The Golem

18 03 2010

From this site:

Rabbi Bezalel’s son grew up and increased in strength and knowledge; he became a great scholar, well versed in the Holy Law, but also a master of all branches of knowledge and familiar with many foreign languages. In time he was elected Rabbi of Posen [in Poland], but later received a call to the city of Prague, where he was appointed chief judge of the Jewish community.

All his thoughts and actions were devoted to the welfare of his suffering people and his great aim in life was to clear Israel of the monstrous accusation of ritual murder which like a sword of Damocles was perpetually suspended over the head of the unhappy race. Fervently did the rabbi pray to Heaven to teach him in a vision by what means he could best bring to naught the false accusations of the miscreant priests who were spreading the cruel rumors.

And one night he heard a mysterious voice calling to him, “Make a human image of clay and thus you will succeed in frustrating the evil intentions of the enemies of Israel.”

On the following morning the master called his son-in-law and his favorite pupil and acquainted them with the instruction he had received from Heaven. He also asked the two to help him in the work he was about to undertake.

“Four elements,” he said, “are required for the creation of the golem or homunculus, namely, earth, water, fire and air.”

“I myself,” thought the holy man, “possess the power of the wind; my son-in-law embodies fire, while my favorite pupil is the symbol of water, and between the three of us we are bound to succeed in our work.” He urged on his companions the necessity of great secrecy and asked them to spend seven days in preparing for the work.

On the twentieth day of the month of Adar, in the year five thousand three hundred and forty after the creation of the world, in the fourth hour after midnight, the three men betook themselves to a river on the outskirts of the city on the banks of which they found a loam pit. Here they kneaded the soft clay and fashioned the figure of a man three ells high. They fashioned the features, hands and feet, and then placed the figure of clay on its back upon the ground.

The three learned men then stood at the feet of the image which they had created and the rabbi commanded his son-in-law to walk round the figure seven times, while reciting a cabalistic formula he had himself composed. And as soon as the son-in-law had completed the seven rounds and recited the formula, the figure of clay grew red like a gleaming coal. Thereupon the rabbi commanded his pupil to perform the same action, namely, walk round the lifeless figure seven times while reciting another formula. The effect of the performance was this time an abatement of the heat. The figure grew moist and vapors emanated from it, while nails sprouted on the tips of its fingers and its head was suddenly covered with hair. The face of the figure of clay looked like that of a man of about thirty.

At last the rabbi himself walked seven times round the figure, and the three men recited the following sentence from the history of creation in Genesis: “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.” (Genesis 2:7)

As soon as the three pious men had spoken these words, the eyes of the Golem opened and he gazed upon the rabbi and his pupils with eyes full of wonder. Rabbi Loew [also spelled Löw] thereupon spoke aloud to the man of clay and commanded him to rise from the ground. The Golem at once obeyed and stood erect on his feet. The three men then arrayed the figure in the clothes they had brought with them, clothes worn by the beadles of the synagogues, and put shoes on his feet.

And the rabbi once more addressed the newly fashioned image of clay and thus he spoke, “Know you, clod of clay, that we have fashioned you from the dust of the earth that you may protect the people of Israel against its enemies and shelter it from the misery and suffering to which our nation is subjected. Your name shall be Joseph, and you shall dwell in my courtroom and perform the work of a servant. You shall obey my commands and do all that I may require of you, go through fire, jump into water or throw yourself down from a high tower.”

The Golem only nodded his head as if to give his consent to the words spoken by the rabbi. His conduct was in every respect that of a human being; he could hear and understand all that was said to him, but he lacked the power of speech. And thus it happened on that memorable night that while only three men had left the house of the rabbi, four returned home in the sixth hour after midnight.


The modern assumption, from about the Enlightenment forward, is that good Christians and Jews “don’t do magic”. This is one of the presuppositions at the heart of the modern version of montheism. Many commenters on my work have upheld this idea, and I need not go over their arguments here. But this is really a historically conditioned argument, and in some ways, not so historically conditioned. Such conjuring had always been around in less “developed” and “clericalized” areas of the world, and often people saw little difference between prayers, spells, and primitive scientific remedies: they just melded together in one big interesting cauldron of human experience.

