The Golem in the Bible and Jewish magic, superstition, fairy tales, and legends


In his 1939 AD book, Jewish Magic and Superstition, Joshua Trachtenberg references the golem in chapter 7, “In The Name Of…,” section “The Golem.” Interestingly, he refers to “The remains of the Frankenstein monster” as such a correlation is well known. For example, Sacred Texts site notes the following of the book “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, “Originally published in 1818, this modern reworking of the Golem story is a cautionary tale about science.

In his 1939 AD book, Jewish Magic and Superstition, Joshua Trachtenberg references the golem in chapter 7, “In The Name Of…,” section “The Golem.” Interestingly, he refers to “The remains of the Frankenstein monster” as such a correlation is well known. For example, Sacred Texts site notes the following of the book “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, “Originally published in 1818, this modern reworking of the Golem story is a cautionary tale about science. Frankenstein just keeps getting more relevant as we stumble forward into the 21st Century of clones, stem cells and genomics” and, I will add, transhumanism.

Before quoting his text, note that he writes, “The thirteenth-century German Ḥasidim (Pietists and Mystics) were especially intrigued by this problem. From them comes the use of the word golem (literally, shapeless or lifeless matter) to designate a homunculus…” Yet, the term actually predates the 13th c. AD and is also found in languages such as Croatian as, for example, a Croatian Bible has Daniel 2:31 as “Ti si, o kralju, imao viđenje: gle, kip, golem kip, vrlo blistav, stajaše pred tobom, strašan za oči” which is a translation of what in English reads as “Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible” so that the term is translating “image.” This makes sense since golem is much like the image in the Daniel text which was formed, molded, etc.
In fact, the term golem or golmi is found in the Hebrew Bible such as in Psalms 139:16 “Thine eyes did see my substance [H1564 “embryo, fetus”], yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.”

Joshua Trachtenberg writes:

The greatest feat to which the magician aspired was that of creation. Discussing this subject in the pages of the Talmud, R. Papa observed that the creative power of magic covered only gross and massive objects and creatures, such as the camel, but not fine and delicate things, and R. Eliezer maintained that the demons, to whom the magician owes this power, can create nothing smaller than a barley-corn.

This was the standard limitation imposed on sorcerers by medieval writers, though, as the Gemara explained: “The demons cannot actually create even large beings, but merely assemble already created but unused primeval matter.”[fn]San. 67b and Rashi; Blau 27; Hadar Zekenim on Ex. 8:14, and Rashi on the same verse; cf. Güd. I, 169[/fn]
Thus the ultimate act of genesis was reserved for God alone. It was nowhere suggested that human life could be created by ordinary magical means.

But the Talmud recognized also a second method of creation, which required the application of the “Laws of Creation,” probably an oral collection of mystical traditions relating to the original creation of the universe. The kind of magic comprised in these “Laws of Creation” was the only one that was “permitted ab initio.” By means of it, “if the righteous so desired they could create a universe.

Raba created a man and sent him to R. Zeira, who conversed with him but he could not answer; so he exclaimed, ‘You are created by magic, return to your dust!’ Rabbis Ḥanina and Oshaya used to sit every Friday and occupy themselves with the Book [read: Laws] of Creation and create a three-year-old calf which they ate.”

For a description of this method we must rely on the tradition preserved by the commentators; Rashi wrote, “They used to combine the letters of the Name by which the universe was created; this is not to be considered forbidden magic, for the works of God were brought into being through His holy Name.” The Talmudic Laws of Creation (unrelated to the later mystical Book of Creation) appear, then, to have been an exposition of the familiar name-magic, the foremost constituent of medieval Jewish practice, but in consonance with the difficulty and the prodigiousness of its object, a very exalted and esoteric department.

Medieval Jews, like their Christian contemporaries, were avid of the power to create human life, and believed implicitly in man’s ability to do so. William of Auvergne (thirteenth century) wrote, “Men have tried to produce, and thought that they succeeded in producing human life in other ways than by the usual generative process,” but the methods pursued by non-Jews were less subtle than the one proposed by the Talmud.

