GOLEM (Heb. גֹּלֶם), a creature, particularly a human being, made in an artificial way by virtue of a magic act, through the use of holy names. The idea that it is possible to create living beings in this manner is widespread in the magic of many peoples. Especially well known are the idols and images to which the ancients claimed to have given the power of speech.
The word "golem" appears only once in the Bible (Ps. 139:16), and from it originated the talmudic usage of the term – something unformed and imperfect. In philosophic usage it is matter without form. Adam is called "golem," meaning body without soul, in a talmudic legend concerning the first 12 hours of his existence (Sanh. 38b). However, even in this state, he was accorded a vision of all the generations to come (Gen. R. 24:2), as if there were in the golem a hidden power to grasp or see, bound up with the element of earth from which he was taken. The motif of the golem as it appearsin medieval legends originates in the talmudic legend (Sanh. 65b): "Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zera. The latter spoke to him but he did not answer. He asked, 'Are you one of the companions? Return to your dust.'" It is similarly told that two amoraim busied themselves on the eve of every Sabbath with the Sefer Yeẓirah (or in another version Hilkhot ẓezirah) and made a calf for themselves and ate it. These legends are brought as evidence that "If the righteous wished, they could create a world." They are connected, apparently, with the belief in the creative power of the letters of the Name of God and the letters of the Torah in general (Ber. 55a; Mid. Ps. 3). There is disagreement as to whether the Sefer Yeẓirah or Hilkhot Yeẓirah, mentioned in the Talmud, is the same book called by these two titles which we now possess. Most of this book is of a speculative nature, but its affinity to the magical ideas concerning creation by means of letters is obvious. What is said in the main part of the book about God's act during creation is attributed at the end of the book to *Abraham the Patriarch. The various transformations and combinations of the letters constitute a mysterious knowledge of the inwardness of creation. During the Middle Ages, Sefer Yeẓirah was interpreted in some circles in France and Germany as a guide to magical usage. Later legends in this direction were first found at the end of the commentary on the Sefer Yeẓirah by *Judah b. Barzillai (beginning of the 12th century). There the legends of the Talmud were interpreted in a new way: at the conclusion of profound study of the mysteries of Sefer Yeẓirah on the construction of the cosmos, the sages (as did Abraham the Patriarch) acquired the power to create living beings, but the purpose of such creation was purely symbolic and contemplative, and when the sages wanted to eat the calf which was created by the power of their "contemplation" of the book, they forgot all they had learned. From these late legends there developed among the Ḥasidei Ashkenaz in the 12th and 13th centuries the idea of the creation of the golem as a mystical ritual, which was used, apparently, to symbolize the level of their achievement at the conclusion of their studies. In this circle, the term "golem" has, for the first time, the fixed meaning indicating such a creature.
In none of the early sources is there any mention of any practical benefit to be derived from a golem of this sort. In the opinion of the mystics, the creation of the golem had not a real, but only a symbolic, meaning; that is to say, it was an ecstatic experience which followed a festive rite. Those who took part in the "act of creation" took earth from virgin soil and made a golem out of it (or, according to another source, they buried that golem in the soil), and walked around the golem "as in a dance," combining the alphabetical letters and the secret Name of God in accordance with detailed sets of instructions (several of which have been preserved). As a result of this act of combination, the golem arose and lived, and when they walked in the opposite direction and said the same combination of letters in reverse order, the vitality of the golem was nullified and he sank or fell. According to other legends, the word emet (תמא; "truth"; "the seal of the Holy One," Shab. 55a; Sanh. 64b) was written on his forehead, and when the letter alef was erased there remained the word met ("dead"). There are legends concerning the creation of such a golem by the prophet *Jeremiah and his so-called "son" *Ben Sira, and also by the disciples of R. *Ishmael, the central figure of the Heikhalot literature. The technical instructions about the manner of uttering the combinations, and everything involved in the rite, proves that the creation of the golem is connected here with ecstatic spiritual experiences (end of commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah by *Eleazar of Worms; the chapter Sha'ashu'ei ha-Melekh in N. Bachrach's Emek ha-Melekh (Amsterdam, 1648); and in the commentary on Sefer Yeẓirah (Zolkiew, 1744–45) attributed to *Saadiah b. Joseph Gaon). In the legends about the golem of Ben Sira there is also a parallel to the legends on images used in idol worship which are given life by means of a name; the golem expresses a warning about it (idol worship) and demands his own death. It is said in several sources that the golem has no intellectual soul, and therefore he lacks the power of speech, but opposite opinions are also found which attribute this power to him. The opinions of the kabbalists concerning the nature of the creation of the golem vary. Moses *Cordovero thought that man has the power to give "vitality" alone to the golem but not life (nefesh), spirit (ru'aḥ), or soul proper (neshamah).
In the popular legend which adorned the figures of the leaders of the Ashkenazi ḥasidic movement with a crown of wonders, the golem became an actual creature who served his creators and fulfilled tasks laid upon him. Legends such as these began to make their appearance among German Jews in the 15th century and spread widely, so that by the 17th century they were "told by all" (according to Joseph Solomon *Delmedigo). In the development of the later legend of the golem there are three outstanding points:
(1) The legend is connected with earlier tales of the resurrection of the dead by putting the name of God in their mouths or on their arm, and by removing the parchment containing the name in reverse and thus causing their death.
(2) It is related to ideas current in non-Jewish circles concerning the creation of an alchemical man (the "homunculus" of Paracelsus).
(3) The golem, who is the servant of his creator, develops dangerous natural powers; he grows from day to day, and in order to keep him from overpowering the members of the household he must be restored to his dust by removing or erasing the alef from his forehead.
Here, the idea of the golem is joined by the new motive of the unrestrained power of the elements which can bring about destruction and havoc. Legends of this sort appeared first in connection with Elijah, rabbi of Chelm (d. 1583). Zevi Hirsch *Ashkenazi and his son Jacob Emden, who were among his descendants, discussed in their responsa whether or not it is permitted to include a golem of this sort in a minyan (they prohibited it). Elijah Gaon of Vilna told his disciple Ḥayyim b. Isaac of *Volozhin that as a boy he too had undertaken to make a golem, but he saw a vision which caused him to desist from his preparations.
The latest and best-known form of the popular legend is connected with *Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague. This legend has no historical basis in the life of Loew or in the era close to his lifetime. It was transferred from R. Elijah of Chelm to R. Loew only at a very late date, apparently during the second half of the 18th century. As a local legend of Prague, it is connected with the Altneuschul synagogue and with an explanation of special practices in the prayers of the congregation of Prague. According to these legends, R. Loew created the golem so that he would serve him, but was forced to restore him to his dust when the golem began to run amok and endanger people's lives.
Ch. Bloch, The Golem (1925); H.L. Held, Das Gespenst des Golems (1927); B. Rosenfeld, Die Golemsage und ihre Verwertung in der deutschen Literatur (1934); G. Scholem, On
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.