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Legends shrouded in the mists of time

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By Judi Siegal

He rises up from the mist, a man-like creature formed from the soft clay earth, his birth attended by three learned sages whispering incantations from an ancient text. The creature has a parchment in its mouth, on it is written the ineffable name of God.

This creature, a humanoid without a soul or personality, is ready to do work at his master’s bidding. The huge monster of a man with an uneven stiff-legged gait stands posed and ready, eager to wield his brute force when prompted.

Sound like something from Sci-Fi Channel? Actually, this monster or golem, has a fascinating history in Jewish folklore and as most things in Jewish culture, has made its way into the mainstream pop culture as well. The tale has its origins back 2,000 years to the Talmud, but most of the folklore seems to be centered around a Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague who lived in the 1500s.

The term “golem” refers back to the time of creation and means “shapeless form or mass.” Adam was considered a golem for his first 12 hours of life before he had a soul. A golem was created by magic and was to serve his creator by doing tasks and using brute force as necessary.

The most famous golem stories come to us from the Middle Ages. This was a time of persecution for the Jews of Europe. It was also a time of superstition and great religious fervor,  as well as misunderstanding among the Christians and Jews.

One of the great anti-Semitic myths was called the Blood Libel, in which the blood of Christian children was used to bake Passover matzah. This myth, usually spread around during the Passover-Easter season, was the impetus for many riots and attacks against the Jewish community.

Enter Rabbi Judah Lowe of Prague. The great rabbi, also a Kabbalist, was said to be able to create a man to be the Jews’ protector. He did this by incantations and by inserting a piece of parchment in the mouth of the clay man, which had God’s very special name written on it.

Some versions of the story have the word emet or truth written on the man’s forehead and this would cause the golem to come alive. If you remove the first letter, an aleph, you are left with met, the Hebrew word for death. By removing the letter, the golem would “die,” ready to be resurrected when needed.

Other tales have the golem “dying” by saying the incantations backward and walking around the monster in different directions. Also, removing the name of God from the creature’s mouth (some say, shirt pocket) prevented the golem doing any harm.

The information needed to create the golem can be found in the Kabblistic book called, “Sefer Ha Yetzera” (Book of Creation). This ancient text, still in print today and studied by Jewish mystics, deals with the creation of the universe and the various mystical components making up the creation process. It is traditionally attributed, in part, to Adam the first man; Abraham, the first patriarch; and Rabbi Akiva, a famous scholar who lived in Israel 2,000 years ago.

Careful study of the book is needed in order to create life and one must be very righteous to do so. This is due to the fact that it is godly powers which give life to the creature and only those with good intentions are given these powers.

When all is said and done, the golem created by Rabbi Lowe does indeed protect the Jewish community from disaster. But unfortunately,  when the golem goes amuck and destroys innocent life, he is terminated and the story ends.

If the tale of the golem sounds a bit familiar it is because Mary Shelley based Frankenstein on the story. Golems have appeared in an episode of the X-Files and in Isaac B. Singer’s book, The Golem. There is a character named “Golem” in J.R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

If you visit Prague today, you can see the synagogue where Rabbi Lowe supposedly hid the golem until it was ready to do his bidding. It is said to haunt the synagogue even now. There is also a golem museum in the Jewish Quarter.

Whether or not a golem can be created remains a mystery but that is the stuff legends are made of.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.