Golem: Legend of the Jewish Homunculus
One of the constant themes of Jewish esoteric thought is the belief in human power, that being made in the image of God, were we wise enough, righteous enough, enlightened enough, we would have it in our power to truly be co-creators with God. How? Well it starts with the esoteric doctrine that the Hebrew letters are the building blocks by which God created the universe (Gen. R. 4:2, 12:10; Bahir 59). It’s an imperfect analogy, but Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation) treats the Alef-Bet as if it were a kind of periodic table. Properly arranged and joined, we can use the letters as God did in constructive ways.
But the key to unlock the power of the Alef-Bet is the correct use of divine names. The proof text for this is a passage from Psalms:
By the word 'YHVH,' the heavens were made. Ps. 33:6
Now that’s not the conventional translation – your Bible probably translates it as “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made.” But the construct “of” is assumed, and the occult translation is equally valid. So if we know how to use the Tetragrammaton and other divine names of power, we too could do as God does.
What can you do with the names and letters? Well, a variety of things, but one of the most fascinating is that you can make a golem. A golem is artificial life. This idea that the wise can make life is not limited to the occult side of Judaism, it is even mentioned in the Talmud:
Rava stated: If they wish, Tzadikkim could create a world. Rava created a man and he sent it to Rabi Zeira. Rabi Zeira spoke with it and it did not respond. Rabi Zeira then stated, "You are created by my colleague, return to your dust." Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah would sit every Friday and study the Sefer Yetzirah and create a calf that has reached a third of its potential development and subsequently eat it (Sanh. 65b)
From the time of the Talmud, the golem has held a special place in the Jewish imagination. By most accounts, the golem has no free will or the power of language, though some stories have the golem utter words of warning from heaven. As a soulless entity, the golem is not required to fulfill the commandments (There are even theoretical discussions of the rights and obligations of golems under Jewish law [See Moshe Idel’s book, Golem: The Artifical Anthropoid]).
Since the animation came from using the secret name of God, the golem could be returned to inanimate earth by saying the divine name in reverse. Alternate traditions require not only the use of God’s name in the formation ritual, but also that the word emet (truth) be written on the forehead of the creature. Erasing the letter alef would leave only the word met (death), thereby slaying the golem (Sefer Gematriot). The most well-known golem story is the golem of Prague, created by the great Maharal (Jehudah Loew).
Intrigued enough to try your hand at making one? I don’t recommend it, but golem recipes do exist. Here’s a sample that appears in Idel’s book:
Whoever studies Sefer Yetzirah has to purify himself, don white robes. It is forbidden to study alone, but only in two’s and three’s, as it is written, …and the beings they made in Haran, (Gen. 12:5) and as it is written, two are better than one, (Eccl. 4:9) and as it is written, It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him (Gen. 2:18). For this reason Scripture begins with a “bet” [which has the numeric value of 2] –“Bereshit bara,” He created.
It is required that he take virgin soil from a place in the mountain where none has plowed. Then he shall knead the soil with living water and shall make a body and begin to permutate the alef-bet of 221 gates, each limb separately, each limb with the corresponding letter mentioned in Sefer Yetzirah . And the alef-bets shall be permutated first, then afterward he shall permutate with the vowel - alef, bet, gimel, dalet - and always the letter of the divine name with them, and all the alef-bet. Afterward, [all the letters with each of the vowels, as with the alef:] ah, ah, ai, ee, oh, and then e' . Afterward, the permutation of [alef with a letter from the divine name plus the vowels], alef-yud, and similarly in its entirety. Afterward he shall appoint bet and likewise gimel and each limb with the letter designated to it. He shall do this when he is pure. These are the 221 gates.
(Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah by Eleazar of Worms).