For example, a fourteenth-century Christian writer cited the Arab Rasis (tenth century) on generating a human being by putting an unnamed substance in a vase filled with horse manure, for three days.[fn]San. 67b, 65b and Rashi; Thorndike, II, 353, III, 139[/fn]

The thirteenth-century German Ḥasidim (Pietists and Mystics) were especially intrigued by this problem. From them comes the use of the word golem (literally, shapeless or lifeless matter) to designate a homunculus created by the magical invocation of names, and the entire cycle of golem legends may be traced back to their interest. The earliest individual about whom such a fable was woven appears to have been R. Samuel, father of Judah the Pious, who was said to have constructed such a homunculus which accompanied him on his travels and served him, but which could not speak.
Joseph Delmedigo informs us, in 1625, that “many legends of this sort are current, particularly in Germany,” and we may well believe him. Among the better-known of these legends is the one connected with the name of Elijah of Chelm (middle sixteenth century) which developed during the seventeenth century. He was reputed to have created a golem from clay by means of the Sefer Yeẓirah, inscribing the name of God upon its forehead, and thus giving it life, but withholding the power of speech. When the creature attained giant size and strength, the Rabbi, appalled by its destructive potentialities, tore the life-giving name from its forehead and it crumbled into dust.

These legends of the golem were transferred, not before the eighteenth century, to R. Judah Löw b. Bezalel, without any historical basis. The remains of the Frankenstein monster which he is supposed to have brought into being are said still to be among the debris in the attic of Prague’s Altneuschule.[fn]N. Brüll, Jahrbücher, IX (1889), 27; JE, VI, 37; EJ, VII, 501-7; Chayim Bloch, The Golem, Vienna 1925; cf. Shelah, III, 65a. In the seventeenth century the question was raised whether a Golem could be counted as one of a minyan (JE, loc. cit.).[/fn]

At least one mystic, the greatest of them all in Germany, Eleazar of Worms, had the daring to record the formula, which occurs again later in several versions. The formidable nature of the project is apparent from the merest glance at the twenty-three folio columns which the very involved combinations of letters occupy. The image was to be made of “virgin soil, from a mountainous place where no man has ever dug before,” and the incantation, which comprised “the alphabets of the 221 gates,” must be recited over every single organ individually. A further detail, often noted, was the incision upon the forehead of the name of God, or of the word emet (“truth”). The destruction of this creature was effected by removing that name, by erasing the initial letter of emet, leaving met (“dead”), or by reversing the creative combinations, for, as R. Jacob b. Shalom, who came to Barcelona from Germany in 1325, remarked, the law of destruction is nothing more than a reversal of the law of creation.[fn]Commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah, 4d, 15d ff.; EJ, loc. cit.[/fn]

Yet, while not doubting its possibility, medieval Jews were in general skeptical of their own ability to imbue dead matter with life, and modestly confessed that manipulation of names of such a high order was beyond them. A thirteenth-century writer scornfully castigated those who proposed to duplicate the feat of Ḥanina and Oshaya with the taunt that “they themselves are dumb calves.”

In 1615 Zalman Ẓevi of Aufenhausen published his reply (Jüdischer Theriak) to the animadversions of the apostate Samuel Friedrich Brenz (in his book Schlangenbalg) against the Jews on this score. Zalman Ẓevi wrote wittily,

“The renegade said that there are those among the Jews who take a lump of clay, fashion it into the figure of a man, and whisper incantations and spells, whereupon the figure lives and moves. In the reply which I wrote for the Christians I made the turncoat look ridiculous, for I said there that he himself must be fashioned from just such kneaded lumps of clay and loam, without any sense or intelligence, and that his father must have been just such a wonder worker, for as he writes, we call such an image a homer golem [an unshaped, raw mass of material], which may be rendered ‘a monstrous ass’ [a really good pun], which I say is a perfect description of him. I myself have never seen such a performance, but some of the Talmudic sages possessed the power to do this, by means of the Book of Creation. . . . We German Jews have lost this mystical tradition, but in Palestine there are still to be found some men who can perform great wonders through the Kabbalah. Our fools [another pun on the word golem] are not created out of clay, but come from their mothers’ wombs.”[fn]Steinschneider, Cat. Munich, p. 3; Grünbaum, Jüdischdeutsche Chrest., 566. For a discussion of the Golem motif in German folklore see B. Rosenfeld, Die Golemsage and ihre Verwertung in der deutschen Literatur, Breslau 1934.[/fn]

His heavy sarcasm, though prompted by apologetic motives, expressed the general Jewish attitude on the subject—it can be done, but no longer by us.

In her 1919 AD book Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, Gertrude Landa, writing as “Aunt Naomi,” noted the following in chapter “The Rabbi’s Bogey-Man” at which point, at the title, a footnote informs us “The ‘Bogey-Man’ of this story is, of course, the famous ‘Golem,’ the folkloric predecessor of such famous literary artificial life-forms as the Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, as well as HAL 9000 and the Terminator.”

