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Techniques for Creating a Golem


Medieval Letter Combinations
Rabbi Loew of Prague


For a broad sampling of techniques from original sources, see Moshe Idel's Golem: Jewish Magic and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. This is a dedicated source, but many other books, fiction and scholarly, discuss the golem.

Although there are many variants in procedures recorded, there seem to be a number of elements and steps common to most methods of creating a golem. These are:

1. The ritual cleansing and high qualifications of those creating the golem.

2. The use of some form of soil (sometimes clay or dust) to form the body of the golem, particularly soil which has never been plowed or used in any way.

3. The use of a verbal ritual to form the soil into a human form.

4. A concluding word or Name is used to activate the creature.

Medieval techniques of creating a golem often revolved around a highly complex procedure which required the mystic(s) to recite, presumably from memory and probably while in a state of meditation, an array of Hebrew alphabet letter combinations and/or various permutation of one or more Names of God.

For example, Eleazar of Worms, in his Commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, wrote (in a somewhat twisted fashion) that after kneading virgin soil from the mountains with pure water, the first stage of creation is to form the "limbs" of the golem ("limb", in this case, seems to also represent the torso and head) . Each limb has a "corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah", and this letter is to be combined with every other letter of the Hebrew alphabet to form pairs. Then a more general permutation is done (again for each limb separately) of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet with every other letter into letter pairs, "each limb separately". This second, basic method of combination is called the "221 gates". Then you combine each letter of the alphabet with each vowel sound (apparently for each limb). That concludes the first stage, the formation of the golem's body. In the second stage you must combine each letter of the alphabet with each letter from the Tetragrammaton (YHVH), and pronounce each of the resulting letter pairs with every possible vowel sound. In this case the use of the Tetragrammaton, even though it is permutated, is the "activation word".

Simple, right?

(For a translation of Eleazar of Worms' original text with an explanation, see Idel's Golem: Jewish Magic and Mystical Traditions on the Artificial Anthropoid. For figures, tables, and a highly detailed explanation of the 221 gates, see Aryeh Kaplan's translation and commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah.)

In simpler variations on Eleazar's technique, the letter combinations of AB through AK (aleph-bet to aleph-kaph) are used to create the golem, and the combinations of AL through AT (aleph-lamed to aleph-taph) are used to dismantle it. R. Abraham Galante, a Kabbalist from Safed, recorded a method of Ashkenazi (German-Jewish) origin in which the mystic(s) would spread a layer of "new" dust on the floor or the ground, and inscribe in it the name of the thing they wished to create. They would then combine each letter of the name of that thing with every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. To destroy the thing, they would reverse the recitation.

The Kabbalist(s) involved in combination techniques were sometimes required to circle the golem, in varying numbers of times, one way to create, the other to destroy, while performing the recitations.

If combined with meditative, paced breathing and pronunciation techniques, some of these methods would have taken the Kabbalist 36 hours or more of uninterrupted meditation to complete!

In another combination method, the mystic was required to combine the 42-letter Name of God and the Tetragrammaton in special ways, then inscribe several Names on the golems forehead to bring it to life.

An even more direct method was to purify oneself, prepare the virgin soil-and-water mixture, and pronounce the ineffable 72-part Name of God over it. However, since the exact pronunciation of this Name was kept very secret due to the extreme powers it wielded, and since a single slip in pronunciation would likely result in the death of the speaker, I suspect this method was largely unused.

By the time we arrive at the stories concerning Rabbi Loew and the golem of Prague, the method of creating the golem is greatly simplified, though perhaps for the sake of storytelling. In these accounts, the soil is prepared, and the Kabbalist(s) circle the golem-body, reciting "secret names". As they do so the soil body gradually takes on human qualities. When the body is complete, it is activated by means of placing a word or a name on its forehead or forearm, occasionally in its mouth (in one account an amulet bearing a Name of God is hung around the creature's neck). Popular "activation" word choices were adam (the first man, created out of the earth) and emet (truth). When it came time to deactivate the golem, the first letter of these words would be erased: without aleph, Adam becomes dam (blood), and without eyin, emet becomes met (dead). When the "live" word became a "dead" word, the golem would shut down. If a Name of God had been written on a parchment placed in the mouth (or occasionally under the skin) to activate the golem, it was simply removed to deactivate it.

Rabbi Loew's procedure is as follows: After asking a dream question as to how he might protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, Loew is answered in his dream with the alphabetical Hebrew phrase, "Ato Bra Golem Devuk Hachomer V'tigsar Khavel Torfe Yisroel", which means, "Create a golem out of clay who will destroy all the enemies of Israel." He told this to his son-in-law, Isaac Ha-Cohen, and his best pupil, Jecob Ha-Levi. He said he needed their help because they were born under the signs of fire and water, respectively, and Rabbi Loew himself under the sign of air; together with the soil, they would have representatives of all the elements needed to create a golem.

The three went out to the river at dawn, and "on a clay bank...measured out a man three cubits long, and...drew his face in the earth, and his arms and legs, the way a man lies on his back." Loew then instructed his pupils to circle the golem seven times each, while reciting formulas (unspecified in the story) Loew revealed to them. First the figure glowed red hot, then cooled in the image of a formed man. Next, Loew himself circled the golem seven times with a Torah. Finally, the three of them recited the activation words, Genesis 2:7: "The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being."


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