Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Our Very Own Golems

Posted on: October 1, 2020

Yom Kippur discussion group 5781/2020

גָּלְמִי רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ 

You saw my unformed substance/golmi

Psalm 139: 16

I wanted to talk about golems, because it seemed relevant to the repentance theme of Yom Kippur to discuss the aspects of ourselves which might be excessively defensive, or offensive, or triggered or even out of control, the way the Prague Golem became too powerful and delinquent for its creator.

The most well-known golem legend attributes its creation to Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, a mystically inclined rabbi and scholar who was born about 1520 and died in 1609. He is sometimes referred to by the honorific acronym Maharal, Morenu ha Rav Loew, our teacher, Rabbi Loew. In order to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms, he created a humanoid from the mud of the Vltava River and brought it to life by inserting into its mouth a clay tablet bearing the name of God. The rabbi would deactivate the creature every shabbat by removing the clay tablet. One week he forgot to do this and the Golem went on a destructive rampage until Rabbi Loew removed the clay tablet.

This legend post-dates the lifetime of the Maharal. It was a fiction which resonated with Jewish and non-Jewish authors alike.

What brings a golem to life is the name of God or another mystical formulation of letters which the golem wears, on his forehead or over his heart and when this is removed, life departs from the golem.

It was believed that a letter of God’s name would animate the clay figure of the golem or, conversely, subtracting a letter would take life away.

In 2009,the Czech Republic issued a stamp depicting the Maharal, minus the golem, price 21 korunas.

The German film director and actor Paul Wegener made two films about the Golem, the first one in 1915 being lost but the second film, from 1920, is extant and available on Amazon Prime. I watched it. Unavoidably, there is a slightly King Kong aspect to the narrative in which the monster falls in love with a beautiful girl. Paul Wegener played the role of the Golem in his films, so it is his image which we see in the stills from the movie.

Rabbi Jacob Emden, eighteenth century, gave an account of the Golem of Chelm, created by Elijah Ba’al Shem, a near contemporary of the Maharal, but not blessed with the Maharal’s longevity. The story is told in an anonymous manuscript dated 1630. The word emet, meaning truth, was inscribed on the Chelm Golem’s forehead. When it became too powerful,  Rabbi Elijah destroyed it by removing the letter א aleph from the word emet. This left the word met which means dead and so the Golem was rendered lifeless.

In the popular American television series X Files, an episode called Kaddish concerns a golem wreaking vengeance on some neonazi killers. As always, the golem goes beyond it remit and is returned by its makers to dust. In this dramatization, it is terminated by the removal of the aleph.

The Babylonian Talmud makes reference to the creation of a man by the sage Rava, in Babylon, third to fourth century CE.

רבא ברא גברא שדריה לקמיה דר’ זירא הוה קא משתעי בהדיה ולא הוה קא מהדר ליה אמר ליה מן חבריא את הדר לעפריך

Indeed, Rava created a man, a golem, using forces of sanctity. Rava sent his creation before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira would speak to him but he would not reply. Rabbi Zeira said to him: You were created by one of the members of the group, one of the Sages. Return to your dust.

Sanhedrin 65b

The Gemara relates another story to support the statement that the righteous could create a world if they so desired:

Rav Ḥanina and Rav Oshaya would sit every Shabbat eve and engage in the study of Sefer Yetzirah, and a calf would be created for them, and they would eat it in honour of Shabbat.

Sanhedrin 38b

Their arcane knowledge is said to be obtained from a mystical work Sefer Yetzirah, which means The Book of Creation. The date of Sefer Yetzirah is generally thought to be Talmudic although there is a view that it dates from the later Geonic period. As it is referenced in  the Babylonian Talmud, fifth or sixth century CE should be the terminus ante quem unless it is a later insertion. The subject matter is creation through the force of words, letters and speech. In the account of creation which we read in Genesis, it is God’s words which create everything in the universe, from light on the first day to a human being on the sixth. Sefer Yetzirah served as a kind of How To manual for creation ex nihilo.

Another Babylonian sage states that Adam was created initially as a golem.

It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: The dust that served to form Adam the first man was gathered from the entire world, as it is stated: “When I was made in secret and wrought in the lowest places of the earth, Your eyes did see my unshaped flesh” (Psalms 139:15–16).

