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Notes from Limmud 2012

Adventures in Israel: The Golem

Steve Israel

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Part One: the Creation of Man by God

What makes a folk story, and what makes a Jewish folk story? There's often a lot more happening below the page, so to speak, than you would think. There's lots of dull collections of Jewish folk tales. But we don't read them the way they were supposed to be read, which is to try and think about the significance of each page rather than simply moving on to the next: It's a text to be analysed, not to be read in the way we moderns usually read novels or short stories. That's not how folk stories developed.

There are many folk tales we think of of quintessentially Jewish folk stories which are not Jewish at all. For example, the Chelm tales. They were originally German and non-Jewish; they were translated into Yiddish and Jewish names added, and for arbitrary reasons the name Chelm attached (which caused the people of the real Chełm much embarrassment for many years thereafter).

Let's take one of the most classic and best known story of Jewish folk stories, that of the Golem of Prague. How did it develop, what are its roots, and how did it come together?

A summary of the story: In the late sixteenth century, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Löwe of Prague, because of antisemitism, decides to create a protector for the Jewish people, the Golem. He makes it out of clay. By the invocation of Cabbalistic whatevers, he brings it to life, with the word אמת (truth) on its head. After serving the community for some time, it runs amok. The rabbi deactivates it by scratching out the letter א so it reads מת (dead). It was then put in the attic of the Altneuschul where it remains unto this time.*

* [Actually people went into the attic of the Altneuschul in the nineteenth century to carry out repairs; they reported "we buried what we found there", without adding any more details.]

This is the popular version of the tale.

The earliest printed version known to have been written on the Golem of Prague—folk tales normally start off orally—was collected in 1847 by Dr Wiesel, a folk story collector, amongst other tales:

During the reign of Rudolph II there lived among the Jews of Prague a certain Bezalel* Loew, who, on account of his tall structure, and great learning was called the Great Rabbi Loew. This rabbi was well versed in all the arts and sciences and especially in the Cabbalah. Thanks to this art, he was able to put life into figures from clay and wood, and to make them perform whatever they were told to do, just as if they were real beings. Such self-created servants are worth a great deal; they neither eat nor drink, nor do they require any wages. They work patiently; one can scold them, and they do not answer back.

Rabbi Loew fashioned such a servant out of clay, put into his mouth the שֵׁם and thereby gave him life. This artificial servant did all the rough work in the house, throughout the week. He chopped the wood, carried the water, swept the street and so forth. But on the Sabbath he had to rest. Therefore his master, before the Shabbos began, removed the שֵׁם from his mouth, and made him lifeless.

It happened once that the rabbi forgot to do this and mischief was done. The magic servant went wild, he pulled down houses, threw about lumps of rock, tore at trees by the roots and played havoc in the streets.

People ran to tell the rabbi. The situation was indeed awkward: the Shabbos had begun and all work was prohibited. How was one to break the spell?

Fortunately in the Altneuschul the Shabbos had not yet been sanctified and as this was the oldest synagoguge in Prague, everyone followed its guidance. There was still time to remove the שֵׁם from the mad creature. The rabbi ran to the Golem and pulled the שֵׁם from its mouth. The lump of clay fell down and broke into pieces.

The rabbi was greatly upset by this occurence and was unwilling to create another such dangerous servant. It is said that even today pieces of the Golem can be still seen in the loft of the Altneuschul.

* The Maharal's father.

There is no antisemitism here, and no protection. This is a snapshot of the story frozen in time in 1847.

Where does this story come from? Here's the first source:

Genesis 2:7 בראשית ב ז
The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. וַיִּיצֶר ה׳ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאָדָם עָפָר מִן־הָאֲדָמָה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה׃

To make Man God needed two things: חוֹמֶר, material and רוּחַ, spirit.

BT Sanhedrin:
Aha bar Ḥanina said: the day had twelve hours. In the first hour the earth was piled up; in the second he became a golem, a still unformed mass; in the third, his limbs were stretched out; in the fourth the soul was cast into him; in the fifth he stood on his feet; in the sixth he gave all living things names; in the seventh Eve was given him for a companion; in the eighth the two lay down in bed, and when they left it, they were four; in the ninth the prohibition was communicated to him; in the tenth he transgressed, in the eleventh he was judged; in the twelfth he was expelled and went out of Paradise, as it is written (Psalms 49:13):
And Adam* does not remain one night in glory. וְאָדָם בִּיקָר בַּל־יָלִין נִמְשַׁל כַּבְּהֵמוֹת נִדְמוּ׃

* Heb. אָדָם means both "a human" and the name Adam.

