|In Jewish folklore, a golem (sometimes, as in Yiddish, pronounced goilem) is an animated being created entirely from inanimate matter. In modern Hebrew the word golem literally means "cocoon", but can also mean "fool", "silly", or even "stupid". The name appears to derive from the word gelem (גלם), which means "raw material".
The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word גלמי, meaning my unshaped form. The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Seven characteristics are in an uncultivated person, and seven in a learned one", Pirkei Avoth 5:7). Similarly, golems are often used today in metaphor either as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled conditions but hostile to him in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.
The earliest stories of golems date to early Judaism. Adam is described in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) as initially created as a golem when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk". Like Adam, all golems are created from mud. They were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God. A very holy person was one who strove to approach God, and in that pursuit would gain some of God's wisdom and power. One of these powers was the creation of life. No matter how holy a person became, however, a being created by that person would be but a shadow of one created by God.
Early on, the notion developed that the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. In Sanhedrin 65b, is the description of Raba creating a golem using the Sefe Yetzirah. He sent the golem to Rav Zeira; Rav Zeira spoke to the golem, but he did not answer. Said Rav Zeira, "I see that you were created by one of our colleagues; return to your dust." It is said that if a golem were made able to speak, that would give it a soul, and — because a golem cannot be made perfectly — that ability could make it very dangerous.
Having a golem servant was seen as the ultimate symbol of wisdom and holiness, and there are many tales of golems connected to prominent rabbis throughout the Middle Ages.
Other attributes of the golem were gradually added over time. In many tales the Golem is inscribed with magic or religious words that keep it animated. Writing one of the names of God on its forehead, a slip of paper in its mouth, or enscribed on its body, or writing the word Emet (אמת, "truth" in the Hebrew language) on its forehead are examples of such words. By erasing the first letter aleph in Emet to form Met (מת, "dead" in Hebrew) the golem could be deactivated. Another way is by writing a specific incantation in the owner's blood on calfskin parchment, and placing it in the mouth. Removing the parchment will deactivate the golem. It is likely that this is the same incantation that the Rabbi recites in the classic narrative.
The most famous golem narrative involves Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, a 16th century rabbi. He is reported to have created a golem to defend the Prague ghetto of Josefov from Anti-Semitic attacks. The story of the Golem first appeared in print in 1847 in a collection of Jewish tales entitled Galerie der Sippurim, published by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. About sixty years later, a fictional account was published by Yudl Rosenberg (1909).
According to the legend, the Emperor made an edict proclaiming that the Jews in Prague were to be either expelled or killed (depending on the version of the story). A golem could be made of clay from the banks of the Vltava river in Prague. Following the prescribed rituals, the Rabbi built the Golem and made him come to life by reciting special incantations in Hebrew. The Rabbi's intention was to have the Golem protect the Jewish community from harm. As Rabbi Loew's Golem grew bigger, he also became more violent and started killing the Gentiles (non-Jews) and spreading fear. Some versions also add that the Golem turns on his creator and attacks either his creator alone or the creator and the Jews as well.
In all Jewish kabbalistic descriptions of Golems, they are incapable of disobeying the one who created them, but in one version of the story, Rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm created a Golem that grew bigger and bigger until the rabbi was unable to kill it without trickery, whereupon it fell upon its creator and crushed him. The hubris theme in this version is similar to that in the stories of the monster of Frankenstein and of the broomstick in The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It remains a standard feature of golems in popular culture.