23 février 2007

David Honigsberg, Rava's Golem (full text)

Abba Ben Rav Hamma (299-353 C.E.) was a rich merchant of Mehoza, a city on the Tigris located near the Malkha River. Better known as Rava, he was on close terms with the Persian royal house. Together with Rav Abaye (d c. 338 C.E.), Rava was one of the central pillars of Babylonian Talmudic learning. The discourses of these two scholars and commentaries which elaborate upon their theories are still taught today.

To those who study the Kabbalah, Rava is also known for his delvings into the Sefer Yetzirah and his use of its teachings to create a golem. The Sefer Yetzirah is, perhaps, the most important work of Jewish mysticism. This text is said to contain the secrets of the creative processes by which God brought the universe into being. Tradition holds that the Sefer Yetzirah was written by the patriarch Abraham and that he used the methods found within the text to create souls (Genesis 12:5).

Yet even Abraham, as righteous as he was, did not study the mysteries of this work alone. A late Midrashic text written by R. Yehuda Barceloni states that Abraham, along with his teacher Shem, the son of Noah, "..... meditated on the Sefer Yetzirah until they knew how to create a world." Both Rava and Abraham, students of the Divine creative process, were constrained by the injunction, as recorded by Barceloni: ".....take a companion, and meditate on it together, and you will understand it." Rava studied and meditated for three years with Rabbi Zera, at the end of which they produced a calf and then immediately forgot the knowledge which they had learned. After three additional years, they managed the same feat.

Rava, however, seems to have progressed to a point at which he could utilize the concepts found in Sefer Yetzirah on his own, without help from Rabbi Zera. No less an authority than the Talmud states that "Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zera. The rabbi spoke to him but he did not answer. Then he said: 'You are from the pietists. Return to your dust'." (B, Sanhedrin, 65b) The Talmud does not go into detail as to how Rava accomplished this feat, but Rashi states in his commentary that it was through study of Sefer Yetzirah.[1] This is the only instance in the Talmud which refers directly to the creation of a humanoid Golem.

That the Talmud is silent on the technique used in the creation of the golem is interesting. It is as if the creation of a golem were something so unremarkable that further discussion were unnecessary. Rava's golem is unique in Kabbalistic literature in that it was created by the meditations of one man, without harm befalling him, and not by two or more as in other cases which are explored below.[2]

Within the mystical texts relating to the creation of golems two themes consistently reappear. The first theme is that two or more practitioners, working together, are needed to create a golem, and there are many instances of this occurring. For example, every Friday Rabbis Hanina and Hoshia studied Sefer Yetzirah to create a prime calf which they ate as their Sabbath dinner (B Sanhedrin 67b). Rabbi Schlomo ben Aderet, known as The Rashba, held that it was significant that this was done on Friday, the day in which mammals were originally created (Genesis 1:24).[3]

In many cases the completion of the study of Sefer Yetzirah was marked by the ritual of creating a golem. The golem was not used for any purpose other than to demonstrate that the Sefer Yetzirah had been mastered, and the golem was de-constructed upon its completion. Rabbi Loew, the Maharal of Prague, by contrast, together with his son-in- law, R. Isaaac ha-Kohen and his disciple, Rabbi Ya'aqov Sason ha- Levi created a golem and successfully saved the Jews of Prague from blood libel. This is a rare instance of a golem being created with a specific purpose other than proof of mastery of the Sefer Yetzirah.

Golems can be created using many different methods, according to the sources. Some state that it is accomplished through combinations of letters. These combinations are called "gates," the number of gates differing according to the various Kabbalistic schools, and ranging in number from 231 to as many as 271, depending upon how the letters are to be combined.[4] Other schools taught that a golem was created through the utterance of the Divine Names. The Talmud records that there are 12, 42, and even 72 letter names of God which might have been used for this purpose.[5] Many schools, such as the Hasidim, held that the Hebrew word 'emet [truth] should be inscribed upon the forehead of the golem. Among a number of methods of de-constructing a golem, a common one was the erasure of aleph, the first letter of 'emet. This leaves the word met [dead] which destroys the golem.

