The Golem of Prague is a legendary figure that has captured the imaginations of people for centuries. This supernatural being, created entirely from clay and mud, is a prominent character in both Jewish and Czech folklore. The story of the Golem has been passed down through generations, with various versions of the legend existing today.
In this blog, I wanted to explore the origins of the Golem of Prague, its significance in history, and the enduring fascination with this mysterious and powerful figure. I’ve researched a lot of material and books to check the different angles of the story, so I hope you find the legend as fascinating as I did.
What is the story of Golem and Rabbi Loew?
During the reign of Rudolf II, Rabbi Judah Loew, also known as Maharal, created the Golem to protect the Jewish people of Prague.
According to Jewish Cabalistic tradition, a person who is knowledgeable and faithful enough to know the exact sequence of God’s 27 letters can create a human-like being and bring it to life by placing a parchment (or a shem) with the letters sequence inside its head.
Rabbi Loew created Golem to protect the Jewish community from pogroms and assist with difficult physical work around the synagogue and the Jewish quarter. Each week, on the eve of the Jewish day of rest – Friday, the Rabbi would remove the parchment from the Golem’s head and Golem would ‘go to sleep’.
However, one day, the Rabbi forgot to remove the parchment, and since Golem had no instructions on what to do, he started to destroy the Jewish ghetto and caused havoc in the city.
The Rabbi realized his mistake and ran after the Golem and eventually managed to remove the parchment. Afterwards, Rabbi realised that it would be irresponsible to leave the Golem alive and it appeared he couldn’t be trusted and was way too strong to let him continue to be around the Jewish quarter. Instead, the Rabbi chose not to revive the Golem and he hid the Golem in the attic of the Old New Synagogue.
What’s the meaning of Golem?
There are several ways you can translate Golem, but in Hebrew it means something like an artificial human being that’s been given life. In modern times, Golem is often a symbol for somebody dumb, not intelligent, or primitive.
What did the Golem look like?
There are several different versions of how Golem might have looked and of course, there is no way of knowing which one – if any – are closer to the legend than others. In 1899, the famous Czech artist and illustrator Mikolas Ales painted Rabbi Loew with Golem. At the time he painted him as a slightly large man, but still as a human not as a clay monster.
Why was Golem created?
In the story, Golem was originally created to protect the Jews of Prague against any threats. He was meant to work with Rabbi Loew in the synagogue during the day and walk around the Jewish quarter at night to keep everyone safe.
Golem was working and serving the Jewish community for 10 years and there were never any problems.
When was the story of Golem created?
The story started to appear in 1609 after Rabbi Loew passed away.
The first evidence of a published legend of Golem was not until 1837 by German poet Berthold Auerbach.
Another version of the legend was recorded by R.Yitzchak Ben Shimshow Ha Kohen Katz who was allegedly with Rabbi Loew when Golem was created. This story was discovered in 1909 but it’s not considered to be historically accurate and could have been falsified (although we don’t know by whom or when).
The actual creation of Golem
To create Golem Rabbi Loew took two helpers with him and walked away from Prague all night until in the morning he found the right place next to the Vltava River. He created the body out of the clay soil right next to the water.
Rabbi Loew then asked the first helper to start walking around the body seven times and the clay body started to turn into iron and began to heat up.
Rabbi then asked the second helper to walk around the body seven times, but in the opposite direction and the body started to cool down. Afterwards, it was the Rabbi’s turn and he walked around the Golem seven times and then placed the paper scroll – shen to his mouth.
The issue with breathing life into a body
The creation of Golem is often described very similarly to how Adam was originally created. Genesis 2:7 – ‘And he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man become a living being’.
Some versions of the original story mention that Rabi Loew didn’t breathe into Golem’s nostrils so he couldn’t become human (like Adam). This was explained by saying that Rabbi Loew wasn’t a God so he couldn’t (or didn’t have the authority) to create an actual being – just something in between a human and an object.
The question of shem
There are several versions that deal with the role of the shem (a scroll of paper with words written on it). In some, the shem is either placed in Golem’s mouth (under his tongue) or in a little alcove in his forehead. The version with Golem’s hole in his head (and the shem being placed there) makes Golem look more monstrous and scary.
There is also a version, where Golem has an ‘amulet’ on his forehead and the shem – scroll paper is placed in his mouth to activate him.
What was the real Golem’s name?
