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Qualities of the Golem


Spiritual and Mental Qualities
Physical Qualities
The Golem and the Law


Spiritual and Mental Qualities of a Golem

The golem possesses no spiritual qualities, because, quite simply, it does not have a human soul. It has been given the ruah, the "breath of bones", or "animal soul", the basic life force in all living things, but possesses nothing higher. It is s typically not given a name. It is not considered a human being, nor does anyone in written accounts particularly concerned with its well-being or express any sadness at its deactivation. This isn't cruelty so much as emotional indifference. The golem is simply an animated thing, like a robot, with no real life or desires of its own. The act of creation is holy, and more important than the creature itself.

As far as mental ability is concerned, the golem seems something like a well-trained dog, only without the emotional qualities. It understands what is said to it, follows directions, and often reports to only one master (typically its chief creator).

Physical Qualities of a Golem

As demonstrated by the techniques, there are a number of common "ingredients" in the golem recipe: virgin soil, fresh water, and often a Name which is inscribed upon or carried by the creature. There are also a number of common physical qualities attributed to the creature.

Interestingly enough, precise descriptions of these creatures are often vague. Though often depicted in art as a large, murky, muddy creature, or as "humanoid", original literary sources would suggest they appeared to be human men (or in a rare case or two, a woman). The techniques described above often refer to creating a specifically human body. Rabbi Zeira is not aware that the man sent to him is Rava's creation until he tries to speak to it. Rabbi Loew and his assistants dress their golem in common clothes and present him as a servant; no one except a select few ever know what he really is.

Almost without exception, in original sources, the golem is mute, since the power of speech is connected with the soul, and only God can grant a man a soul. Occasionally I've come across exceptions in variants of the story, often in children's books, in which the creature says a few words or argues not to be deactivated, but this seems to be more of a plot device than anything else. Moshe Idel relates a talk of Ben Sira and his father Jeremiah, who create a golem which promptly asks to be destroyed and tells them how to do it, lest people believe the two mortal men are gods themselves. This is another plot device used to tell a moral and cautionary tale.

The more elaborate stories of Rabbi Loew's golem (which he calls Yosele) describe the creature as a very physical, almost animal one. He is a large man, possessed of great strength, with acute hearing and a lack of fear. He cannot speak, but comprehends basic instructions, in some cases too literally. He sleeps and can be injured.

In most golem stories (of Loew or others), the creature, empowered by the Name of God on its person, continues to grow larger and stronger from day to day, until it is either no longer practical or too dangerous to keep active. In some stories it eventually run amok. In these cases the ultimate moral is fairly clear: only God should partake in creation of this sort.

The Golem and the Law

Some medieval rabbis actually debated the hypothetical social situations which might arise if dealing with a golem were a necessity: is it considered murder when you deactivate it? Does it count as a person when you need a minyan (ten people) required to have synagogue services or for other procedures? Should its corpse be handled as a Jewish corpse, and does nonstandard handling of its corpse cause impurity?

The general consensus was that the golem is a sort of non-human entity, because it does not possess a soul, nor was it born. It is also suggested that golem animals, like the three year-old calf mentioned in the Talmud, need not be slaughtered according to kosher laws and may be eaten with milk/cheese/etc., because it was not born of a mother. (This in reference to the prohibition of eating dairy products and meat together.)

So what is it? Tofu? Parve?


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