Rabbi Loeb and the Golem of Prague

by Dr. Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

Of all the golem legends, none is as famous as the story cycle of the Golem of Prague. There had been books, plays, and even films depicting it, and often they included the creator of the Golem of Prague, Rabbi Loeb.

Prague was home to many Jewish scholars and mystics; Rabbi Loeb was probably the most famous. He lived a long life, 1513-1609, and defended his people valiantly against their enemies. His followers loved him so much they called him "The Exalted One."

Even to a holy man, or a great mystic, creating life is forbidden. It can only be justified if many lives would be saved by doing so, and not always even then. But Rabbi Loeb was instructed to try the horrifying task. He created his golem with divine help, using Kabbalistic formulas communicated to him in dreams. Acquiring this God-given knowledge was neither simple nor easy. The formulas were given, but deciphering them had to be done by the person himself. Worse, he had to use the Shem Hameforash — the true name of God, which was known only to a few holy men in each generation, and was very dangerous to pronounce. The power it unleashed could turn against the man who uttered it.

This myth is unusual in that it is supposed to have happened in a specific year — 1580. There was a new danger brewing in Prague; a notorious priest, Taddeush, planned to accuse the Jews of a new "ritual murder." Rabbi Loeb heard about it, and to avert the horrible danger, directed a dream question to heaven to help him save his people. He received his answer in an order that is alphabetical in Hebrew: "Ata Bra Golem Devuk Hakhomer VeTigzar Zedim Chevel Torfe Yisroel."

The simple meaning was: Make a golem of clay and you will destroy the entire Jew-baiting company. But this was only part of the message. The inner meaning had to be understood to be effective. Rabbi Loeb extracted the real message by using Zirufim, special Kabbalistic formulas. And when he was done, he knew he could accomplish the creation of a the golem.

He called two people to assist him. His son-in-law, a Kohen (a Jew descended from the ancient order of priests) and his pupil, a Levite (a Jew descended from the servants of the Temple). He explained that they needed four elements — fire, water, air, and earth. The two assistants represented the fire and water, Rabbi Loeb, air, and the golem, earth. He explained how they had to purify themselves, because unless they were completely ready, the Shem Hameforash would destroy them.

After a day of purification, they read various chapters from a particularly holy book, Sefer Yezira (The Book of Creation) and then went to the River Moldau. By torchlight, they sculpted a giant body out of river clay. The golem lay before them, facing the heaven. They placed themselves at his feet, looking at the quiet face.

The Kohen walked seven times around the body, from right to left, reciting special Zirufim. The clay turned bright red, like fire. Then the Levite walked another seven times around the body, from left to right, reciting some more Zirufim. The fire-like redness disappeared, and water flowed through the body. He grew hair and nails. Then Rabbi Loeb walked once around the body, and placed a piece of parchment in his mouth, on which was written Shem Hameforash. He bowed to the East, West, South and North, and all three of them recited together: "And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." The golem opened his eyes and looked at his creator. They dressed him and took him to the synagogue, where he could get ready to start his mission.

Eventually, when the golem was no longer necessary (and some claim he went mad and became a danger to everyone) Rabbi Loeb decided to return him to the void from which he came. He did that by recalling the Shem Hameforash, and with it the life principle, and thus restored the golem into lifeless clay. The clay figure had to be hidden in the attic of the synagogue, and no one was permitted to enter it again until many years later. Some writers during the nineteenth century claimed that the outlines of a giant body could still be seen there.