So, the word golem has meaning: it's an unformed mass. (In Modern Hebrew חוֹמֶר גֶלֶם = "raw materials".)

Midrash Avir, a mediaeval work, has a very different story:

R. Berakhya said: When God wished to create the world, He began His creation with nothing other than man and made him as a golem. When He prepared to cast a soul into him, He said: If I set him down now, it will be said that he was my companion in the work of Creation; so I will leave him as a golem, until I have created everything else. When He had created everything, the angels said to Him: Aren't you going to make the man you spoke of? He replied: I made him long ago, only the soul is missing. Then He cast the soul into him and set him down and concentrated the whole world in him. With him He began, with him He concluded, as it is written (Psalms 139:5)
You have formed me before and behind. אָחוֹר וָקֶדֶם צַרְתָּנִי

Here Man is made as a soulless golem and left until much later to complete by the addition of a soul.

This is a theological warning: There's a danger of Man claiming powers Man does not have and God has no intention of Man having, hence the separation of the two stages.

Part Two: the Creation of Man by Man

Tractate Sanhedrin:
Rava1 said: If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written (Isaiah 59:2); "Your iniquities haave separated between you and your God." [The implication is that if a man is saintly without sins, his creative powers is no longer separated from that of God. And the text continues as if though its author wished to demonstrate this creative power.] For Rava created a man and sent him to Rabbi Zeira2. The Rabbi spoke to him and he did not answer. Then he said, "You must have been made by the companions [members of the Talmudic Academy]; return to your dust."

1. Rava was known as a very saintly person.

2. Rava's companion all over the Talmud.

This implies Rava is perfect, and sinless.

Commentary of the Maharal to Tractate Sanhedrin, writing a thousand years later on the Rava and Zeira story:

When [Rava] would purify himself and meditate over the סֵפֶר יְצִירָה concentrating intensively on the different Name of God, he would thereby connect very closely with God and be able at such moments to create a person. But this person would have no power of speech [or potential for this], for that far was Rava's energy not able to extend itself that he would be capable of creating a speaking human being like himself. For [Rava] was a human being himself; and how would it then be possible for him to create a complete person just like himself? Just as it is impossible to conceive that God, who is supreme over everything, would create one like Himself.

Of course, this is leaving natural creation (childbirth) aside.

סֵפֶר יְצִירָה Sefer Yeṣira is the Book of Creation—not ex nihilo creation [which is a different word in Hebrew], but craftsmanship. It's the earliest known Cabbalistic book. Its subject is the creation of the world by God.

The first story about creation by man started with the above story, but after that there were a whole load of other stories. The following twelfth century midrash brings a number of such stories together.

When God created His world, He first created the סֵפֶר יְצִירָה and looked into it and from it created His world. When He had completed His work; he put it [Yeṣira] into the Torah and showed it to Abraham, who however understood nothing. Then a heavenly voice went forth and said, "Are you really trying to compare your knowledge for mine? Why, you cannot understand anything in it by yourself."

Then [Abraham] went to Ever and went to Shem, his teacher, and they meditated on it for three years, until they knew how to create a world. So likewise Rava and Rabbi Zera busied themselves with the סֵפֶר יְצִירָה and a calf was created to them which they slaughtered, and Jeremiah and Ben Sira also busied themselves with it for three years, and a man was created to them.

Now Rava and Rabbi Zera are no longer making a man but a calf, and they're in it together.

The speaker suggests that oral traditions develop rather like Chinese Whispers, but from time to time there is enough of a disturbance—of which there are plenty of examples in Jewish history—to radically change the message. Under such circumstances, it would be extremely surprising if such oral traditions remained unchanged.

You could argue that this was not an oral tradition, it was in the Talmud! But this reflects the situation nowadays in which we have the Talmud readily available and printed and reproduced reliably.

For a thousand years, though, after its genesis, the Talmud was not printed, and it was extremely expensive to produce a copy of the Talmud. If a pogrom happened, and a town's sole copy of the Talmud went up in flames, the story would go back to faulty human memory and oral tradition.

Let's go back to Jeremiah. He has no family, and just has one disciple. However a folkloristic Jeremiah develops at some point, who has a son called either Sira or Ben Sira. Ben Sira was an ancient Jewish sage from the second century BCE [several centuries after the time of Jeremiah]. Somehow at some stage they got conflated.