Rabbi Loew actually called his invention Golem Yosef or Yossele the Mute, but he didn’t call him just ‘Golem’.
Why did Golem become so destructive?
One of the suggestions is that Golem might have been asked to perform some more menial tasks, such as household choirs by somebody else than Rabbi Loew. Because his real job was to keep the community safe that was what made him angry.
Another part of the story I found is that Golem was accused of taking a Christian servant girl, who got lost from Prague town. Golem went to look for her and eventually found her and returned her to prove that he didn’t do anything wrong. Although everything went back to normal after that, people might have started to worry about what’s the next thing Golem would do.
Another version mentions that Golem was supposed to rest from the evening Friday service through the whole of Saturday. But because Rabbi Loew’s only daughter was ill, he rushed from her bed to do the Friday service and forgot to take the shem from Golem.
Golem got restless and started to smash things until Rabbi Loew was told what had happened and ran back to take the shem from Golem.
Since the Old New Synagogue is still an active place of faith, the Friday service is still interrupted as a commemoration to Rabbi Loew dashing off and then the same song is being sung twice as it got interrupted and wasn’t finished the first time.
Where is Golem resting?
According to the legend, Golem was placed by Rabbi Loew in the attic of the Old New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter in Prague, where he is resting until the Prague Jews need him again.
Where is Rabbi Loew buried?
The most important person buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery in the Jewish Quarter is the great religious scholar and teacher Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as Rabbi Löew (died 1609), who, according to a legend, created a Golem – a person from clay soil to help him to protect the Jewish people of Prague.
Visitors to the Old New Synagogue attic
Afterwards, Rabbi Loew forbid anyone to go up to the attic of the synagogue and the place was undisturbed until the 18th century. At that time, Rabbi Laudan was curious to see the sleeping Golem, so he went upstairs to the synagogue. After a while, he ran downstairs, shaking with fear and refused to tell anyone what he saw.
Another person who went to the old attic at the synagogue was writer and journalist Egon Erwin Kisch. He heard the original legend of Golem from an old soldier in 1915 who apparently had never been to Prague (…he probably saw the German silent movie version who knows…). E.E. Kisch didn’t find anything, but he turned his experience into a story published in 1924.
In the 1980s another Czech writer, explorer, traveller and hunter of supernatural things, Ivan Mackerle even took a geo radar to the attic to see if there are any remains of Golem (again nothing was found). He published a book in 1992 called The Secret of Prague Golem.
The character of Golem in the film
Golem was also the main character in a German silent movie called ‘Der Golem, Wie er in die Welt Kam made at the beginning of the 20th century (1915). In the film Golem was played by the film director Paul Wegener. The English version of this film was released in 1920. The slightly scary stuff is that the original movie film reel was lost; never to be found again!
In 1951, Czech film director Martin Fric made the film ‘The Emperor and the Golem’, which portrayed Golem as a clay monster who serves anyone who has a special paper scroll called shem. It’s thought that Martin Fric was inspired by the Mary Shelley idea of Frankenstein.
The Emperor in the film is Rudolf II who was one of the well know crowned kings of Bohemia and was interested in alchemy and science.
In real history, it was thought that Rudolf II invited Rabbi Loew to come to Prague to read him and to explain Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. According to Kabbalah, nobody is permitted to create another human outright. Rudolf II was sympathetic towards the Jewish community, but this was possibly just because of financial reasons. Jews were being taxed quite heavily, so if Rudolf moved them away, he would lose all the income.
Where to find Golem in Prague?
The first point of all should be the Old New Synagogue, which is in the centre of the Jewish Quarter just off Parizska Street about 5 minutes walk from the Old Town Square. You can visit the Synagogue as part of a tour or buy tickets to the Jewish Quarter which also includes other synagogues and Jewish Museum.
Location: Červená Street, 110 01 Josefov, Prague 1 just off Maiselova Street.
Entrance fee: 220 CZK for individual entry ticket or 550 CZK for the whole Jewish Quarter (All the synagogues, Old Jewish Cemetary, where Rabbi Loewi is buried and the Jewish Museum)
I should also mention that the Old New Synagogue is quite plain inside with just a few displays and the focus of these is not on the legend of Golem. The attic itself is not accessible to the public. To get an idea of the place and its significance, you can walk around the synagogue from the outside (without paying a ticket).
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This blog post was originally written on 19 July 2023 and last updated on 19 July 2023