Rabbi Löw and the Golem. Mikoláš Aleš, 1899. Ink on paper. National Gallery in Prague. (Photograph © 2006 National Gallery in Prague)

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Golem Legend

The literary, folkloristic tale of the creation of a golem; the most famous formation of which was said to have been effected by Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal; d. 1609) of Prague. The notion in Jewish culture that a particularly righteous person, possessed of esoteric wisdom, could create an artificial human being out of inorganic matter—and thus imitate the Divine—has literary roots in the Talmud and early kabbalistic ideas. Some medieval readers of Sefer yetsirah (The Book of Creation), one of Judaism’s earliest mystical texts, understood the work to have practical as well as theoretical implications. In a commentary to that text, Rabbi El‘azar of Worms (ca. 1165–ca. 1230), an exemplar of German Jewish pietism, enumerated instructions for the actual creation of a golem. The kabbalistic writings of Avraham Abulafia (b. 1240) of Spain and the so-called Pseudo-Sa‘adyah—a thirteenth-century text of French Jewish origin—similarly testify to the interest of medieval Jewish mystics in the “practical” arts of creation.

A. Meskin in a role from the Habimah production of Ha-Golem (The Golem) by H. Leyvik, Moscow, 1925. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L.M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)

Among early modern Jews, tales of the creation of life by pious individuals seem to have been most common in Poland, where, beginning in the seventeenth century, an important new motif was added. Now a golem was understood to have been not merely a servant who performed all sorts of physical labor for his master, but also a source of danger. Prominent tales of this sort attached to the figure of Eliyahu of Chełm (d. 1583), an important Talmudic scholar, kabbalist, and ba‘al shem (one said to possess secret knowledge of the holy names of God). In an early rendition of the Polish golem tradition, the non-Jewish folklorist Christoph Arnold reported that “a figure of this kind grows each day; though very small at first, it ends by becoming larger than all those in the house.” Eliyahu eventually felt obliged to cause the death of his own creation, which he hoped to accomplish by removing the letter aleph from the word emet (“truth”—composed of the letters aleph, mem, and tav) that was inscribed on the creature’s forehead, at which point—the remaining two letters spelling out the Hebrew word for “dead”—the golem would crumple, lifeless, to the ground. In Arnold’s version, the golem, turning to the mud from which he had been formed, crushed and killed Rabbi Eliyahu. In the version related by Tsevi Hirsh Ashkenazi, a descendant of Eliyahu of Chełm, to his son Ya‘akov Emden (1697–1776), the wordplay that had occupied a central position in the accounts of Christian Hebraists was omitted, and the collapse of the golem did not crush and kill his creator but only rendered him cut and bruised.

The golem tradition among European Jews became attached to the city of Prague and the personality of Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el, known by the acronym Maharal, sometime between the late seventeenth and the nineteenth century, though precisely when and under what circumstances is not certain. Maharal’s career in the Bohemian capital coincided with the reigns of the Habsburg emperors Maximilian II (1564–1576) and Rudolf II (1576–1612), a period often referred to as the Golden Age of Czech Jewry, when imperial policy demonstrated remarkable tolerance toward Jews and Protestants alike, Jewish cultural life flourished, and the Jewish population grew significantly. Yehudah Leib presided over one of Europe’s great Talmudic academies; proposed important reforms in Jewish education; and produced a large literary oeuvre, but there is no evidence to suggest that he ever engaged in activities associated with the creation of a golem. While he does appear to have had an interest in the speculative side of Jewish mysticism, Maharal is not known for having been a devotee of “practical” Kabbalah; and, unlike Eliyahu of Chełm, he was not a ba‘al shem. Yet virtually every literary evocation of the golem legend since the first half of the nineteenth century incorporates these two elements: Maharal is understood to be the golem’s creator, and Prague’s Jewish town is portrayed as the locus of events.

One scholarly opinion holds that the golem topos crossed over from Poland to Bohemia via Polish Hasidism, whose teachers venerated the writings of Maharal and whose publishing houses reissued many of his works. But this affinity does not explain how Prague Jews themselves came to remember the legend as one from their own past. It is nearly impossible to pin down the process whereby this collective memory was formed, but its origins may lie in the 1720s and 1730s, during which time a small cult of Maharal veneration emerged, marked by such events as the renovation of his tombstone in the old Jewish cemetery and the publication in 1727 of the biography and family chronicle Megilat yuḥasin (Scroll of Relations) by the secretary of the Prague Jewish community, Mosheh Me’ir Perles (1666–1739). It may well be that rabbinic elites in the 1720s and 1730s—in particular the students and teachers of the city’s yeshivas (the Polish-born Yonatan Eibeschütz [ca. 1694–1764] served as a charismatic preacher and rosh yeshivah in Prague at the time)—fostered a magical kabbalistic reinterpretation of the life of Maharal. If this was, indeed, the case, then it is to contacts between Poland and Prague that one needs to look for the transmission of the early modern golem tale to the Bohemian capital.

