The Prague Golem
In Jewish folklore, a Golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). Just before you reach for the dictionary….anthropomorphic means onto which human traits may be observed but is not human.
SPOILER ALERT: If you believe in the Old Testament then it’s natural to believe the Story of the Prague Golem.
I’ve spent many hours listening to stories about the Prague Golem and I’ve read a fair bit about the subject. You cannot fail to walk around the Jewish Quarter to see the many references to Golem. Let’s separate history from folklore. Nothing you read about this subject mentions “history”. Strange for a culture with perhaps the most recorded history in the world.
A Golem has no defined shape or size so it could look like you or me. Yet most pictures show a huge mound roughly shaped into human form with a piece of leather or metal holding it together, with glowing eyes, sometimes with a mouth or hole in the forehead i.e. your Frankenstein version that you would remember if you saw it and you would absolutely tell someone else about it.
The Prague Golem Story – The Believers
The story is simple. A very important man called Rabbi Loew creates a Golem using mud from the nearby riverbank. Its task as defined by the controlling “chem” (paper inserted into the mouth or forehead). Its sole purpose is to protect the Jewish community in Prague and who on many occasions performed this task. Before Rabbi Loew died he deactivated the Golem and it was stored in the attic of the Old/New Synagogue to be raised again when necessary.
The Prague Golem Story – The Non-Believers
It’s incredibly difficult to pin down a timeline or even a date of birth for Rabbi Loew. He was born and died in Poland. He spent most of his life 200km away from Prague in Moravia. Records show that he was teaching in Prague between 1588 and 1592. So that puts him in the city aged around 65-70. He was clearly an important figure and was granted audience with the king during his last year in Prague.
Let’s look at the reason for the Prague Golem, the story says it was for the protection of the Jewish people but from whom? If it’s a worry about a state-sponsored attack i.e. a pogrom, then the king would have to sanction that but, for most of the adult life of Rabbi Loew there were kings favourable to the Jewish community (permission for the Jewish Town Hall had been given less than 10 years earlier). Or local violence, the term “Blood Libel” was often used to incite violence against the Jews. But if the Prague Golem was used to defend against local violence then it would have brought it into contact with local city people.
So this brings us to the two main non-believer arguments. Firstly the records. Prague is an old city and it contains an old Jewish community yet nowhere in any records either written or pictoral, Christian or Jewish, says that anything looking remotely like a Golem as it is portrayed today existed at that time. Critics will point to the first text that even mentions a Golem as created by Rabbi Loew is not until 1837 so it’s a folklore story written more than 200 years after the death of the Rabbi. Secondly is if the Prague Golem did exist then why was it deactivated? Blood Libel went on for at least another 250 years and in the mid 18th Century the kings (and queen) were certainly not favourable to the Jewish yet you hear nothing of a Golem at this time. No mention of a Prague Golem in 1940 either.
It came as a surprise when I found that the word Golem appears in the Bible (Old Testament) relating to the creation of Adam.
14 I will praise you; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are your works; and my soul knows it very well.
15 My substance was not hid from you, when I was made in secret, and finely woven in the lower parts of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my golem; and upon your book all them is written of the days they were formed, and there is not one in them.
Then the Lord God formed a man[a] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Did you know that in Hebrew, ground or earth is called “Adamah”…..
Perhaps we need to look in a different place. A Golem would be something that simply exists or performs the task given to it. Psalms 139:16 translates as “raw” or “unfinished”. In Jewish text the Mishnah uses the term “uncultivated”. In Hebrew the word golem means “dumb” or “helpless” and in spoken Yiddish it’s used to describe a person who is “slow” or to be kind, somewhat lacking in intelligence.
So I don’t think it stretches the realms of possibility to imagine that at the time of Rabbi Loew, there was a man maybe of unusual size and strength, possibly deformed and of low intelligence (you can picture it I’m sure). His task was to defend the Jewish community so to all intents and purposes he fits the Golem description. Was he made of clay with glowing eyes and controlled by inserting a piece of paper into his forehead, I think not.
Photo Credit: Milena Štráfeldová