On The Trail of the Polish Golem
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small, On The Trail of the Polish Golem, The most famous golem and its creator, Rabbi Löw. Illustration by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899. Ink on paper. National Gallery in Prague. Photo: Wikipedia / CC, rabbi_low_golem_fot_cc.jpg
The legend of the golem seems inextricably connected with the history of Prague – yet substantial evidence links this legend to an older tradition, one which flourished in early modern Poland.
The legend of the golem – an unformed mass of clay which, thanks to a magical spell, becomes a living creature – inspired Jewish kabbalists as early as the 12th century. The possibility of creating a humanoid creature raised interest from both theorists and practitioners of Kabbalah – Jewish or not – from Spain to Germany.
The story of the Golem as we know it was formed much later. It takes place in Prague, connecting the creation of the golem with the figure of the rabbi Jehuda Loew ben Betsalal (Maharal). Scholars tentatively identify the period as sometime between the 17th and early 19th centuries.
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It turns out, however, that some of the key elements of the legend, including the figure of Betsalal himself, may have come to Prague via Poland. And could it be that the legend of the Polish golem also inspired Mary Shelley to create Frankenstein?
Was the Golem from Prague?
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Paul Wegener and Lyda Salmonova in the film 'Der Golem' (The Golem), directed by Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen, 1915, photo: Forum
According to the Prague legend, Rabbi Betsalal created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-semitic attacks and pogroms. Depending on the version, the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II.
The problem is that this period, often referred to as the Golden Age of Czech Jewry, was a time of remarkable tolerance toward Jews and Protestants alike. Jewish cultural life flourished, and the Jewish population grew significantly. This makes it a rather unlikely background for the history of a golem, whose main function was to serve as a bodyguard for the Jewish community.
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Another problem is posed by Betsalal himself, the creator of the Prague golem. Hillel J. Kieval, an expert in ‘golemology’, points to the fact that while Betsalal did appear to have had an interest in the speculative side of Jewish mysticism, he had never written about golems, nor was he known for having been a devotee of ‘practical’ Kabbalah – the art necessary to create a golem. This art, however, flourished in another nearby state, namely Poland. And Betsalal himself was really born in Poznań, where he became also the rabbi of Poland – that is, before he moved to Prague.
Poland – the land of Golems
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A monument of golem in Poznań was designed by the Czech artist David Černý in 2010. Rabbi Betsalal was born in Poznań around 500 years earlier. Photo: Wikipedia / CC
This may be the earliest testimony referencing the golem-building powers of Polish Jews. It comes from a letter written by a non-Jewish folklorist, Christoph Arnold, in 1674:
After saying certain prayers and holding certain feast days, they make the figure of a man from clay, and when they have said the ‘shem hamephorash’ [the explicit – and unmentionable – name of God] over it, the image comes to life. And although the image itself cannot speak, it understands what is said to it and commanded of it; among the Polish Jews it does all kinds of housework, but is not allowed to leave the house.
Hillel J. Kieval observes that amongst early modern Jews, tales of the creation of life by pious individuals seem to have been most common in Poland. More importantly, he notes that beginning in the 17th century, an important new motif was added: from that point onwards, a golem was understood to have been not merely a servant who performed all sorts of physical labour for his master, but also a source of danger.
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This is also attested to in Arnold's account:
On the forehead of the image they write: emeth, that is, “truth.” But the figure of this kind grows each day; though very small at first, it ends by becoming larger than those in the house. In order to take away his strength, which ultimately becomes a threat to all those in the house, they quickly erase the first letter aleph from the word emeth on its forehead, so that there remains only the word meth, that is, “dead.” When this is done the golem collapses and dissolves into the clay or mud that he was.
The Golem of Chełm
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Chełm, the birthplace of the golem legend. Drawn by T. Rakowiecki, 1780. Photo: Wikipedia / CC
In this same letter, Arnold goes on to report on the most prominent tale of the Polish golem:
They say that a ‘baal shem’ in Poland by the name of Rabbi Elias made a Golem who became so large that the rabbi could no longer reach his forehead to erase the letter e. He thought up a trick, namely that the Golem, being his servant, should remove his shoes, supposing that when the Golem bent over, he would erase the letters. And so it happened, but when the Golem became mud again, his whole weight fell on the rabbi, who was sitting on the bench, and crushed him.
Rabbi Elias was a real person, also known as Elijah Ba'al Shem (b. 1550, d. 1583). He served as a chief rabbi of Chełm, a town in Eastern Poland, which in later times became famous for its literary tradition of tales about the fools of Chełm. But Rabbi Elias was an important Talmudic scholar and kabbalist, and the first baal shem – that is, one said to possess secret knowledge of the holy names of God (literally, master of the Name [of God]).
