The Legend of the Golem of Prague

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In the 16th century Prague had a large Jewish community that lived in the ghetto known as the Josefov. The Jews had lived in Prague for many years rubbing along reasonably with their Christian neighbours.  In the 16th century, however, things deteriorated and the Jewish population increasingly came under attack. The people did not know what to do. Should they leave but then where should they go? Should they stay but then how would they make a living? As the century wore on conditions grew worse and a rumour soon circulated around Josefov that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II was to expel all the Jews from his lands; or even worse have them killed. The people of Josefov despaired and turned to their Rabbi; what should they do. The Rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharel, listened to his people and then spent a night and a day in deep study. He gathered the old books and manuscripts of his fathers searching for an answer to his people’s plight. Finally in an old Chaldean book he found his answer. Taking a clean piece of parchment he write down three lines of Hebrew and as the ink dried readied himself for the work ahead. Rabbi Loew took the heavy key from the bundle that lay on the desk and lifting up a lamp and the parchment walked towards the small door at the back of his library.  The key was stiff in the lock; the door had not been opened for many years. As Rabbi Loew climbed the old stone steps that led up, up and up he remembered his great grandfather Bezalel.

One night a long time ago the people of Josefov had been threatened and then Bezalel, a great man amongst his people, had secretly slipped down to the banks of the Vltava. There he had gathered the mud of the river bank and formed it into a figure; a Golem. And with that Golem the Jews of Prague had been saved from harm.

Rabbi Loew reached the top of the stairs and opening an old wooden door he entered a room in total darkness. Lifting his lamp up high he saw the large shape in the corner. He walked forward and smiled at the sight of the Golem lying slumped on the floor. Rabbi Loew bent down and slipped the parchment or Shem into the Golem’s mouth. Then muttering a mystical prayer and speaking gently called on the Golem to wake up. The clayman shifted and his eyes opened. Rising to his feet he bowed stiffly to the Rabbi.

The Rabbi named the Golem Josef or Yossele and he walked the Josefov keeping the people from harm. The people rejoiced and felt safe with Yossele. The young men so fond of throwing stones at the Jewish women in the market were soon scared off by the strange looking Jew called Yossele. The merchants who failed to pay the debts they owed soon arrived with full purses after a visit from Yoselle. On the following Friday afternoon Rabbi Loew called the Golem to him. It was one hour before sunset and the Rabbi was mindful of the teaching that all should remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. Looking at the Golem he spoke his mystical prayer and removed the Shem from the Golem’s mouth. Instantly the clay eyes shut and the creature slumped to the floor no longer alive.

The Sabbath was celebrated and many gave thanks for the peace and the protection that now appeared to be surrounding the Josefov. On the following Sunday evening Rabbi Loew again awakened the Golem with mystical prayers and placed the Shem in his mouth. Once more Yossele walked the streets of the Josefov and once again the people went about their business with no fear. And so it continued for many weeks. But perhaps not quite as normal. Golem did more than just scare the young men perhaps he even beat them. Those who came to pay their debts did so with bruised faces and black eyes. But the people of Josefov felt happy and safe.

One Friday late in the year Rabbi Loew was called to visit a family whose son was wandering from the faith. Meeting in an inn the old couple pleaded with the Rabbi to help them. The young man was headstrong and argued fiercely with his parents. After an hour with little progress Rabbi Loew sent the Golem to fetch some food for them all. The arguments circled between them all and even the food did not seem to help. The Rabbi was disturbed by the thought of the young man leaving the faith and grew distracted. Eventually with nothing settled the company went its separate ways. The Rabbi headed for home, the old couple to their house and their son remained in the inn. As Rabbi Loew walked along he turned into a side street and realised how dim the light was. The sun was about to set it was almost Sabbath. Rabbi Loew flew to the synagogue and arrived just as the choir starting singing the Lecho Dodi; Sabbath had begun.

And then at that moment two things happened. The young man in the inn suddenly fell to the floor convulsing and crying out in agony and died in a matter of moments his lips blue with poison. And Rabbi Loew suddenly remembered the Golem.

When the choir started singing the Lecho Dodi and Sabbath began Golem realised he was still alive but with no master to control him. Like a child without a teacher he gleefully ran up and down all the stairs in the Rabbi’s house. When he tired of that game he started to smash the dishes in the kitchen and break the furniture. Next he went to the Rabbi’s bedroom and threw the furniture about. Naturally all this made a noise and soon a crowd began to gather outside the Rabbi’s house to wonder at what was going on inside. No sooner had they arrived when the rabbi’s slippers flew out of the window to be quickly followed by a coat and some trousers. Soon the crowd below were gratefully cheering at every donation thoughtfully provided by the Golem as he emptied every wardrobe and chest in his master’s bedroom. The bedroom was soon wrecked and the Golem moved on to the Rabbi’s library.

By this time Rabbi Loew had arrived home to see the happy crowd, his hats being worn by several local youths and two men fighting over his fur coat. He rushed inside and found Golem in his library his big clay fists already full of books. Rabbi Loew knew he had no time to lose and taking his chance while Golem’s hands were full he flew at the clay man and snatched the Shem from his mouth. The Golem instantly fell to the floor the books tumbling from his lifeless hands.

Rabbi Loew hurried back to the synagogue and instructed the choir to sing the Lecho Dodi again. Although this struck many as unusual they obeyed and Sabbath started afresh with no sin. On the Sunday morning, Rabbi Loew dragged the Golem up, up, up the stairs and locked him in the dark room. And there he stays asleep ready to be awakened if he is ever needed by the Jews of the Josefov.

—oOo—

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