The use of gates and the pronunciation of the Divine names are both magic of the highest sort. Magical practices are forbidden in the Hebrew Bible, but the Talmud allows "activities like those of Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Hoshia" (B Sanhedrin, 67B). It is because the magic involved is of a holy nature (there being nothing holier than the name of God) that the issue of purity repeatedly arises. Those who participate must be ritually clean, the robes they wear must be pure white, the clay and the water used must be pure, the room clean.

The purity of the materials is important, but not as critical as the purity of purpose of those who would explore the secrets of the Sefer Yetzirah. This is because the creation of a golem can be dangerous to the creator. Therefore, the second theme which is stressed is the purity of purpose with which the task must be approached. A golem cannot be created for the purpose of evil (having no human soul, any sin the golem commits is a sin of the creator, not the creation). With the exception of Rava's solitary achievement, solo attempts at golem creation call into question the practitioner' s purity of purpose and, inevitably, bring harm to that person. It is also dangerous to use a golem for simple, mundane tasks, as will be seen.

The intent, in most cases, is to attain a greater understanding of the creative process. In some cases, such as Rabbi Loew's famous golem, the intent is the protection of a community.

Sometimes a golem is even used in order to avoid a transgression. [6] No matter how pure the purpose, however, the creation itself could not be perfect. In Tractate Sanhedrin 65B we read that Rava himself said, "if the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, 'your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God'." The imperfection in all golem accounts save one is the muteness of the golem. It is because of this imperfection that Rav Zera was able to distinguish Rava's golem for what it was and to dismiss it as he did.

The Maharal commented in his Chidushei Agados that when Rava would purify himself and meditate on Sefer Yetzirah, concentrating intensely on the different Names of God, he would thereby cleave very closely to God and be able at such moments to create a person. But this person would have no power of speech for that far was Rava's energy not able to extend itself..... For he was a human being himself; and how would it then be possible for him to create a complete person just like himself? (II: 166).

A golem will always be somewhat less than human.

Over two hundred years before the Maharal was born, the great Spanish mystic, Abraham Abulafia, also commented on the concept of purity of purpose. Abulafia held that nothing was actually created when a golem was formed, believing that the creation of a golem was a meditative exercise, not a physical one. Even so, he wrote in Hayyei ha-'Olam ha-Ba' that those who pursue "..... the lore of the name in order to operate thereby corporeal issues.....even if he express by his mouth or things in his heart that he recites the name for the glory of God, it is not so and.....this man is wicked and a sinner, who defiles the name of God." (Folio 80a-80b)
Abulafia's words are strong reminders that it is not enough to say or feel that the task undertaken is a holy one. The purity of purpose must be "soul deep." Therefore, it does not matter whether a golem is to be used for evil purposes. Anything less than a perfect purpose is not enough.

Abulafia was one of the mystics who taught that a golem is created through the pronunciation of the Divine Name. He used the 72-letter name of God in his school of meditation, each syllable corresponding to a particular limb or organ in the golem. To highlight the dangers of this exercise, he further wrote that the practitioner must be careful not to mispronounce anything. If so, harm will befall not the creation but the creator. [7]

Various tales demonstrate the danger to the creator when purity of purpose is questionable. Furthermore, the vast majority of these accounts tell of golems created by individuals, thus highlighting the importance of pure purpose in combination with a partner. The Talmud says that "two scholars sharpen each other's minds in the study of the law" (B Shabbat 63a). The tractate goes on to further state that the scholars will not prosper nor rise to greatness "if their studies are not sincerely motivated" and that this is also so "if they become conceited [because of their knowledge]."

A tale of the misuse of a golem is told by Jakob Grimm in his Journal for Hermits, written in 1808. Here, the golem is used as nothing more than a house servant:

[E]very day he gains weight and becomes somewhat larger and stronger than all the others in the house, regardless of how little he was to begin with. But one man's golem once grew so tall, and he heedlessly let him keep on growing so long that he could no longer reach his forehead. In terror he ordered the servant to take off his boots, thinking that when he bent down he could reach his forehead. So it happened, and the first letter was successfully erased, but the whole heap of clay fell on the Jew and crushed him.

