“My grandmother was a Jewish juggler: she used to worry about six things at once.”—Richard Lewis
There are plenty of people out there who I’m sure would gladly tell me that everything I write is fiction whether I know it or not. With this in mind, I’ve decided to regale you this week with the legend of the Golem of Prague. Very few take this story seriously (and I’m not one of them), so at least most of us can agree that there’s no such thing as a golem. So why bother recounting a story that we know never happened? Because from looking at the urban myths and legends of other times and cultures, we gain a better understanding of where we came from. In this case, you’ll see just how deeply rooted and malicious anti-Semitism was in much of Europe even back in the 16th century. And besides, it’s not like I’m going to spending the next six weeks summarizing and analyzing the Epic of Gilgamesh. You can take a class at your local community college for that.
One last thing before we get started: The most detailed versions of this story include a lot of Hebrew terms. I have included translations to the best of my ability. My apologies to Jewish readers if this seems laborious, but we goyim need an interpreter. Otherwise, trying to read this dreck would be such a shmerts in the tukhus it would make you wanna plotz. So anyway…
In the year 5332 (that’s 1572 CE for most of us), Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel, usually just referred to as Maharal (sort of an acronym for “our teacher, Rabbi L.”), was sent to Prague to be the rabbi for the Jewish community there. He was exceptionally wise and well-respected, even by educated Gentiles, and it was hoped that he would be able to quell some of the anti-Jewish sentiment that was rampant in the city. One of his main objectives was to put an end to the blood accusations – allegations that the Jews kidnapped and murdered Christion children in order to use their blood in religious rituals.
One version of the story goes that Rabbi Loew was held in high regard by Rudolf II, King of Bohemia (now a region of the Czech Republic) and the Holy Roman Emperor, and the two of them had a long meeting to discuss this matter. Ten days later, the king issued a decree stating that only specific individuals could be accused of such a crime, as opposed to whole groups like an entire family, and that conclusive proof must be presented at trial. Furthermore, no conviction would be upheld unless the king himself signed off on it.
The other version goes that Rudy 2 hated the Jews as much as anybody and wanted them out of Bohemia and encouraged the blood accusations. Some even say that he invented the whole idea of Jews killing Christian children in order to help him accomplish this goal. This seems unlikely since Rudolf was fascinated by the Hebrew Kabbalah, 1 but either way, the accusations continued. Some sources even claim that a few fanatics would kill innocent children themselves and hide the bodies in a Jewish home in order to get the residents executed. Regardless of how accurate any of this is or isn’t, the accusations kept coming, and Rabbi Loew decided that he was going to do something about it. To this end, he prayed to be given a solution to the problem, and his answer came in the form of a dream. He was to construct a golem out of clay which would destroy the enemies of Israel.
For this, he enlisted the help of his son-in-law, Isaac ben Shimshon ha-Cohen, and his right-hand man, Jacob ben Chayyim ha-Levi, because they were born under the constellations of fire and water respectively, while Maharal was born under the constellation of air.²The construction of the golem out of earth would provide the needed fourth element required for the making of the magical creature. After seven days of purifying themselves for the task, on the second day of Adar, 5340 (February 28, 1580), the three of them went to a nearby river and fashioned a man out of clay that appeared human in every detail, except for the fact that it was three ells (about 11 feet) tall, which is a bit of a giveaway that something isn’t quite right.
With their statue complete, the three of them then performed the magical operations necessary to bring their creation to life, culminating with Maharal speaking the passage from Genesis “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” After this, he placed a shem (a piece of parchment on which was written the true name of God, which is Gary, by the way) in its mouth. The golem then came to life and took on the appearance of a normal man, not counting the 11 feet tall part, which is sort of just glossed over as if nobody ever noticed for the rest of the story.³ They then dressed him in clothes appropriate for a shammes (caretaker of a synagogue, size XXXXL). Maharal then commanded him that he would follow his every order and protect all of the Jews from their enemies (both foreign and domestic) and told him that his name was Joseph.⁴ While the golem was able to see and hear, it was not able to speak, as the gift of speech is God’s alone to give, regardless of what you might have seen on The Simpsons. However, he was blessed with excellent vision and acute ’earing.
Upon returning home, Maharal told his wife that Joseph was a poor mute idiot that he had met on the street and felt sorry for, because lying to your wife is always a great idea that never backfires on you. He told her that he had decided that Joseph could serve as shammes for the House of Judgment (basically Hebrew court, as far as I can tell), but he mostly just sat in the corner doing nothing all day. But by night, he was Super Semite! In addition to his great (but seemingly unnoticed) size and strength, Rabbi Loew also made him an amulet which rendered him invisible, but without the harmful side-effect of driving him slowly insane. (That’s a different sort of Gollum altogether.) He dressed the creature like a Christian peasant with a rope for a belt so that he would blend in with the crowd, because evidently giant hillbillies were a dime a dozen in Eastern Europe back then. Also, why would you need to blend in if you’re invisible?
