The story of the Golem is one of the most famous stories of Jewish history. Tradition recounts that when persecutors rose up to attack us, the Maharal Yehudah Loew, chief rabbi of Prague 500 years ago, created the Golem, a manlike creature made from the dust of the earth, endowed with “life” by means of a secret Kabbalistic formula. Through the Golem, the Maharal brought about miracles for the protection of the Jews.
A famous story about the Golem deals with blood libels. Back then, Christian priests, especially the priest Taddeus, claimed that Jews secretly killed Christian children and used their blood for their Passover matzot. After Taddeus’ sermons, the Christian townspeople would pour out of church, seething with hatred for the Jews.
The Maharal, in desperation to save the Jews from slaughter, prayed for guidance. He received an answer at night in a vision. He was given 10 Hebrew letters, signifying words meaning “You will create a Golem, a thing of clay and destroy the wicked!”
The Maharal and two friends went to the Moldova River and began to shape the soft clay. They created a figure that resembled a man.
The first friend circled the Golem seven times while reciting certain holy letter combinations. The Golem began to glow. The second friend did the same thing, and the glow was replaced by a watery vapor. Then the Maharal also circled the Golem seven times and the three of them cried out, “And God blew the breath of life into his nostrils.” The Golem’s eyes then opened. The men discovered that the Golem had great strength and also the ability to disappear.
The Maharal told the Golem, “We created you with God’s help to protect the Jews against our enemies. You must obey my orders in everything! The Golem could see and hear but was mute. He nodded his head in agreement.
The Golem was not a monster, but rather a gentle soul that had no independent thought but was morally upright. He did exactly what he was told until he was told to stop by the Maharal. When asked to bring water to the kitchen, he continued to bring water until the kitchen flooded and was then told to stop. When he was told to catch fish, he fished all day, and when told that there were too many fish, he dumped the entire basket of them back into the lake.
One tale of the Golem dealt with a Jewish girl named Miriam, who went to Father Taddeus to become a Christian. As Pesach approached, Miriam packed her bags and raced out of her house.
At the same time, a Christian girl who worked for Miriam’s family quit and was missing. She had returned to her own village jobless. With that fact in mind, and having Miriam under his control, Taddeus forced Miriam to concoct a story that the Maharal and his friends had killed the missing girl for her blood, and they had a bottle of blood to make matzah. In addition, Miriam said that one of the men told her father that the girl who was missing would be replaced in a few days.
The next day, the Maharal, a friend and the Golem were arrested. Before the trial began, the Maharal, who was told in advance about Miriam’s fabrication, found a mute man in Prague who matched the Golem’s figure, sedated him, and put him in the Golem’s bed, so it looked like he was the Golem. The Maharal then told the real Golem to go to the girl’s village with a letter that said she would have her job back with a raise if she would return to Prague.
With the Golem’s special powers, the missing girl returned with him in the middle of the trial. The Maharal and his friend were then declared innocent, Miriam was sentenced to six years in prison for perjury, and Taddeus was discredited.
Most important, the Golem performed many acts of brute strength to defend the Jews. After many other incidents involving the Golem, and once the blood libel battle was over, the Maharal no longer relied on the Golem. With his two friends, they followed the same process used to create the Golem, but in reverse. They wrapped the Golem in a tallit and hid him in the attic of the Maharal’s synagogue, available to return when needed. No one was told where the Golem had gone. Only a few in Prague knew the truth, and today many believe that the secret incantation to bring him back could only be enacted by the Maharal.
In 1921, when my grandparents and their four small children – one of them my mother – emigrated to the U.S. from Romania, they stopped in Prague. They knew the story of the Golem, and my uncle told me that they went to the place that housed the Golem but, alas, they couldn’t find him. Without the Kabbalistic formula, known only to the Maharal of Prague, the Golem will not be brought to life, and thank G-d today we are not desperate for his return.
Chana Shapiro contributed to this story.