The Golem of Prague

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Golem Restaurant, Prague, Czech Republic

Now that we’re rolling into my favorite season of the year, my thoughts are turning to Halloween. My posts for the next couple of months will show a more macabre interest. And what better way to start than to tell you a monster story?

Rabbi Loew Creates the Golem

Back in the 1500’s, what is now the Czech Republic was part of the Hapsburg empire. Due to a climate of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community of Prague lived in a walled ghetto in their own quarter of town. They lived in fear of pogroms and violent acts of retaliation, often over rumors that they sacrificed Christian children in their religious ceremonies (called blood libel).

In such an atmosphere, Rabbi Loew, the leader of Prague’s Jewish community, sought ways to protect his people. In 1580, in answer to a prayer, Rabbi Loew had a dream, instructing him to build a monster out of clay. This creature was called the Golem. Rabbi Loew was skilled in the Jewish esoteric lore of kabballah, and used the knowledge of a kabballistic book, the Sepher Yetzirah, to perform this act of magic.

Medieval magic taught that earth is an element made up of three other elements: air, fire, and water. And so, to make a creature of earth, Rabbi Loew brought a disciple and his son-in-law to his house. The three men went down to the river Vltava, which runs through Prague, and collected clay there. Then, they kneaded the clay into the form of a man. Chanting special magical formulae, the son-in-law invoked the powers of fire, the disciple invoked the powers of water, and Rabbi Loew invoked the powers of air. The three elements merged to create life in the being of clay. The Golem awoke and began to walk around.

The Golem lived for some time in Rabbi Loew’s house, doing tasks as a simple house servant, but the Golem never spoke.  Rabbi Loew gave the Golem a task list every Friday afternoon, because he didn’t want to talk to it on the Sabbath, but one Friday he forgot. The Golem, having nothing to do, went on a wild rampage and started destroying property in the quarter and causing mayhem. The people told the rabbi about it and he had to run out and tell the Golem to stop, but it was a close call. The Golem could have destroyed all of Prague.

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The Golem of Prague
(from Ripley’s Believe It or Not True Demons and Monsters comic, No. 7, 1967)

In another story, the rabbi sent the Golem to tear down a house that was on fire, to keep the fire from spreading throughout the quarter. The Golem complied, but then continued to tear down houses all around it. Again, the people ran to Rabbi Loew, who stopped the Golem before it destroyed all of Prague.

There are many stories in Jewish folklore of other situations between the Golem and Rabbi Loew, but they never mention the Golem’s main purpose, which was to watch over the Jewish community and protect them from angry non-Jewish mobs. I suspect in many stories the Golem did fight against Jewish enemies, but those stories are likely politically charged and so have never been told outside the community.

The Old-New Synagogue (Alt-neu Schul) in Pragu...

The Old-New Synagogue (Alt-neu Schul) in Prague. Legend says the Golem still sleeps in the attic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Golem is Put to Rest

All stories agree, however, that around 1593 Rabbi Loew decided the Golem had served its purpose, and violence and discrimination against the Jews was on the wane. Together with his two helpers, they performed another magical ceremony, reversing what they had done before. The Golem lost its life force and became just a figure of clay again. Legend says the Golem is still lying in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, awaiting the day when another rabbi of magical skill will bring it back to life again.

A Dangerous Power

The story of the Golem is similar to the gothic tale of the Frankenstein monster. A man of learning creates a living being, a power normally reserved only for God. Such a power, being dangerous to the natural order of things, has adverse consequences. The monster is out of control, and the man who created it must face the problems he has brought to the community by using such a power. The Golem perhaps is a personification of the collective anger of the Jews against their oppressors. Secretly they wanted to fight back, to unleash blind rage, but they knew the consequences would be too catastrophic. The story is also very similar to the modern myth of the “rise of the machines,” as told in such movies as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or “The Terminator,” or “The Matrix.” People create advanced artificial intelligence (again encroaching on the realm of the gods) only to become victimized by its blind power. In that sense, the story of the Golem is probably more relevant than ever.

If you are looking to see a good horror film this Halloween, the 1920’s era silent film “The Golem: How He Came Into This World” is worth a watch.

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