After dark, he patrolled the streets of the ghetto, looking for any suspicious person who might be out to do harm to a Jew. On Maharal’s orders, he searched every wagon for evidence of a plot to incriminate someone in a blood accusation, presumably a dead child. (This must have really freaked people out if he did these searches while invisible.) If he found anything, he was to take the perpetrator straight to the guardhouse to be placed under arrest. That’s not as cool as throwing them off a roof or twisting their heads off, but Maharal was a peaceful, law abiding man, so what would you expect?
Anyway, it turns out that a Christian owner of a slaughterhouse owed Mordchi Meisel, a prominent Jewish businessman, a large sum of money that he didn’t want to pay. So he dug up the body of a girl who had died recently, cut her throat, wrapped her in a tallis (a shawl worn by Jewish men during prayer) and placed her inside the slaughtered carcass of a pig which he planned to hide in Meisel’s house in order to frame him, which is not only despicable and devious, it’s also culturally insensitive. He could’ve at least had the decency to hide the body inside of a kosher animal, like a goat.
On the night that the butcher was driving his wagon to Meisel’s house to hide the pig stuffed with Christian in a Jewish wrap, Joey the golem suddenly appeared and searched the cart. When he found the Christian in a blanket, he roughed the man up a little and hogtied him with his rope belt. Joe then took him and the pig with the girl still inside to the guardhouse and left them in the courtyard. When the guards found all of this, they quickly realized what the butcher had been up to and he soon confessed. When Rudolf heard about this, he was so angry that he issued an official decree banning anyone in Bohemia from ever making another blood accusation against any Jew and forbidding the courts to hear any such case.
After this, Rabbi Loew realized that the people of Prague had nothing more to fear from the preo-Nazis and that it was time to put the golem to rest before anyone discovered what he really was and accused the Jews of creating monsters, which would have been true in this case. That night, he ordered the golem to sleep in the attic above the synagogue. Once he was asleep, Maharal and his two assistants went up and performed the reverse of the spell which had brought Joseph to life. They covered his body in old prayer mats to hide him, and Maharal forbade anyone to go into the attic in order to keep his golem safe in case they ever needed him again. Supposedly, he’s still up there today.
Too bland of an ending for you? I agree. So let’s try this one:
According to some versions of the story, Joseph the golem fell in love with one of Maharal’s daughters. When she rejected him (probably due to his ridiculous haircut, although the fact that he couldn’t talk had to be a point in his favor), he lost his mind and went on a murderous rampage and just generally terrorized the whole city. (I’ve known guys like that.) Rabbi Loew was finally able to stop him by luring him into a grist mill where he used the water powered millstone to grind the monster into pieces. He then removed the shem from its mouth and stored the remaining chunks in the synagogue attic just like in the previous story, only in this case he was easier to hide because he had been ground into golem nuggets.
That synagogue in Prague is still there. It’s called the Old New Synagogue5 and it’s the oldest one in Europe. People are still forbidden to go into the attic, but that hasn’t stopped a few curious souls from having a look anyway. After Rabbi Loew’s death, his threat of excommunication for this infraction sort of lost its teeth.
One rabbi who was allowed to visit the attic returned in an agitated state and declined to speak to anyone about what he had seen there. Several other rabbis who have been allowed in the attic for whatever reason have also been reported to have been disturbed by what they found there, although all of these stories are secondhand. One of them supposedly told his daughter that he had seen what looked like the body of a man wrapped up and covered and that the sight of it had left him shaken. When the attic had to be renovated in 1883, none of the workers reportedly saw anything out of the ordinary, but since this work was obviously scheduled in advance, one could argue that the golem was hidden elsewhere until the job was complete. I have serious doubts about all of this, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to go have a look for myself.
¹Rudolf is also reputed to be the one who broke up the team of John Dee and Edward Kelley by imprisoning Kelley until he agreed to show him how to turn base metals into gold, which Kelley had regrettably bragged to him was a trick that he knew how to pull off.
²Only four constellations are mentioned in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and I’m guessing that each of them corresponded to one of the four alchemical elements, but I don’t know that.
³Another way of supposedly bringing a golem to life is to write the word “truth” on its forehead in Hebrew. To deactivate it, you just scratch off the letter alef, which changes it to “death.”
4On the way back to town, Maharal told his assistants that he had named the golem after Joseph Shida, who was half man and half demon and who had saved the sages of the Talmud on many occasions. This sounds like a great story unto itself, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about him outside of this reference.
5It’s called this because when it was completed in 1270 it was called the New Synagogue. As more synagogues were built over the years, it became known as the Old New Synagogue, sort of like how some people call Mexico “Old Mexico” because now there’s a New Mexico. Those people have always annoyed me.