In Jewish literature, a golem is a manmade, human-like creature endowed with a rudimentary form of life. According to certain accounts, golems were created by saintly individuals to protect the Jewish community from blood libels and other anti-Semitic agitations, most notably in 16th-century Prague. How much credence should be given to these stories? And how does golem-creating differ from sorcery and black magic, both of which are forbidden by Torah law? Read further for the answers to these questions and more on this fascinating topic.

What Is a Golem?

In its most basic meaning, a golem is an unfinished ball of clay or block of wood, requiring carving and chiseling to become a functional utensil.1 It is also used to refer to a simpleton or boor with undeveloped intellect and emotions or crude behavior.2 In our context, a golem is a humanoid creature, who, rather than being born from parents, was made from scratch—in much the same way as Adam was fashioned from the earth.3

Playing G‑d?

But is it indeed possible for one human to create another? Isn’t that a G‑dly feat, beyond the capabilities of beings themselves created by G‑d?

Our sages tell us that the world was created with 10 Divine utterances.4 The Kabbalists take this a step further, explaining that each entity in existence was created via a unique combination of supernal “letters”—specific expressions of Divine creative energy. The precise qualities and makeup of any given creation are the direct result of the precise arrangement of these spiritual powers, as designated by G‑d during the six days of creation.5

Now, what if a person of exceptional piety and high spiritual caliber could harness these Divine “letters,” combining them so as to create the entity of his choice?

Many sources indicate that this is indeed a possibility. The Talmud records several accounts of tzaddikim (righteous individuals) creating animals and humans “via Sefer Yetzirah,”6 an early Kabbalistic work that discusses the secret of harnessing these Divine letters.

Historical Records

The earliest record of someone who accomplished this feat is our forefather Abraham, who, according to Midrashic tradition, created both animals7 and humans.8 This is hinted at in the verses “... the souls they made in Haran9 and “... the calf that he made.”10 Jacob’s sons are also recorded as creating animals through the insights gleaned from Sefer Yetzirah.11

The Talmud relates the following two accounts:12

The sage Rava once created a human. He sent him to his colleague Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira conversed with him but he did not reply. “Apparently you are from those created by the sages,” he commented. “Return to the dust!”

Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Oshaya would sit together every Shabbat eve and study Sefer Yetzirah. Their learning would cause fat calves to be created, which they would then proceed to eat.

In more recent times, in addition to the famous Golem of Prague (more on that below), a golem is reputed to have been created by the saintly Rabbi Eliyahu, the Baal Shem of Chelm,13 as well as by a second Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna. (In the latter case, the project stopped midway when its creator received a heavenly sign to desist.14)

Proceed With Caution

In contrast to sorcery and black magic which employ the forces of impurity, utilizing Divine letters to manipulate nature is permitted by Torah law.15 At the same time, such activities must be approached with the utmost caution.

Creating golems belongs to the field of mysticism known as practical Kabbalah. The more familiar field is contemplative Kabbalah, which discusses the inner workings of the Divine, the interactions between Creator and creation, and how contemplating these ideas can improve our service of G‑d and moral character. Practical Kabbalah, by contrast, provides ways of unlocking spiritual powers to make tangible changes in nature—creating golems, for example.

While contemplative Kabbalah is open to the masses (as long as approached correctly), practical Kabbalah remains in the field of the very select few capable of harnessing its strength appropriately.16 The Arizal, one of the most famed Kabbalists of all times, warned of the dangers inherent in the misappropriation of these Divine powers by the uninitiated.17

(Im)practical Halachic Ramifications

The possibility of golem creation has led to substantive halachic discussion on the laws that would apply to such beings. Several questions are raised and debated, hinging on the extent of the humanity of such creatures. Examples include whether a golem may count for a minyan, whether one may make a golem on Shabbat, and whether dismantling a golem (as Rabbi Zeira did) is tantamount to murder.18

The consensus of opinions is that while special tzaddikim may have the ability to create human-like creatures, the ability to invest a soul within a body is unique to G‑d. Man-made men are not viewed as full-fledged humans and are subhuman at best.

Read the modern application of these discussions in From Golems to AI

Interestingly, this discussion may have practical applications today. While not quite created from scratch, cultured meat—meat developed in a laboratory—is strikingly similar to Sefer-Yetzirah meat, and the halachic status of the former (e.g., whether it is considered fleishig or pareve) may depend on that of the latter.19 (Of course, a rabbi knowledgeable in this technology should be consulted for practical guidance.)

Read up on this in Is Lab-Grown Meat Kosher?

The Golem of Prague

No discussion of golems would be complete without a few words on the famed Golem of Prague, reputed to have been built by Rabbi Yehuda Loew, known by the acronym Maharal.

Many stories are told about this wondrous creature and the many blood libels and other antisemitic attacks it successfully thwarted.20 While some debate the veracity of these tales,21 several points are clear:

  1. The Maharal authored numerous volumes that left an everlasting mark on Jewish scholarship and philosophy. His spiritual greatness and far-reaching influence on Jewish life far exceed his ability to create a golem.
  2. Whether or not this particular golem is factual, the concept of creating such creatures is recorded from long before the Maharal’s time and is discussed as a real possibility in the Maharal’s writings. He wrote that creating a golem was not to be viewed as extraordinary, but to be seen along the lines of any time a person prays for something and has his or her wishes granted. While acknowledging that this is not “the natural way,” the Maharal wrote that it is “within the realm of this world.”22