Even one as great as the Maharal was an inadvertent victim when his golem was used for a mundane task. Though he had left instructions with his wife, Perele, that Yoselle the Mute was to be left alone, she took it upon herself to put him to work. She showed him how to draw water and pour it into a barrel, then left him to complete the job without further supervision. Yoselle returned time and again to the barrel, never stopping, even after the barrel began to overflow. Still he continued, until the Maharal's house was flooded. Upon arriving home, R. Loew put a stop to Yossele's work and told Perele that she should never again use Yossele for household tasks. Though Perele did not create the golem herself, she still intended to use it for mundane work. Here again, the lack of purity of purpose causes disaster.

If the above story seems familiar, it is most likely due to the variation which appears in the classic animated film, Fantasia. In "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment, Mickey Mouse creates a "golem" by animating a broom to do his work for him (much as Perele used Yossele to lighten her own chores). After showing the broom how to draw water and pour it into a barrel, Mickey falls asleep, only to waken to an impending flood. Breaking the broom into pieces only exacerbates the situation and soon the sorcerer's workshop is in danger of being inundated by an army of water-toting brooms. The sorcerer returns just in time and, like Rabbi Loew, puts a stop to the proceedings. As the scene concludes, the viewer is sure that Mickey has learned a valuable lesson and will think twice before casting that particular spell again. This scene inFantasia combines both of the most dangerous elements of golem creation. Mickey creates his golem single-handedly and intends to use his creation so that he can escape an arduous chore -- hardly what would be considered a pure purpose.

Nowhere are the dangers of creation more poignantly elaborated on than in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The parallels between Victor's creation and the golem are apparent in such things as their size, strength, and lack of speech, although Victor's creation does have the ability to learn language and speaks eloquently to Victor upon meeting him on the Mer de Glace.

Grimm's Journal for Hermits was written only eight years before Frankenstein was published. It is well-known that Shelley was inspired to write her tale after trading German ghost stories at the home of Byron. It is certainly possible that the stories included tales of golems, which were popular at that time.[8] If Frankenstein is read with an eye towards Kabbalistic parallels, the impending tragedy can be anticipated. For, in the Kabbalistic sense, Victor Frankenstein desires to create for all the wrong reasons: "my enquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world (86)." Certainly, these are not the words of someone who wishes to understand the means by which God is able to create. Nor as these, which soon follow: "soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose..... I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation (96)." According to this Kabbalistic view, very few are qualified to understand the "deepest mysteries of creation." He who would discover these profound mysteries for reasons of pride and to prove to others -- and not just to himself -- that creation can be understood, is not ready to embark on a course of meditation, study and discovery.

Victor's prideful ambition is revealed as his overriding motivation when he states that "a new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent creatures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs" (104). Compare these words with those spoken by the golem created by Jeremiah and his son, Ben Sirah, in an account attributed to Judah ben Bathyra. Upon its creation, the golem had upon its forehead the phrase "YHVH Elohim 'Emet" [God is truth]. With a knife he erased the aleph to leave the phrase "YHVH Elohim Met" [God is dead] saying that "God has made you [Jeremiah and Ben Sirah] in His image and in His shape and form. But now that you have created a man.....people will say: There is no God beside these two!" After following the instructions given by the golem and de-constructing it, Jeremiah proclaims that "we should study these things only in order to know the power and omnipotence of the Creator. . . but not in order really to practice them." (manuscript, Halberstam 44 folio 7b; quoted from Scholem, Kabbalah, 80). [9]

Knowledge alone is not what Victor has in mind. He wants his creation to thank, adore, bless and, perhaps, worship him in his rightful place as its Creator. This attitude is precisely the opposite of that of one who studies Sefer Yetzirah with pure intent. The knowledge it contains is nothing if not humbling. It took Rava and Zera three years of study to be able to create a calf, while the world itself was created in a mere fragment of that time. Yet Victor admits "[my] imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man" (101). It is only after he succeeds that he realizes the unholy nature of what he has done. Much later he states that "During my first experiment, a kind of enthusiastic frenzy had blinded me to the horror of my employment" (209).

