The Maharal and the Golem

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Pablo Edronkin

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Judah Loew ben Bezalel was born around 1509, and died in 1609; he was a rabbi, and is more commonly known as the Maharal of Prague; according to legend, he was also the creator of a Golem.

"A nation with no stories to tell has no history at all." - Proverb.

Maharal, or MaHaRal, is an acronym of "Our teacher, rabbi Loew"; he was a Kabbalah and Talmudic scholar, an autodidact, a philosopher, and also an alleged descendant of King David, albeit this is under debate right now. He was from a rabbinical family Jaffe - traditionally believed to descend from the Exilarchs, but, as we commented elsewhere, ancestry beyond the mark of about 1000 years is difficult to prove and historians have questioned the genealogy of Rabbi Loew for other reasons.

He was wealthy and so could afford a life of study, and is indeed counted among the ancestors of the Skowronek bankers thorough the ancestry line of the Itzig family from Berlin, and the Gans family, which leads to rabbi Akiva Eger and the Schoenberg name. Many illustrious Jews are descended from the Maharal, including Yehudi Menuhin and Menakhem Mendel Schneerson.

But what makes him stand out in the eyes of those who are not Jewish scholars is the legend about the creation of a Golem in Prague to protect the Jews from persecution. According to the legend which is apparently a XIX century literary creation he made a golem out of clay and used his knowledge of the Kabbalah to bring it to life. To do that, those knowledgeable would write the word "Emet" (meaning "true") in Hebrew, and to kill the golem, they would erase the first letter - the aleph -, leaving the word "Met" (i.e. "dead") written on the golem, preferably on its head.

Some traditions also describe that activating a golem could be accomplished by writing in a small piece of parchment and putting it into the figure's mouth.

A golem is an unshaped form, a living thing that is not rounded, finished, a raw thing. The word is used to describe foolish, clumsy or brainless people as well. Initially Adam was created as a golem from mud interestingly, the Mayan Popol Vuh also speaks of men made of mud. We all have something of golem within us.

According to ancient stories, people who are very learned and holy can approach the wisdom of God more than others, and hence, they can also create life in a similar manner, albeit they cannot perfect it. That is, such learned people some rabbis - can bring a golem to life, but not a human.

A golem is an obedient creature: It will do what it is commanded to do by its creator, but the creator has to be very careful and specific about what he orders because the golem is indestructible except by reverting the spell that created it, so, it could potentially go unhindered for all eternity doing what it was said to do. Deactivating a golem may be difficult and dangerous; the creator might not survive. So, only a few brave scholars ever attempted to make one.

The golem of Prague, according to the tale, is still kept in the attic of the Prague old Synagogue; in stories of more recent times, Nazi officials are depicted attempting to get into the attic, only to be killed by the golem or some strange force.

There are a few legendary accounts of the creation of a golem before rabbi Loew; the first descriptions re actually found on the Talmud; as we said, even Adam was created in such a way, but the tale of the rabbi of Prague has become the best known of all.

For example, it is said that the Gaon of Vilna was about to create one when a voice was heard, telling him not do do so since he was still a child.

The Maharal never wrote anything about creating a golem; it is quite possible that one of his disciples and relative, David Gans, began constructing the legend around the last years of the XVI century, or perhaps it evolved later as part of Jewish folklore. I learned the story of the Maharal and the golem from my grandmother. Judah ben Bezalel Loew and his wife Perl Schmelkes are my 15th great grandparents. David Gans, the person that apparently created or disseminated the tale of the golem is also part of the family. Gans is one of the most significant surnames within the network of marriages that exist in the family since many centuries ago.

The legend of the golem led several authors to write stories about it, including Jorge Luis Borges and Gustav Meyrink. Some films and TV series also featured a golem as a character, like the X-Files.

Perhaps there is one out there, walking thorough the mountains or the bottom of an ocean because its creator in ancient times, gave it an imperfect command and couldn't stop it, and perhaps one day you will meet it.


Der Golem, 1915.
Scene from "Der golem," a film made in 1915.
From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, public domain[74].



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