Stuff of Nightmares: The Maharal of Prague

IN the late-sixteenth century, the fertile imagination of Jews living in Eastern Europe was triggered by the story of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and his magical efforts to create a golem.

Many readers will have seen this macabre creature stumbling its way through the celluloid realms of Western cinema, or even read about it in the wondrous tales of Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) and Eduard Petiška (1924-1987). During the medieval period, especially, it was thought that this rather sinister anthropomorphic figure would be brought to life whenever the Jewish community was threatened in some way and, by using the ritualistic letter-system described in the Sefer Yetzirah, a shem (‘name of God’) was written on a piece of paper and placed inside the mouth of the golem itself. This would activate the mystical life-force and turn the inanimate figure into a rampaging monster of vengeance and justice, something that is almost certainly the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s (1797–1851) semi-prophetic novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818). In order to prevent the golem from violating the Sabbath, the shem would be removed every Friday evening.

Born in Bohemia around 1515, the legend of the ‘Golem of Prague’ has made Rabbi Loew very famous indeed and the story begins when a local Gentile puts a dead Christian child into a sack and attempts to plant the body in the Rabbi’s basement. Spotted by a crowd of Jews, he is chased through the streets and finally apprehended. It is then that the man is forced to admit that he had been paid to make it seem as though the dead infant was part of a Jewish blood libel and give their Christian neighbours an excuse to storm the ghetto and launch a pogrom against the community. Consequently, Rabbi Loew becomes engaged in a heated disputation with a Catholic priest and when it becomes clear that Jews are to be expelled from Bohemia on the orders of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552-1612), he is finally convinced that the only way to save his people is to create the golem. In February 1580, or so it is said, Loew – also known as the Maharal – went down to the Moldau River with a group of his associates. One of his pupils takes up the story:

There, on a clay bank, we measured out a man three cubits long, and we drew his face in the earth, and his arms and legs, the way a man lies on his back. Then all three of us stood at the feet of the reclining golem, with our faces to his face, and the rabbi commanded me to circle the golem seven times from the right side to the head, from the head to the left side, and then back to the feet, and he told me the formula to speak as I circled the golem seven times.[1]

The close connection with the mystical figure of Adam Kadmon is perfectly apparent, and this initial ritual was followed by Rabbi Loew walking round the golem a second time with the Torah scrolls and commanding the creature to awaken. Other sources, and there are several, refer to the insertion of the shem into the golem’s cavernous mouth. Removing the scrap of paper, on the other hand, results in the beast’s immobilisation.

After this ritual has taken place, the golem is seen carrying water for the Rabbi’s wife and even accompanying him on a fishing expedition. Ultimately, however, its task is to defend the Jews of Prague against the slanderous activities of their Christian foes and, depending upon which version of the tale one reads, the golem either misbehaves and needs to be stopped by his master or simply runs riot and murders his Gentile enemies. Again, the parallels with Mary Shelley’s own Gothic extravaganza are obvious.

Whilst some modern historians believe that the legend of the golem is a literary invention and that the earliest source for it only dates back as far as Friedrich Korn’s 1834 work, Der Jüdische Gil Blas, there are nonetheless many Jews who believe wholeheartedly in the possibility that such a creature can be brought to life. The procedure, after all, is mentioned in the Sefer Yetzirah and just two decades after Rabbi Loew’s death in 1609, one Polish Kabbalist made the claim that the Chief Rabbi of Chełm, Elijah Ba’al Shem (1550-1583), had himself managed to animate a golem:

And I have heard, in a certain and explicit way, from several respectable persons that one man [living] close to our time, whose name is R. Eliyahu, the master of the name, who made a creature out of matter [Heb. Golem] and form [Heb. tzurah] and it performed hard work for him, for a long period, and the name of emet was hanging upon his neck, until he finally removed it for a certain reason, the name from his neck and it turned to dust.[2]

Regardless whether Rabbi Loew actually created a terrifying monster or not, he was also a remarkable scholar. His father, Rabbi Bezalel, originated from Worms, where Eleazar had produced some of his best works for the Ashkenazi Hasidim in the early part of the thirteenth century. His uncle was the prestigious Jakob ben Chajim (d. 1574), who was appointed by Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564) to serve as Chief Rabbi of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1553, Rabbi Loew became head of the Jewish community of Moravia at Mikulov (Nikolsburg) and was responsible for deciding precisely which parts of the Talmud should be studied by students in the district as a whole. His responsibilities included settling cases of marital legitimacy, whereby a man or woman who had been falsely victimised by local gossips could be provided with help to marry a prospective suitor.

His audience with Emperor Rudolf II in February 1592, recounted in the stories of the golem, is historically verifiable and such were his concerns about the rising hostility towards Jews – mainly on account of their business practices – that he was keen to appease his people’s critics. Interestingly, Rabbi Loew’s conversation with the Emperor even included a discussion about the Kabbalah and Rudolf became so fascinated with this subject that his attitude began to soften towards his Jewish subjects.

Today, the Rabbi is buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery at Prague, but prior to his death he produced a prolific outpouring of mystical and philosophical texts that sought to solidify Jewish thought and prevent its disintegration into religious sectarianism and theoretical factionalism. He also had a unique ability to present complex Kabbalistic ideas in everyday language and, centuries later, these musings inspired Hasidic Jews in Germany, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, including Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) and Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980).

Among his other interests were astronomy and mathematics, so whilst he remained faithful to the traditional rabbinical view that the Jewish impression of the universe has been shaped by the Ten Commandments that Moses received at Mount Sinai, Rabbi Loew was also very eager to keep abreast of modern developments and he was fully aware of the Western discovery of the Americas and the fact that Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) had controversially posited the sun at the centre of the universe itself. Although, during his own century, the writings of Isaac Luria at Safed had not yet made their way into Europe, Rabbi Loew developed his own interpretations of the Sefer ha-Zohar and Sefer Yetzirah. Other works included meditations about God’s will and Jewish ethics, explanations of the Talmudic and Midrashic Aggadah, and a detailed analysis of various religious observances.

Naturally, we should not deceive ourselves that the Rabbi’s intellectual achievements will ever displace those pertaining to the famous ‘Golem of Prague’. In that respect, it seems, the proverbial genie is well and truly out of the bottle.


1. Neugroschel, Joachim; The Golem: A New Translation of the Classic Play and Selected Short Stories (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), p.13.

2. Idel, Moshe; The Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid (State University of New York Press, 1990), p.296.

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