Gertrude Landa/Aunt Naomi notes:

…the people were a little afraid of the rabbi [“Rabbi Lion, of the ancient city of Prague”]. He was a very learned man, wise and studious, and a scientist; and because he did wonderful things people called him a magician. His experiments in chemistry frightened them. Late at nights they saw little spurts of blue and red flame shine from his window, and they said that demons and witches came at his beck and call. So nobody would enter his service.

“If, as they declare, I am truly a magician,” he said to himself, “why should I not make for myself a servant, one that will tend the fire for me on the Sabbath?”
He set to work on his novel idea and in a few weeks had completed his mechanical creature, a woman. She looked like a big, strong, laboring woman, and the rabbi was greatly pleased with his handiwork.
“Now to endow it with life,” he said.

Carefully, in the silence of his mysterious study at midnight, he wrote out the Unpronounceable Sacred Name of God on a piece of parchment. Then he rolled it up and placed it in the mouth of the creature. Immediately it sprang up and began to move like a living thing. It rolled its eyes, waved its arms, and nearly walked through the window.

In alarm, Rabbi Lion snatched the parchment from its mouth and the creature fell helpless to the floor. “I must be careful,” said the rabbi. “It is a wonderful machine with its many springs and screws and levers, and will be most useful to me as soon as I learn to control it properly.”

All the people marveled when they saw the rabbi’s machine-woman running errands and doing many duties, controlled only by his thoughts. She could do everything but speak, and Rabbi Lion discovered that he must take the Name from her mouth before he went to sleep. Otherwise, she might have done mischief…

Rabbi Lion was summoned to appear before King Rudolf.
“What is this I hear,” asked his majesty. “Is it not a sin to make a living creature?” “It had no life but that which the Sacred Name gave it,” replied the rabbi. “I understand it not,” said the king. “Thou wilt be imprisoned and must make another creature, so that I may see it for myself [the first having been destroyed in a fire]. If it is as thou sayest, thy life shall be spared. If not—if, in truth, thou profanest God’s sacred law and makest a living thing, thou shalt die and all thy people shall be expelled from this city.”

Rabbi Lion at once set to work, and this time made a man, much bigger than the woman that had been burned. “As your majesty sees,” said the rabbi, when his task was completed, “it is but a creature of wood and glue with springs at the joints. Now observe,” and he put the Sacred Name in its mouth.

Slowly the creature rose to its feet and saluted the monarch who was so delighted that he cried: “Give him to me, rabbi.” “That cannot be,” said Rabbi Lion, solemnly. “The Sacred Name must not pass from my possession…”

…when they saw the creature…the children ran away in fear, crying: “The bogey-man”…

It became more wonderful every day, and one evening it startled the rabbi from a doze by beginning to speak. “I want to be a soldier,” it said, “and fight for the king. I belong to the king. You made me for him.” “Silence,” cried Rabbi Lion, and it had to obey. “I like not this,” said the rabbi to himself. “This monster must not become my master, or it may destroy me and perhaps all the Jews.”
He could not help but wonder whether the king was right and that it must be a sin to create a man. The creature not only spoke, but grew surly and disobedient, and yet the rabbi hesitated to break it up, for it was most useful to him…One Friday afternoon…The monster had slipped from the house and was battering down the door of the synagogue. “What art thou doing?” demanded the rabbi, sternly. “Trying to get into the synagogue to destroy the scrolls of the Holy Law,” answered the monster. “Then wilt thou have no power over me, and I shall make a great army of bogey-men who shall fight for the king and kill all the Jews.”
“I will kill thee first,” exclaimed Rabbi Lion, and springing forward he snatched the parchment with the Name so quickly from the creature’s mouth that it collapsed at his feet a mass of broken springs and pieces of wood and glue.
For many years afterward these pieces were shown to visitors in the attic of the synagogue when the story was told of the rabbi’s bogey-man.


It is fascinating that in 1919 AD, thinking technologically now, she has a mechanical being a “machine with its many springs and screws and levers” which the Rabbi “controlled only by his thoughts.” This early bit of sci-fi is also reflected in Fritz Lang’s 1927 AD movie Metropolis wherein an occultist scientist downloads the contents of a person’s brain and uploads them into a robot which then appears human (and therefore becomes an android: an anthropomorphic robot).
Also, that the Golem seeks to “make a great army of bogey-men” is much like the earlier Frankenstein wherein the monster wants a bride but Dr. Frankenstein fear that they will breed a styled army of oversized and very strong beings.

For more details see the chapters “Fritz Lang’s 1927 AD Transhumanist Occult Movie ‘Metropolis’” and “Crypt Notes on ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley” chapter of my book The Necronomiconjob, Liber III: Alchemical Hollywood.


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