Golems: Mysticism, History, Biology, and more


go-lem \ n -s [Yiddish goylem, fr. Heb golem - something shapeless] 1Jewish folklore : an artificial figure constructed to represent a human being and endowed with life; specif. : such a figure created by the cabalist Rabbi Löw of Prague in the 16th century 2 : a senseless mechanical creature : AUTOMATON, ROBOT [a total machine civilization is at best but a ~ --Jewish Weekly News] 3 : BLOCKHEAD 2

blockhead 2 : a dull and stupid person : one deficient in understanding or intellect (Webster's Dictionary)

The myth of the Golem is an interesting one. It is said that Jewish Rabbis who had mastered the Sefer Yetzirah, a text believed to describe the manner in which God created life, were able to create a "golem" out of clay, to create a new Adam. The text is the foundation for the Kabbalistic school of thought: that numbers and combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters were used to form all things, and that God's name possesses the power of life and death. Creating a golem is more complex than one would imagine, however. You must know the true name of God (which you don't know, even if you think you do). You must have mastery of the Sefer Yetzirah, which not many people do, even in Jewish cultures today. You must be able to create a man-like form (of clay, wood, metal, bone, whatever), or pay someone to do it for you. You must have assistance, for the instructions to both learn the Sefer Yetzirah and perform the ritual require more than one person (only one man has been recorded to have created a golem alone, and this was only after studying long years with another rabbi). You must, of course, believe in both magic and miracles. And, you must have pure motives, for this is a divine ritual, and the golem has no soul, so any sin of the creator becomes a sin of the golem.

How does one actually make a golem? Accounts differ, depending on the book you read or the tale you hear. The procedure, here described by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, is contained within the Talmudic Book of Formation.

An initiate should not do it alone, but should always be accompanied by one or two colleagues. The Golem must be made of virgin soil, taken from a place where no man has ever dug. The soil must be kneaded with pure spring water, taken directly from the ground. If this water is placed in any kind of vessel, it can no longer be used. The people making the Golem must purify themselves totally before engaging in this activity, both physically and spiritually. While making the Golem, they must wear clean white vestments...One must not make any mistake or error in the pronunciation...no interruption whatsoever may occur...
There is also evidence that creating a Golem was primarily not a physical procedure, but rather, a highly advanced meditative technique. By chanting the appropriate letter arrays together with the letters of the Tetragrammaton, the initiate could form a very real mental image of a human being, limb by limb...Once the conceptual Golem was completed, this spiritual potential could be transferred to a clay form and actually animate it. This was the process through which a physical Golem would be brought to life (Jewish Gothic).
A theory is that a golem is not so much a physical construction but a mystical "doppelganger" which reflects the creator. The creator can then see his own flaws within the golem, redeem and correct those spiritual imbalances, and move further towards enlightenment. "With self-examination it could be said that one's own Golem is created and confronted" (Smith).

However, the more widely spread belief is that a clay golem did exist. Rabbi Löw must create his golem out of the sticky clay from the bank of the Moldavka River. Rabbi Löw got three assistants, and they took branches for arms and legs and bundled rags for a head, and used mud to create the body over the branches and rags. He then rolled the body onto its back and walked around it counterclockwise seven times, shouting, "Shanti, Shanti, Dahat, Dahat!" (Thieberger). A different account states that Rabbi Löw, the Maharal of Prague, together with his son-in-law, R. Isaac ha-Kohen and his disciple, Rabbi Ya'aqov Sason ha-Levi created a golem from a single slab of clay.

Each of the three men represented one element: the rabbi's son-in-law was fire, his pupil Sason was water, and the rabbi himself was air.

First, the rabbi's son-in-law walked seven times counterclockwise around the figure on the floor, reciting an ancient formula, and as he did so, the clay was brought to such heat, that it glowed like red-hot iron. Then the pupil Sason walked seven times round the body and steam raised out of its chest, the body became moist, its fingers grew nails and its skin began to shine. Finally, Rabbi Löw himself walked seven times around the body, after which he inserted a magic 'shem' with the unknown name of God, into Golem's mouth. As he did that, Golem came to life (Kubik).

Another source:
Golems can be created using many different methods, according to the sources. Some state that it is accomplished through combinations of letters. These combinations are called "gates," the number of gates differing according to the various Kabbalistic schools, and ranging in number from 231 to as many as 271, depending upon how the letters are to be combined. Other schools taught that a golem was created through the utterance of the Divine Names. The Talmud records that there are 12, 42, and even 72 letter names of God which might have been used for this purpose. Many schools, such as the Hasidim, held that the Hebrew word 'emet [truth] should be inscribed upon the forehead of the golem. Among a number of methods of de-constructing a golem, a common one was the erasure of aleph, the first letter of `emet. This leaves the word met [dead] which destroys the golem (Honigsberg).
No matter what is believed about the process or the results, it is a lengthy and difficult task. It took either divine inspiration (such as Rabbi Löw receiving the necessary name of God in a vision) or long years of intense study (Abraham and Rava, an important mystic in the Talmudic tradition, both spent years of studying before being able to create anything at all) to create a golem. And golems, being created by men and not God, cannot be perfect. This imperfection, in all but one case, appears as the lack of voice. "The Maharal commented in his Chidushei Agados that when Rava
would purify himself and meditate on Sefer Yetzirah, concentrating intensely on the different Names of God, he would thereby cleave very closely to God and be able at such moments to create a person. But this person would have no power of speech for that far was Rava's energy not able to extend itself. For he was a human being himself; and how would it then be possible for him to create a complete person just like himself? (II: 166).
"In Tractate Sanhedrin 65B we read that Rava himself said, 'if the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, 'your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God''" (Honigsberg). No man can be created perfectly, because we are not perfect, no matter how pure we or our motives may be.

Forward to the History of Golems
Forwrad to the Biology of Golems
Forward to Flesh golems: Impurity of Purpose
Forward to Wood golems: Misuse of Creations
Forward to Metal golems: Possibility to Learn
If you have any questions or suggestions please contact me at ashed@Kenyon.edu