In Jewish folklore, a golem [goh-luhm] is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing. The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance.

In modern Hebrew the word golem means ‘dumb’ or ‘helpless.’ The Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition) uses the term for an uncultivated person. Similarly, golems are often used today as a metaphor for brainless lunks or entities who serve man under controlled conditions, but are 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. In the Talmud, Adam was initially created as a golem when his dust was ‘kneaded into a shapeless husk.’ 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 was the creation of life.

In some tales, a golem is inscribed with Hebrew words that keep it animated. The word emet (אמת, ‘truth’ in the Hebrew language) written on a golem’s forehead is one such example. The golem could then be deactivated by removing the aleph (א) in emet, thus changing the inscription from ‘truth’ to ‘death’ (met מת, ‘dead’). Legend and folklore suggest that golems could be activated by writing a specific series of letters on parchment and placing the paper in a golem’s mouth.

The existence of a golem is sometimes a mixed blessing. Golems are not intelligent, and if commanded to perform a task, they will perform the instructions literally. In many depictions golems are inherently perfectly obedient. In its earliest known modern form, one story has Rabbi Eliyahu of Chełm creating a golem that became enormous and uncooperative. In one version of this story, the rabbi had to resort to trickery to deactivate it, whereupon it crumbled upon its creator and crushed him. There is a similar hubris theme in Frankenstein, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and some golem-derived stories in popular culture. The theme also manifests itself in ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),’ Karel Čapek’s 1921 play which coined the term robot; the play was written in Prague and while Capek denied that he modeled the robot after the golem, there are many similarities in the plot.


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