The story of Rabbi Elias was recounted also by his grandson, the prominent Jewish theologist and halachist, Jacob Emden. Emden wrote down the golem legend as told to him by his father, Tzvi Ashkenazi, around the year 1700. As Kieval notes, in this version, the wordplay of ‘emeth’/‘meth’ was omitted, and the collapse of the golem did not crush and kill his creator but only rendered him cut and bruised. Apart from this, the story is basically the same.
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Gershom Sholem, the most prominent scholar of Jewish mysticism of the 20th century, believed it very unlikely that the Prague legend could have been formed independently from the Chełm legend. That's why some scholars today believe that the legend of the rabbi of Chełm must have made it to Prague by the mid-18th century – very likely taken there by the Hassidim. Here, the story of the Chelmer Rabbi Elias was transferred onto a more famous Jewish rabbi from around the same time, Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal).
The story of the Chelmer Golem features in Maciej Pałka's comic strip Lublin: Location 2.0, part of the project run by Laboratorium Teatr NN. You can find the comic in English here.
Golem vs Frankenstein
But the story of Polish golem also traveled in other directions. In 1808, some 140 years after the first account of the Chełm golem, this very story was published by Jacob Grimm in the journal Zeitung für Einsiedler (Newspaper for Hermits). At this time, Grimm was apparently still unaware of any association of the golem theme with the city of Prague – the first accounts of which would be published only some 30 years later.
It has been argued that Grimm's version of the story of Polish Golem might have inspired Mary Shelley in her literary creation of another world-famous monster. In her preface to the first edition of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, she reminisced about the circumstances of her stay at the Lake Geneva in 1816:
The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands.
Could it be that on of those German stories was actually the Polish golem? Here is another humanoid being created by man in order to serve him.
But Mary Shelley's Frankenstein – the tale of a monster revolted against its creator who wreaks havoc to everything and everyone around – also bears many resemblances to the Praguian golem legend. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818, and by 1830s, it had gained great popularity in Europe.
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Could it be that also this story influenced the legend of the Prague golem? As the Polish author Adam Węgłowski claims in his book Bardzo Polska Historia Wszystkiego (A Very Polish History of Everything), this is not altogether out of the question, considering that the first literary attribution of the golem legend to Maharal – which appeared in Berthold Auerbach's novel Spinoza – comes only in 1837.
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Meanwhile, golems were still the subject of both the practical and theoretical interests of Polish Jews. Inspired by his grandfather's golem experience, Jacob Emden discussed the legal status of the golem, asking such sophisticated questions as: ‘Could the golem be counted in a minyan?’ (A minyan is the quorum of 10 men required for prayer in Jewish tradition.)
But meditating about the mysteries of the golem was not reserved to the Hassidim alone. One of their great enemies and the foremost leader of Lithuanian mitnagdic Jewry in the second half of the 18th century, Rabbi Eliah ben Salomon Zalman, also known as the Vilna Gaon, recounted to his pupil how he had also once contemplated the idea of animating a golem. Inspired by his study of Sepher Yetzira (The Book of Creation), an early mystical text, he started creating a golem – but stopped after experiencing what he described as a figure moving above his head. He interpreted it as a sign from heaven discouraging him from continuing the experiment.
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The last Polish golem
It is probable that the last golem on Polish soil was created by Rabbi Dovid Yafa (Yaffe, Yaffo) in 1800 in Drahichyn in Polesie (in today’s Belarus – not the more famous Drohiczyn in the Podlasie region of Poland). Reb Dovid was a descendant of the famous Rabbi Mordechai Yafa. However, as Jacek Moskwa explains, Reb Dovid far surpassed his ancestor in kabbalistic skills.
According to one of the versions of the story – which, as Jacek Moskwa highlights, doesn't appear in other variants of the golem legend – the Drahichyn Golem was a kind of shabes-goy, which means that he performed all the chores forbidden to Jews during shabes. In winter, he would light up fire in ovens and stoves, which was very important. The golem would always receive his orders one day earlier, so that the religious law wasn't infringed upon.
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One day, as a result of a mistake made in the order, the golem started a fire which burned down the whole shtetl. Following this catastrophe, Rabbi Dovid commanded his children that they never follow in his footsteps and become rabbis. According to the family tradition, this fatherly precept was observed.
From clay to clay
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The Old Synagogue in Chełm in a pre-war photograph. According to the legend, the remains of the golem were hidden in the building's attic. Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (NAC)
Lost among the marshes of Polesie, the kabbalistic centre of Drahichyn may have survived the fire caused by the golem in 1800. But like so many other shtetls of this region, it ceased to exist during WWII.
A similar fate was dealt to the Jewish people and Golem of Chełm. We will never know whether, as the story goes, the remains of the golem really laid hidden in the locked attic of the Old Synagogue in Chełm. Unlike the Old-New Synagogue in Prague, about which a similar story is told, the Old Synagogue in Chełm was destroyed by Germans in 1940 and 1941, leaving no traces behind.
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Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 8 Apr 2015