Here's a story about Jeremiah from the thirteenth century:

The prophet Jeremiah busied himself along with the סֵפֶר יְצִירָה. Then a heavenly voice went forth and said: Take a companion. He went to his son Sira, and they studied the book for three years. Afterward they set about combining the alphabet in accordance with the Cabbalistic principles of combination, grouping and word formation, and a man was created to them, on whose forehead stood the letters ה׳ אלהים אמת. But this newly created man had a knife in his hand, with wich he erased the א from אמת; there remained: מת (dead)1. Then Jeremiah tore his clothes [because of his blasphemy] and said: Why have you erased the א from מת? He replied,2 "I will tell you a parable: An architect built many houses, cities and squares but no one could copy his art and compete with him in knowledge and skill until two men persuaded him. Then he taught them the secret of his art, until they knew how to do everything in the right way. When they had learned the secret of his abilities, they began to anger him with words. Finally, they broke with him and became architects like him, except that what he changed a thaler for, they charged six groats. When people noticed him, they ceased to honour the artist and came to them and honoured them and gave thim commissions when they required to have something build. So God has made you in His image and in His shape and form. But now that you have created a man like Him, people will say: there is on [typo for "no"?] God in the world beside these two."

Then Jeremiah said, "What solution is there?" He said, "Write the alphabets backward on the earth you have strewn, with intense concentration. Only do not meditate in the sense of building up, but the other way around." So they did, and the man became dust and ashes before his eyes. Then Jeremiah said, "Truly one should study these things only in order to know the power and omnipotence of the Creator of this world, but not in order really to practise them."

1. In full: The LORD God is dead. (Did Nietzsche know this story?)

2. This golem talks!

This is reminiscient of the warning about human arrogance we saw at the start!

This is a thirteenth century text which raises a warning relevant to the Enlightenment centuries later! From the thirteenth century point of view, it's an atrocious position. The moment that Man claims to be able to conquer the laws of nature, there is a danger that God will be forgotten.

Part Three: Golem-making... Rabbinic Recipes

In Germany circa 1200, practical Cabbala books arose. Some were commentaries on the Sefer Yeṣira, and they had recipes for how to make a golem:

He who consults the Sefer Yeṣira must first take a cleansing bath and put on white garments, He then takes virgin soil from a mountain which has not been dug by men, soaks it in well water and then makes the Golem, forming each limb by reciting alphabetic permutations.
Another:
Then take a bowl full of pure water and a small spoon, fill it with earth—but he must know the exact weight of earth before he stirs it and also the exact measurement of the spoon with which he is to measure. When he has filled it, he should scatter it and slowly blow it over the water. While beginning to blow the first spoonful of earth, he should utter a consonant of the Name of God in a loud voice and pronounce it in a single breath, until he can blow no longer. While he is doing this, his face should be turned downward. And so, beginning with the combinations that constitute the parts of the head, he should form all the members in a definite order, until a figure emerges.

The common theme here and in other ones is purity.

[Audience question:] If there are all those warnings against this, how come there are so many recipes for making a Golem!? [Answer:] There were lots of streams of Judaism at that time; there was no consistency between them.

Part Four: Scoffers and Witnesses

Zalman Zvi of Aufenhausen, 1615:
The renegade said that there are those among the Jews who take a lump of clay, fashion it into the figure of a man, and whisper incantations and spells, whereupon the figure lives and moves. In the reply which I wrote for the Christians I made the turncoat look ridiculous, for I said there that he himself must be fashioned from just such kneaded lumps of clay and loam, without any sense or intelligence, and that his father must have been just such a wonder worker, for as he writes, we call such an image a חוֹםֶר גוֹלֶם [an unshaped, raw mass of material], which may be rendered "a monstrous ass"*, which I say is a perfect description of him. I myself have never seen such a performance, but some of the Talmudic sages possessed the power to do so, by means of the Sefer Yeṣira... We German Jews have lost this mystical tradition, but in Palestine there are still to be found some men who can perform great wonders through the Kabbalah. Our fools are not created out of clay, but come from their mothers' wombs.

* A really good pun.

† Another pun on the word golem.

A Christian German anthropologist, Christophe Arnold, collected this version of the story in 1674:

After saying certain prayers and holding certain fast days, they make a figure of a man from clay, and when they have said the Shem Hamephorash [the actual name of God] over it, the image comes to life. And although the image itself cannot speak, it understands what is said to it and commanded; amongst the Polish Jews it does all kinds of housework, but is not allowed to leave the house. On the forehead of the image they write Emeth, that is, truth. But an image of this kind grows each day; though very small at first, it ends by becoming larger than all these in the house. In order to take away his strength, which ultimately becomes a threat to all those in the house, they quickly erase the first letter aleph from the word Emeth on his forehead, so that there remains only the word Meth. When this is done, the golem collapses and dissolves into the clay or mud that he was....

