's new name) and saw nothing (according to one guidebook) should not be a disappointment. There was an exhibition organized by the Goethe Institute the other year devoted to old manuscripts and prayer books culled from the lofts of synagogues in Germany and legend says that the Golem was hidden under such a heap. Judging from the photos, most of the mss had rotted over the centuries to dust and debris often knee-deep, so the Golem would just become indistinguishable from the muck, which was probably swept away during some officious bout of spring-cleaning (Cousins).

The Jews were not the only ones who believed in created men out of clay. In Greek legend, the titan Prometheus created man out of the mud of the earth as an experiment, and Daedelus, named after the daedala ancient statues, created statues that were, according to Plato, "so life-like that they had to be restrained to prevent them running away" (Lancaster). In Xian in China, a great army of terra cotta (a type of gray clay) soldiers were found in the burial mound of Shi Huangdi, who ruled China from 221 BC to 207 BC, and prepared the tomb for his death starting shortly after he came into power. These soldiers, created using a fine clay on top of coils of terra cotta, then the head and hands attached seperately, represented living soldiers. In the previous century, live burial of the royal staff members with the emperor had gone out of practice, and these soldiers were used in their stead. Their spirits were to travel with the emperor to the afterlife, and return to guard his tomb here on earth if necessary. Each culture bases mankind upon clay, which is slippery when wet and shrinks when heated and permanently hardens when fired.

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