Throughout Europe, there are many legends regarding a creature called Golem – a body made from clay, like Adam, but without a soul. The most famous is the Golem of Prague, whose influence has lasted even to the present day in various forms of media.
According to some legends, Golems are created from clay and given life when the letters aleph, mem, and tav, which spells “emet,” meaning truth, is written on his forehead. Once this is done, the one who had given Golem life now has complete control over him. To “kill” the Golem, you erase the aleph and are left with the word “met,” which means death.
Other versions explain different ways to bring the Golem to life. In one example, once the Golem is created from soil and clay, the creators must walk or dance around it, saying a combination of letters from the alphabet and insert a parchment into the golem’s mouth with a shem written on it (short for Shemhamforash – the secret name of God). To “kill” the Golem in this case, its creators walk in the opposite direction saying and making the order of the words backwards.
Western European Jews in the Middle Ages referred to the Sefer Yezirah (“Book of Creation”) for instructions how to make a Golem.
The Golem of Prague
In 1580, the Jews in Prague were being persecuted and accused of ritual murder (blood libel). Judah Loew ben Bezalel (a.k.a Rabbi Loew and the Mahral), a real-life, highly respected Rabbi and Jewish scholar, turned to the Sefer Yezirah for instruction on how to build a golem to protect the Jewish Quarter. Out of clay from the banks of the Vltava river, Yossele the golem was born.
Yossele was self-sufficient. The only care required for him was that he couldn’t be active on the day of Sabbath (Saturday). In order for Yossele to rest on the Sabbath, Rabbi Loew deactivated him on Friday evenings by removing the shem before the Sabbath began.
According to popular legend, one Friday, Rabbi Loew forgot to remove the shem.
This resulted in Yossele to going on a murderous rampage.
Another version tells of Yossele falling in love. Being rejected is what leads him down his path of destruction.
Regardless, Rabbi Loew had to stop his creation. He managed to pull out the shem from Yossele’s mouth and immobilized Yossele right in front of the Old New Synagogue.
The golem was taken to the attic of the synagogue, and allegedly remains there to this day…
When the synagogue was being renovated in the late 19th century, the golem could not be found. This has lead some to believe that he was stolen and buried in a old Jewish cemetery in Žižkov, where the Žižkov Television Tower stands today. Nobody really knows though, which adds to the mystery of the legend.
The Golem of Prague has transcended Jewish folklore, and has found itself influencing literature, film, and television all over the world. The Germans created a film about Yossele that is considered amongst one of the great works of Weimar cinema. He has appeared in an episode of the Simpsons, and was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.
As for the Maharal, he really did exist. His grave can be found in the Old Jewish Cemetery. Just go down the street from the Old New Synagogue and purchase a ticket for the Jewish museum. You will have access to all the synagogues and the cemetery, which is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world.