A modern depiction of a golem by fantasy artist Philippe Semeria. The Hebrew word for "truth" is written on the golem's forehead.

A golem is a being in Jewish folklore. It is in the shape of a man but it is made of inanimate material, usually clay, and is brought to life by a rabbi. The most famous golem in legend is the one said to have been created by Rabbi Juddah Loew ben Bezalel, the chief rabbi of Prague, in order to protect the people of the Prague ghetto from an anti-Semitic pogrom.

Golems have featured in several novels, poems, plays and films. In recent years they have been featured in comic books, animated cartoons, role-playing games and computer games too.

Goylem has been used as a Yiddish slang word for a person who is clumsy or slow.

Stories about golems were so popular in Bulgaria and Macedonia that golem became the usual word for "big" in the Bulgarian and Macedonian languages.

Biblical origins

Model of a golem.

The Hebrew word golem appears only once in the Tanakh, in Psalm 139:16, where it is used to mean "unshaped form" or "embryo".

The idea of creating and bringing to life a clay man is probably taken from Genesis, in which G-d forms Adam from clay and breathes life into him.

Activating a golem, according to legend

Legends vary on the precise way in which a rabbi would bring a golem to life, although Hebrew incantations would usually be involved. Some versions say that the rabbi would need to write a series of letters of the Aleph-bet on a piece of parchment and put it in the golem's mouth. Other versions say that the rabbi would write the Hebrew word emet, meaning "truth", on the golem's forehead to activate it. To deactivate it, the rabbi would erase the letter aleph, leaving met, the Hebrew word for "death".

The Golem of Prague

Depiction of Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague.

The most famous golem story is that of the Golem of Prague. The legend states that in the 16th century CE, the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II had decided to expel or kill Prague's Jews. Rabbi Juddah Loew ben Bezalel, the chief rabbi of Prague, created and brought to life a golem, in order to protect his people.

The golem spread fear by attacking and killing all those who sought to do harm to the Jews. The Emperor begged Rabbi Loew to deactivate the golem, which he agreed to do on the condition that the Emperor stopped persecuting the Jews. The legend states that the deactivated golem was stored in the attic of Prague's Old New Synagogue, the Emperor understanding that it could be brought back to life at any time if he broke his promise. The Jewish museum in Prague had a special exhibit on Rabbi Loew and the golem in 2009.

Some variations of the legend say that the golem became uncontrolably violent, turning on its creator or killing Gentiles and Jews indiscriminately. Some versions say that the golem became dangerous after it fell in love with a woman who rejected it.

In literature and film

Title page of a 1915 edition of Der Golem by Gustav Meyrink.

The legend of the Golem of Prague formed the basis of the 1914 novel Der Golem by Gustav Meyrink. The novel was adapted into a series of silent films, the only one of which that survives is The Golem: How He Came into the World by the German director Paul Wegener. The French director, Julien Duvivier, directed a sequel to Wegener's movie, Le Golem, in 1936. H. Leivick wrote a Yiddish-language "dramatic poem in eight sections" about the Golem in 1921. In 1969 Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a novel called The Golem in Yiddish. He later produced his own English translation of it which appeared in 1982. Elie Wiesel produced a children's book based on the golem legend.

Stories of golems were a probable influence on Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

A character named Gollum features in J.R.R. Tolkien's novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The character does not, however, strongly resemble the legendary golem in any significant way and it is uncertain whether or not Tolkien intended there to be any connection.

See also

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