They say that a Baalshem [a popular healer, etc] in Poland, by the name of Rabbi Elias, made a golem who became so large that the rabbi could no longer reach his forehead to erase the letter E (aleph). He thought up a trick, namely that the golem, being his servant, should remove his boots, supposing that when the golem bent over, he would erase the letters. And so it happened, but when the golem became mud again, his whole weight fell on the rabbi, who was sitting on the bench, and ceushed him.

The first version of the story with a connection to Prague is the one shown above in 1847. Certainly by 1847 it is connected with Prague.

The key turning point for the Golem is 1908, when an eastern European by the name of Yudl Rosenberg wote a book of stories about the Golem of Prague. R. Rosenberg did not say he wrote it; using an old tradition he says he found it, and that it was written by the son-in-law of the Maharal of Prague.

This was totally out of character.

However, there was certainly no tradition connecting the Maharal of Prague to the Golem in 1847. The Maharal's grandson wrote a biographical introduction to the Maharal in a reprint of one of his grandfather's commentaries; there's no mention of the Golem anywhere in it!

Yudl Rosenberg's "authentic" version

In this story, Prague in 1580 is full of antisemitism. The priest Thaddeus is waging war against the Jews.

R. Loew directed a dream connection how to wage war against the priest, his antagonist. And the answer came out alphabetically in Hebrew: "Ah, By Clay Destroy Evil Forces, Golem, Help Israel: Justice!"

The Rabbi said that the ten words formed such a combination that it had the power to create a golem at any time. He then revealed the secret to me, his son-in-law Isaac ben Sampson Ha-Cohen, and to his foremost pupil, Jacob ben Chaim-Sassoon Ha-Levi. It was the secret of what he had to do, and he told us he would need our help because I was born under the sign of fire, and the pupil Jacob ben Chaim-Sassoon Ha-Levi was born under the sign of water, and Rabbi Loew himself was born under the sign of air, and the creation of the golem would require all four elements: fire, air, water and earth. He also told us to keep the matter secret, and informed us seven days ahead of time how to act.

In the Jewish year 5340, in the month of Adar [corresponding to February 1580 in the Christian calendar], all three of us walked out of the city early one morning until we reached the shores of the Moldau River.

There, on a clay bank, we measured out a man three cubits long, and we drew his face in the earth, and his arms and his legs, the way a man lies on his back. Then, all three of us stood at the feet of the reclining golem, with our faces to his face, and the rabbi commanded me to circle the golem seven times from the right side to the head, from the head to the left side, and then back to the feet, and he told me the formula to speak as I circled the golem seven times. And when I had done the rabbi's bidding, the golem turned as red as fire. Next, the rabbi commended his pupil Jacob Sassoon to do the same as I had done, but he revealed different formulae to him. This time, the fiery redness was extinguished, and a vapour arose from the reclining figure, which had grown nails and hair. Now the rabbi walked around the golem seven times with the Torah scrolls, like the circular procession in synagogue at Simchas Torah, and then in conclusion, all three of us together recited the verse: "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

And now the golem opened his eyes and peered at us in amazement.

Rabbi Loew shouted in Hebrew: "Stand on your feet!" The golem stood up and we dressed him in the garments that we had brought along, the clothes befitting a shammas in a rabbinical household. And at six o'clock in the morning, we started home, four men. On the way, Rabbi Loew said to the golem: "You have to know that we created you so that you would protect the Jews from harm. Your name is Joseph, and you will be my beadle. You must do everything I command, even if it means jumping into fire or water, until you've carried out my orders precisely."

The golem was unable to speak. But he could hear very well, even from far away.

The rabbi then told us he had named the golem Joseph, because he had given him the spirit of Joseph Shaday, who was half man and half demon, and who had helped the Talmudic sages in times of great trouble.

Back home, the rabbi told the household, in regard to the golem, that he had met a mute pauper in the street, a great simpleton, and that he had feltsorry for him and taken him home to help out the Synagogue officials. But the rabbi strictly forbade anyone from ever giving him any orders.

The golem always sat in a corner of the rabbi's courtroom, with his hands folded behind his head, just like a golem, who thinks about nothing at all, and so people started calling him "Joseph the Golem", and a few nicknamed him "Joseph the Mute."

This is the first version of the story to involve antisemitism.

It's from this 1908 version that the story really got going. Two great Central European films were made before the War about it, a suite of music, a graphic novel, all sorts of artistic interpretations; an X-Files episode, the Simpsons. Mary Shelley was possibly influenced to write Frankenstein from having heard it.

The Golem is a perfect example of a story which looks simple, but has theological warnings, different elements coming in at different times, etc, etc. Underneath the text there are layers and layers, and thousands of years of development going all the way back to the begininng of Genesis.

Not every folk story is as multi-layered as this, but under every story there is some layer of [lacuna].

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