Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 8.  Living Machines

The Golem:  Legends of the Ghetto of Prague (c. 1916)
by Chayim Bloch (1881-1973)
trans. (1925) Harry Schneiderman (1885-1975)


THE GOLEM:  How He Came into the World (1920)
silent film by Paul Wegener

The Making of the Golem

It was the year 5340 (1580)....

[Rabbi Judah Loew (1513-1609) of Prague] sent for his son-in-law, Isaac ben Simson, who was a priest, and for his pupil, Jacob ben Chayim Sasson, who was a Levite, and confided to them the mysterious manner in which he hoped to be able to make the Golem.

Rabbi Loew said:  "I wish to make a Golem and I bespeak your collaboration because for this creative act the four elements--Fire, Water, Air and Earth--are necessary.  Thou Isaac, art the element of Fire; thou, Jakob, art the elment of Water; I, myself, am Air; working together, we shall make out of the fourth element, Earth, a Golem."
Rabbi Lowe, thereupon, gave them the minutest instructions how they must before all, through deep, earnest penitence, sanctify and purify themselves, in order to be prepared for the exalted work of creating a being of stone.  He also pointed out to them the danger in which the three of them might be placed if, by reason of incomplete inner sanctification, the attempt would fail, for they would then have used the Holy name in vain, or desecrated it....
On the second day of the month of Adar, after midnight, the three men ... wended their way to the outskirts of the city, to the banks of the Moldau.  There, they sought and found a clay-bed and at once set to work....

By torch-light and amidst the chanting of Psalms, the work was begun with feverish haste.

They formed out of clay the figure of a person, three ells [3 x 45 inches = 135 inches, or 11 feet 3 inches] in length....  And the Golem lay before them with his face turned toward heaven.

The three men then placed themselves at its feet, so that they could gaze fully into its face.

It lay there like a dead body, without any movement.

Then, Rabbi Loew bade [Isaac] walk seven times around the clay body, from right to left, confiding to him the [charms] which he was to recite while doing this.

When this was done, the clay body became red, like fire.

Then Rabbi Loew bade [Jakob] walk the same number of times, from left to right, and taught him also the formulas suitable to his element.  As he completed his task, the fire-redness was extinguished, and water flowed through the clay body; hair sprouted on its head, and nails appeared on the fingers and toes.

Then Rabbi Loew himself walked once around the figure, placed in its mouth a piece of parchment inscribed with the [name of God]; and, bowing to the East and the West, the South and the North, all three recited together:  "And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

And the three elements, Fire, Water, and Air, brought it about that the fourth element, Earth, became living.  The Golem opened his eyes and looked, astonished, about him.

And Rabbi Loew said to him:  "Stand up!"  And he stood up.

Then they dressed him in the garments of a [sexton] and he was soon, to all appearances, an ordinary person; only the faculty of speech was lacking to him, for those words which Heaven had confided to [Rabbi Loew] did not possess the power to control those [charms] which could have endowed the Golem with speech.  And that was really an advantage.  God knows what could have happened if a Golem had been given the faculty of speech also!

The Golem as Water Carrier

The wife of Rabbi Loew could not ... understand why her husband had forbidden the use of the Golem for private purposes.  And when, just before Passover, she was short of help, she allowed herself to give the Golem orders to fill the two large water kegs which stood in the kitchen which was all prepared for the holiday.  She thought also that a service in preparation for the Passover feast did not come under the head of secular purposes.  But she had a very unpleasant experience.

The Golem took the pails and ran swiftly to the brook.

Several hours later the courtyard of the house of the Rabbi was flooded with water, and people were crying:  "Water!  Water!"

The secret source from which this water was flowing was sought.

But it was not found until the Golem was seen patiently obeying his orders by continuing to pour water into the kegs which had been filled a long time before.  This explained the flood and there was much laughter over the Golem's mistake.

Rabbi Loew said to his wife jestingly:  "You have certainly found an excellent water carrier for the holidays.  If you had explained to him that he should stop when the kegs were full!"

The Golem, however, entirely unconcerned by the episode, continued his work and went again to the brook to get water.  Then Rabbi Loew exclaimed, "Enough!  Enough water!" and the Golem at once put down the pails.

Since that time the people took care not to give the Golem any profane work to do!

The Golem Is Given Work

From this time on, Rabbi Loew utilized the services of the Golem only in such cases as involved the clearing up of some threatened accusation against Judaism.  Whenever he entrusted him with a mission which was likely to be dangerous, Rabbi Loew would provide the Golem with an amulet which made him invisible....

If he learned of any evil designs, he would come quickly to Rabbi Loew and the peril that threatened would be averted in time....