It should also be noted in the story of the Golem that Rabbi Loew also practiced necromacy to clear the name of an innocent person. And Jews prior to the Enlightenment believed in reincarnation.



7 responses

19 03 2010

So is resurrection of the dead a uniquely Christian belief now?

19 03 2010
Frank Avila

SOME Jews believed in reincarnation before the modern era although certainly not all (Maimonides did not).

There are different schools of thought on the afterlife. Some Jews still believe in reincarnation namely Hassidic Jews and most of those who practice Kabbalah.

This is from wikipedia (although I have discussed it with some Jewish scholars):
While ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates attempted to prove the existence of reincarnation through philosophical proofs, Jewish mystics who believed this idea did not.
Reincarnation appeared in Jewish thought some time after the Talmud. There is no reference to reincarnation in the Talmud or any prior writings.[35] The idea of reincarnation, called gilgul, became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews. Among a few kabbalists, it was posited that some human souls could end up being reincarnated into non-human bodies. These ideas were found in a number of Kabbalistic works from the 1200s, and also among many mystics in the late 1500s. Martin Buber’s early collection of stories of the Baal Shem Tov’s life includes several that refer to people reincarnating in successive lives.[36]
Among well known (generally non-kabbalist or anti-kabbalist) Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud, the Rosh and Leon de Modena.
Saadia Gaon, in Emunoth ve-Deoth, concludes Section vi with a refutation of the doctrine of metempsychosis (reincarnation). While refuting reincarnation, the Saadia Gaon further states that Jews who hold to reincarnation have adopted non-Jewish beliefs.
The belief is common in Orthodox Judaism. Indeed there is an entire volume of work called Sha’ar Ha’Gilgulim[37] (The Gate of Reincarnations),[38] based on the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria (and compiled by his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital). It describes the deep, complex laws of reincarnation. One concept that arises from Sha’ar Ha’gilgulim is the idea that gilgul is paralleled physically by pregnancy.
Many Orthodox siddurim (prayerbooks) have a nightly prayer asking for forgiveness for sins that one may have committed in this gilgul or a previous one, which accompanies the nighttime recitation of the Shema before going to sleep.[39]

Let me repeat:
Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are Saadia Gaon, David Kimhi, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud, the Rosh and Leon de Modena.
It is not listed as one of the principles of Maimonides.

Even those who believe in reincarnation have a different conception than do Hindus or Buddhists (or even Greeks or other closer religions) insofar as Jews usually only reincarnated in other Jews in their beliefs and Males only reincarnated in other females and it was only for rectification and a couple of times (like 3 times). Certainly many Jews who died went to the bosom of Abraham even in the theology and history of those Jews who believed in reincarnation. The Hasids also believe in prayers to and for the dead and pilgrimages to tombs of saints (tzadiks).

Reincarnation is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah nor even in the Talmud and nowhere else in Old Testament Jewish scriptures. There are passages that can be interpreted as such but that is a theoretical (or in the Kabbalist minds an esoeteric possibiliity)

Arturo, you are awesome, and I love your blog.

19 03 2010

Jews believed in reincarnation?

19 03 2010
Arturo Vasquez

That’s a little hard to believe, considering that it was the Jews themselves who tell this story.

18 03 2010

The Golem legend was made into a film, a classic of German Expressionism in 1920. I remember seeing it in one of my film history claases at university, ( one of the best course I had).

18 03 2010

wasn’t one of the reasons that people talked about jews doing magic in the middle ages because it was something that “good people” don’t do? Aren’t these stories about jewish kabals properly understood as libelous, even in the context of the times?

18 03 2010

I know of a root doctor who prefers to use clay to fashion doll babies. Go figure. What I found interesting about Rabbi Loew’s work is that it required seven days to prepare the work and seven (times three) circumambulations. It took God six days to create a man out of clay. Is the extra day here indicative of the Rabbi’s deference to God…or should I say G-d. Also does Loew which means lion mean anything in this account?

Golem do not exist in the modern mind…unless we can count clones.

“Manipulating the words of the Book, we attempted to construct a golem…” Umberto Eco

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