Sanhedrin 38b

God breathed the breathe of life into Adam and he became a man, in the divine image.

Midrash speaks of Abraham as having mystical powers of creation and this is based on Genesis12:5:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

The souls they had made is interpreted usually in Midrash as referring to converts Abram and Sarai had made.

It is said that the eleventh century Andalusian sage Ibn Gabirol created a female servant – an early medieval Stepford wife, perhaps. Although a story about Ibn Gabirol creating a golem is found in more than one contemporary source, I can find nothing which isn’t modern and it may be derived from a fantasy or a metaphor which can possibly be attributed to a twentieth century American Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser.

What do all the golems have in common? They are created by humans in their wisdom, in imitation of God’s creation. The golems are physically mighty and the creators tend to lose control of them.

A golem is servile, obedient, physically strong, primitive, wild, sometimes emotional and sometimes vengeful. It can be a servant or a weapon, an industry or a movement. It may be managed or it may be out of control, like Dr Frankenstein’s monster or like a nuclear bomb. A golem can be a creation made by humans, or by God. There is usually a danger of it becoming more powerful than its creator intended.

In Freudian terms, the Golem might be our id, out of control and disempowering the superego.

It may be a synth who gets ideas above their station.

It may be a powerful political leader whose clout exceeds their reason.

According to cinematic representations, it may be an emotionally sentient creature who falls in love.

God’s creation, humanity, got out of control in many ways. The disobedient Adam was followed by the fratricidal Cain and eventually an entire generation did ‘nothing but evil’.

וַיַּ֣רְא יְהוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכָל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כָּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֗ה אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם׃

The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.”

וְנֹ֕חַ מָ֥צָא חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (פ)

But Noah found favor with the LORD.

Genesis 6:5 – 8

We, God’s creation, are likened to clay. Our beginning is the unformed substance – ‘Like clay in the hands of the Potter,’ said Jeremiah.

וַיְהִ֥י דְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה אֵלַ֥י לֵאמֽוֹר׃

Then the word of the LORD came to me:

ק֥וּם וְיָרַדְתָּ֖ בֵּ֣ית הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר וְשָׁ֖מָּה אַשְׁמִֽיעֲךָ֥ אֶת־דְּבָרָֽי׃

“Go down to the house of a potter, and there I will impart My words to you.”

וָאֵרֵ֖ד בֵּ֣ית הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר והנהו [וְהִנֵּה־] [ה֛וּא] עֹשֶׂ֥ה מְלָאכָ֖ה עַל־הָאָבְנָֽיִם׃

So I went down to the house of a potter, and found him working at the wheel.

וְנִשְׁחַ֣ת הַכְּלִ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה֥וּא עֹשֶׂ֛ה בַּחֹ֖מֶר בְּיַ֣ד הַיּוֹצֵ֑ר וְשָׁ֗ב וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֙הוּ֙ כְּלִ֣י אַחֵ֔ר כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשַׁ֛ר בְּעֵינֵ֥י הַיּוֹצֵ֖ר לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃ (פ)

And if the vessel he was making was spoiled, as happens to clay in the potter’s hands, he would make it into another vessel, such as the potter saw fit to make.

הֲכַיּוֹצֵ֨ר הַזֶּ֜ה לֹא־אוּכַ֨ל לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לָכֶ֛ם בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נְאֻם־יְהוָ֑ה הִנֵּ֤ה כַחֹ֙מֶר֙ בְּיַ֣ד הַיּוֹצֵ֔ר כֵּן־אַתֶּ֥ם בְּיָדִ֖י בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ס)

O House of Israel, can I not deal with you like this potter?—says the LORD. Just like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in My hands, O House of Israel!

A golem has its origin in common with Adam, who was made from the dust of the ground, and adam is a generic name for mankind.

and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7

In the ensuing discussion which was via Zoom after the Yom Kippur musaf service, members spoke about aspects of personality which may appear to be out of control and the relationship of hidden aspects of the self to creativity. The question arose whether comparing a human to a golem emphasised the passivity rather than the free will of the human being.

By the time the discussion was over, there were only four hours remaining until the end of the fast.

אבינו מלכנו זכור כי עפר אנחנו

Our Father, our King, remember that we are dust.

Avinu Malkenu

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