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The Golem Legend

The Golem is a mythical creature created out of clay that is brought to life. The most famous version of the legend is set in late 16th century Prague. The High Rabbi Lowe, a man learned in kabalistic lore, forms a man-like creature out of clay and then bring it to life by inserting a shem (capsule) with a written magic formula into its mouth. He also writes the German word for truth, anmauth, on its forehead. The Golem, which is given the name Joseph, does the work around the Jewish Quarter of Prague, sweeping the streets, carrying water, splitting wood etc. The Golem was tireless and uncomplaining; it needed neither food nor drink. It was exceedingly strong and fearless and defended the Jewish Quarter from attacks.

The only care required of the Golem was that it must not be alive on the Sabbath (Saturday). Rabbi Lowe deactivated the Golem by removing the shem from its mouth on Friday evenings before the Sabbath began. One Friday evening Rabbi Lowe forgot to remove the shem and Joseph the Golem went berserk. As mentioned above Joseph was very strong; he started pulling up trees. The rabbi ran after Joseph and managed to pull the shem from his mouth thus immobilizing him.

The Habsburg emperor, Rudolph II, was fascinated with arcane lore, so much so that he moved his residence to Prague which was at the time well known as a center of interest in the black arts of alchemy, astrology, necromancy, kabalism and other fields mysticism. Dr. Faust was reputed to have lived in Prague.

In the Golem legend Joseph was so effective at defending the Jewish Quarter that complaints reached Rudolph II. Rabbi Lowe was summoned to Prague's High Castle for a midnight audience with Rudolph. The purpose of the meeting was never revealed but it was believed that Rudolph offered Rabbi Lowe a deal. If the Golem was permanently deactivated Rudolph would prevent any further attacks against the Jewish Quarter. There was however another possible subject for the meeting. Rudolph was having an affair with the beauteous wife of the mayor of the Jewish Quarter and Rabbi Lowe had found out about it.

There were two versions of how the Golem was permanently deactivated. In one version the word anmauth (truth) written on Joseph the Golem's forehead was changed to mauth (death) by erasing the an. In the second version, Joseph is told he can only sleep in the attic of the synagogue. While he is asleep there Rabbi Lowe and his assistants perform a ritual of circling seven times around the sleeping Joseph while reciting magic formulas. They then wrap the lifeless body in prayer shawls and conceal it in that attic. No one is allowed to go to the attic of that synagogue and the clay body of the Golem is still there to be reactivated if need be.

There were a few minor elements to the legend that are of interest. One, the Golem was not given the power of speech for that would give him a soul. Two, the Golem began to go out of control as in his uprooting of trees on the Sabbath when he was not deactivated. Also Joseph the Golem became infatuated with the beautiful daughter of Rabbi Lowe.

These elements indicate that the legend had cultural lessons embedded in it as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strausse argued that all successful legends have. First, note that the creation of a living creature out of clay is a spinoff of the Genesis legend of the creation of Adam, the first man. Adam was first constructed of clay and then Jehovah breathed life into him. The word adam means ground, dirt, earth or clay. The Hebrew word golem has a similar meaning as raw material. The lesson of the Golem legend is that only Jehovah has the right to create a living creature. For humans to usurp that right is not only dangerous but may be evil as well. The second lesson is that once a living creature is created there is no guarantee of control over the actions of that creature. Witness the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

The Golem legend entered European culture and reappeared in various forms. A few of those reworkings of the Golem legend are:

The Golem legend is also involved in the stories of robots. Interestingly enough the word robot was coined and introduced into the languages of the world in 1921 by two Czech brothers, Joseph and Karel Capek (cha pek), living in Prague. The distinction between a robot and a mere machine hinges on the power of robots to adjust actions to the circumstances.

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