Instead of de-constructing his creation he flees and thereby proves the truth of the Kabbalistic warning harm befalls the creator, not the creation. While Victor does not suffer physical harm at the hands of his creation, he is affected by his constant self-incrimination and his horror at what he has done. Additionally, and most tragically, he loses everybody whom he holds dear William, Justine, Cerval and Elizabeth as a direct result his act of creation. Ultimately, his failed efforts to destroy the creature, an act he realizes should have been performed years earlier, kill him.

His creation acknowledges his own part of this. Speaking over the corpse of Victor Frankenstein the creature admits that it is he "who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst" (261). Furthermore, the ties between Frankenstein and golem literature are strengthened when the creature refers to himself as Victor's Adam. The writers of the Talmud held that Adam was actually a golem when he was first formed. As stated in B. Sanhedrin 38b during the process of his creation, "in the second hour, [Adam] became a golem..... During the third hour, his limbs were stretched out. In the fourth hour, the soul was cast into him....."
At the end of his life, Victor's last words to Walton show that he has truly come to the realization that his motivation to create was not a proper one. Victor tells Walton to "Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition. (260)." Victor Frankenstein thus realizes too late that what he has accomplished in his "fit of enthusiastic madness" is an unholy act. It is only later, looking back, that he voices a thought which echoes the Kabbalistic and Talmudic precepts which have been passed down for generations.

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then their study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting of the human mind (103).

Had Victor dug deeper during his studies of Agrippa, Magnus and Paracelsus, he might have realized early on that what he sought to undertake could only bring him ill. It is interesting to speculate upon how matters might have differed had he heard a heavenly voice, as Jeremiah had, instructing him to "take a companion." Perhaps he then would have turned his attention, as Rava did, towards attaining a more perfect understanding of the wonders of God's, not Nature's, creative process.


1. During a presentation on the subject of golems, in which I participated with my own study partner, Michael Weisberg, an audience member suggested that Rava's golem might have been akin to a "lab prank" which Rava sent to R. Zera to demonstrate his individual mastery ofSefer Yetzirah. Though not an entirely satisfactory explanation, to date I have heard none better to explain why Rava created his golem without the help of R. Zera.

2. See Moshe Idel for a more detailed discussion of Solomon ibn Gabriel's golem, also created single-handedly. According to Idel states that ibn Gabriel was not a magician but a technician. (233-34)

3. It is interesting to note that these two rabbis were able to create a calf every Friday without forgetting the knowledge, while Rava and R. Zera had to study for three years to be able to do so and three additional years to create their second calf.

4. The gates were formed by combining every letter of the Hebrew alphabet to every other letter. The analogy in the Roman alphabet would be to begin with AB, AC, AD, AE, and so on, until reaching ZV, ZW, ZX, ZY. In most systems of gates, letters are not combined with themselves.

5. See Adin Steinsaltz's The Essential Talmud for further comments on the Divine Names. (213-14)

6. The Kabbalists speculated that the calf that Abraham served to his angelic guests was created through the use of Sefer Yetzirah. This would place the calf beyond the law and make it parve [neutral]. In this way, Abraham would avoid the sin of serving milk with meat.

7. Abulafia stated that, if a syllable were mispronounced, the organ or limb to which it corresponded would be displaced upon or within the body of the creator.

8. Specifically, stories of destructive golems were prevalent in Shelley's time, such as Johann Schmidt's report that golems ". . . inflict great damage upon the person of their master. . . " (Feuriger Drachen Gifft und Wutiger Otten Gall [1682]; quoted from Winkler 72).

9. R. Isaac ben Samuel of Acre, a Kabbalist of the early 13th century stated that Jeremiah and Ben Sirah "attained a divine perfection [so as] to create. . . a speaking, intellective being." (Sassoon manuscript 919, p. 217; Cambridge manuscript, Genizah, TS, K12,4 p.22; quoted from Idel, 177).


Idel, Moshe. Golem: Jewish Magical and Mystical Traditions On the Artificial Anthropoid. NY: SUNY P, 1990

Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah in Theory and Practice. NY: Samuel Weiser., 1990

Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Jerusalem Ltd., 1974

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. London: Penguin Books, 1985

Steinsaltz, Adin. The Essential Talmud. NY: Bantam, 1976

Winkler, Gershon. The Golem of Prague. NY: The Judaica P, 1980

(originally published in the Summer '96 issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts)

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