P. Lubitch and N. Vinyar in a scene from the Habimah production of Ha-Golem (The Golem) by H. Leyvik, Moscow, 1925. From Habimah by R. Ben-Ari (Chicago: L.M. Shtayn, 1937). (YIVO)

The first literary records of the Golem of Prague come to us by way of nineteenth-century fiction, ethnography, and folklore. Jakob Grimm published a version of the Polish legend in the journal Zeitung für Einsiedler in 1808. He was, however, apparently unaware of any association of the golem theme with the city of Prague. Berthold Auerbach is to be credited with the first literary attribution of the golem legend to Maharal, having included it in his 1837 historical novel Spinoza. But the first individual to transmit in written form a tale told by Prague Jews concerning Maharal and a golem of his creation was the non-Jewish journalist and folklorist Franz Klutschak (1814–1886), who published his story in 1841 in Panorama des Universums, a Prague monthly devoted to the investigation of world cultures. The Jewish physician and folklorist Leopold Weisel (1804–1873), who had recorded Jewish oral traditions from Prague during his years as a medical student, and who also published in Panorama des Universums, related his own version of the golem legend in the 1847 anthology Sipurim: Eine Sammlung jüdischer Volkssagen, published by Wolf Pascheles.

Weisel’s “Der golem,” though much more spare than Klutschak’s tale and lacking the latter’s rich detail, is the better known of the two and appears to have served as the basis for subsequent borrowings. Weisel excused the brevity of his story with the observation that this Volkssage (popular tale) had already been used by various writers. “It seems to me superfluous,” he wrote, “to rework such a well-known story. I shall present it briefly if only so that one not think that I did not know it.”

The classic nineteenth-century renditions of the story of the Golem of Prague relate the creature’s demise to a liturgical practice peculiar to the Altneuschul in Prague. At the Friday evening service there, Psalms 92 (The psalm for the Sabbath day) and 93 are said in their entirety and then—curiously—repeated before the cantor issues the formal call to prayer (Barekhu). According to the folktale, it was Yehudah Leib himself who inadvertently instituted this practice. He was forced to interrupt the Sabbath eve service at this point in order to subdue the golem, who was running amok in the Jewish quarter. The prayers in question were repeated upon his return to the synagogue, indicating that the Sabbath had not yet begun. In point of fact, the unusual practice probably dates to the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, during which time Kabalat Shabat (the early part of the Friday evening service) appears to have been accompanied by the playing of an organ.

Nearly all twentieth-century renditions of the golem tale place at the center of the narrative a theme that was completely absent from the Prague version before 1900: the false accusation of Jewish ritual murder. In 1909 Yudl Rosenberg (1859–1935), a Hasidic rabbi and dayan (judge) living at the time in Warsaw, published a book titled Nifle’ot Maharal ‘im ha-golem (Book of Wonders of the Maharal with the Golem), which purported to be based on a manuscript composed by Maharal’s son-in-law, Yitsḥak ben Shimshon ha-Kohen Katz (d. 1624) and deposited in “the imperial library” in Metz. In fact, the text was a fabrication produced by Rosenberg himself. The narrative is laced with historical inaccuracies, improbabilities, and terms and concepts that make sense only in a Polish context. Ironically, the supposed need to build a monster out of clay in order to defend the Jews against popular violence inspired by the Christian accusation of Jewish ritual murder would not have made much sense to Jews living in the Prague of Rudolf II and Maharal, who never had to face accusations of this type.

It is, nevertheless, Rosenberg’s version of the golem legend that was remembered and reproduced in the twentieth century. The Hebrew writer and folklorist Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski anthologized it in his Mekor Yehudah (Fountain of Judah). The Galician-born writer Chaim Bloch adapted Rosenberg’s stories to German prose, a project he claimed to have produced through “ethnographic research” on the Russian front. Bloch’s collection was soon translated into English and was widely distributed in the United States for many years under the title The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague. Nifle’ot Maharal was also adapted by the Yiddish poet H. Leyvik for his drama Der goylem. As recently as 1980, Judaica Press of New York published a work by the Brooklyn-based writer Gershon Winkler titled The Golem of Prague, an unabashedly romantic and pious rewriting of Rosenberg’s “invented tradition,” which promoted itself as “a new adaptation of the documented stories of the Golem of Prague.”

Suggested Reading

Moshe Idel, “The Golem in Jewish Magic and Mysticism,” in Golem! Danger, Deliverance, and Art, ed. Emily D. Bilski, pp. 15–35 (New York, 1988); Moshe Idel, Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (Albany, N.Y., 1990); Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000), pp. 95–113; Gershom Scholem, “The Idea of the Golem,” in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, pp. 158–204 (New York, 1965); Eli Yassif, “Mavo: Yudel Rosenberg—sofer ‘amami,” in Ha-Golem mi-Prag u-ma‘asim nifla’im aḥerim, by Yehuda Yudel Rosenberg, pp. 7–72 (Jerusalem, 1991).