The Golem Runs Amok

As mentioned before, Rabbi Loew made it a custom, every Friday afternoon, to assign for the Golem a sort of programme for the day's work, for on the Sabbath he spoke to him only in extremely urgent cases.  Generally, Rabbi Loew used to order him to do nothing else on Sabbath but be on guard and serve as a watcher.

One Friday afternoon, Rabbi Loew forgot to give him the order for the next day, and the Golem had nothing to do.

The day had barely drawn to a close and the people were gettting ready for the ushering in of the Sabbath, when the Golem, like one mad, began running about in the Jewish section of the city, threatening to destroy everything.  The want of employment made him awkward and wild.  When the people saw this, they ran from him and cried:  "Joseph Golem has gone mad!"

The people were greatly terrified, and a report of the panic soon reached the Altneu Synagogue where Rabbi Loew was praying.

The Sabbath had already been ushered in through the Song for the Sabbath day.  What could be done?  Rabbi Loew reflected on the evil consequences that might follow if the Golem should be running about thus uncontrolled.  But to restore him to peace would be a profanation of the Sabbath.

In his confusion, he forgot that it was a question of danger to human life and that in such cases the law permits, nay, commands the profanation of the Sabbath in order that the people exposed to danger might be saved.

Rabbi Loew rushed out and, without seeing the Golem, called out into space:  "Joseph, stop where you are!"

And the people saw the Golem at the place where he happened to find himself that moment, remain standing, like a post.  In a single instant, he had overcome the violence of his fury.

Rabbi Loew was soon informed where the Golem stood, and he betook himself to him.  He whispered into his ear:  "Go home and to bed."  And the Golem obeyed him as willingly as a child.

Then Rabbi Loew went back to the House of Prayer and ordered that the Sabbath Song be repeated.

After that Friday, Rabbi Loew never again forgot to give the Golem orders for the Sabbath on a Friday afternoon.

To his confidential friends he said:  "The Golem could have laid waste all Prague, if I had not calmed him down in time."

The Golem Is Destroyed

After a long time had passed when the community was no longer molested by blood accusations, Rabbi Loew sent for his son-in-law, Rabbi [Isaac ben Simson], the Priest, and his disciple, Jacob Sasson, the Levite -- those who had participated in the creation of the Golem, -- and he said to them:  "Now the Golem has become superfluous, for a blood impeachment can by this time no longer occur in any country.  This wrong needs no longer be feared.  We will therefore destroy the Golem."

It was on Lag-B'Omer of the year 5353 (1593).  Rabbi Loew ordered the Golem not to sleep that night in the Rabbinical house, but to take his bed over to the garret of the Altneu Synagogue and to sleep there.  That was done in private, as it was about midnight.

A genizah, or storeroom ("cemetery") for preserving worn-out and non-sacred texts. This genizah was found in 2001 in the attic of a synagogue in the town of Neveklov, south of Prague.

When two o'clock came that night, there arrived at Rabbi Loew's house, his son-in-law Rabbi [Isaac ben Simson], the Priest, and his disciple, Jacob Sasson the Levite, and Rabbi Loew put the question to them as to whether a dead body, like the Golem, would constitute an object of impurity like unto any other dead body....  The question was significant, because, if the answer were "yes," the Priest would not have been able to participate in the act of destroying the Golem.

Rabbi Loew decided that this case was different, and that the Priest was able to participate in the destruction of the work.

They ascended to the garret of the Altneu Synagogue, the assistant, Abraham Chayim, walking in advance with two burning candles.

The three men began their work of destruction, the annihilation of the Golem.

Fundamentally, they did everything in the reverse order to that followed in creating the Golem.  If at the creation, they had stood at the feet of the Golem, opposite his head, they now stood at his head opposite his feet.  Similarly, the words from the Book of Creation were read backwards.

After this task was accomplished, the Golem was transformed again into a clod of clay, what he was before life was instilled into him.

Rabbi Loew called the sexton Abraham Chayim, took the candles from him and ordered him to undress the Golem to his shirt.

He was then covered with old prayer robes and remains of Hebrew books, which, according to the Jewish custom, were stored in the garret of the synagogue.

Abraham Chayim burned the Golem's clothing, inconspicuously, following the order of Rabbi Loew.

In the morning, news spread in the Jewish ghetto that Joseph Golem had disappeared from the town during the night.  Only a few individuals, "men of a higher station," knew the truth.

Rabbi Loew had it announced in all Synagogues and Houses of Prayer that it was strictly forbidden for anybody to mount to the garret of the Altneu Synagogue.  Furthermore, the remains of torn prayer books and other sacred things were no longer to be stored there.

Go to:
  • Zoonomia; or, the laws of organic life (1803) by Erasmus Darwin;
Weekly Readings
Lecture Notes