Jewish Studies Golem
Maya Barzilai
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0179


The term “golem” refers to several distinct, albeit overlapping, forms of reflection on artificial creation: Talmudic commentaries that compare Adam, the first human, to a golem at the stage prior to his body’s reception of a soul or breath; mystical rituals of the medieval period that describe the creation and animation of a clay anthropoid; modern literary folktales that portray the formation and uses of a clay servant and protector. The term “golem” appears only once in the Bible, in Psalm 139, used in the possessive form, “my golem” (golmi) and possibly indicating a formless entity or an embryo. The modern term “golem” stems from a corpus of narratives composed by Jewish and Christian European authors and recorded starting in the 17th century. The folkloric golem needs to be distinguished from the golem of Jewish mystical and philosophical texts, since these latter medieval works include ritual formulas and techniques for mystical activities, rather than narratives concerning Jewish creators and communities. Mystical writings on the golem often constitute commentaries on the ancient Sefer yetsira (The Book of Creation), a work that does not mention the golem but includes discussions of creation through the Hebrew alphabet. The modern golem has been commonly imagined as a clay figure with larger-than-human proportions and strength. Modern golem tales have also borrowed from ancient sources the motif of the golem’s muteness, which indicates that the clay creature does not possess human intelligence even when it understands orders. The golem’s animation has largely proceeded according to one of two methods: a rabbi engraves the Hebrew word for truth, emet, on its forehead, or else places in its mouth a parchment containing the ineffable Hebrew name for God, Ha-shem ha-meforash. Pursuant to animation, the golem traditionally works for the rabbi, functioning as a beadle, or, in 20th-century stories, as a protector of the ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. Deanimation can take several forms as well: through the erasure of the letter aleph, emet becomes met (dead); the parchment with the ineffable name can be removed from the golem; a ritual can be performed, reversing the direction of animation and returning the clay figure to dust. In the Prague narratives that draw on the historical figure of the 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, the golem needs to rest on the Sabbath and when the rabbi forgets to remove the animating formula on the Sabbath eve the golem runs amok and begins to destroy the ghetto until it is subdued. Modern adaptations of the golem story, drawing on these different versions, have appeared across a wide range of cultures, languages, and media, including Czech, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish literature, theater, opera, cinema, comics, and television. The golem has inspired literary adaptations for children and young adults and has also become a figure in contemporary video games such as Minecraft and Assassin’s Creed.

General Overviews

The corpus of modern golem adaptations spans a wide range of languages, genres, and media. Currently, there exists no single comprehensive overview of this topic. As early as the 1930s, German scholars recognized the prevalence of modern retellings: Held 1927 and Rosenfeld 1934 were the first book-length studies to examine how the golem motif developed from Talmudic and Kabbalistic sources all the way to modern narratives, focusing on German literature. Mayer 1975 surveys 19th- and 20th-century poetry, drama, and novels. Goldsmith 1981 focuses on the period of 1909 to 1980, discussing classical golem texts originally written in English, Yiddish, and German. Gelbin 2011 provides the most historically extensive study of modern golem adaptations, starting with German literature around 1808 and arriving at global culture at the millennial turn. Barzilai 2016 takes a comparative approach to the golem materials, including case studies in 20th-century German, American, and Israeli literary and visual cultures. Following two major museum exhibits, extensive catalogues appeared, edited by Bilski 1988 and Bilski and Lüdicke 2016. These catalogues offer general overviews on the golem topic as well as reproductions of visual art.

  • Barzilai, Maya. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters. New York: NYU Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1bj4s4n

    This comparative study encompasses 20th-century German-, Yiddish-, Hebrew-, and English-language sources (literary, visual, and journalistic), considering the golem as both a character within narrative texts and as a malleable cultural metaphor. The book focuses on works that associate the golem with modern warfare and its destructive technologies.

  • Bilski, Emily D. Golem! Danger, Deliverance and Art. New York: Jewish Museum, 1988.

    This catalogue pulls together several strands of scholarship: religion-studies research on mystical golems, art-historical work on visual golem representations, and film scholarship on Paul Wegener’s golem trilogy. It also includes a wide range of illustrations. The exhibit and its catalogue inspired American writers and artists who adapted the golem narrative in the 1990s.

  • Bilski, Emily, and Martina Lüdicke. Golem. Bielefeld, Germany: Kerber Verlag, 2016.

    In German. This catalogue, based on the 2016 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, includes a range of brief essays and visual reproductions, exploring the significance of the golem in Jewish mysticism and modern art through motifs such as doubling, metamorphosis, rebellion, animation, and horror. The catalogue has a strong modern orientation, discussing robotics, computers, comics, and video games.

  • Gelbin, Cathy M. The Golem Returns: From German Romantic Literature to Global Jewish Culture, 1808–2008. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

    An argument-driven and highly informative study of the golem as a site of negotiation over the image of the modern Jew. Focusing primarily on German-language culture, the book culminates with a discussion of 20th-century works produced in the United States, Europe, and Israel.

  • Goldsmith, Arnold. The Golem Remembered, 1909–1980: Variations of a Jewish Legend. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981.

    The first English-language study of modern golem adaptations that included in its scope literary works written originally in English, Yiddish, and German. Goldsmith also devotes a chapter to popular culture. The volume has become dated in view of recent studies that provide more in-depth historical and cultural frameworks for interpretation.

  • Held, Hans Ludwig. Das Gespenst des Golem: eine Studie aus der hebräischen Mystik, mit einem Exkurs über das Wesen des Doppelgängers. München: Allgemeine Verlagsanstalt, 1927.

    In German. Sparked by Austrian author Gustav Meyrink’s use of Jewish mysticism in Der Golem (1915), this study was the first to trace the development of the Jewish golem motif from discussions of Adam’s creation to modern German literature.

  • Mayer, Sigrid. Golem: Die literarische Rezeption eines Stoffes. Frankfurt: Herbert Lang, 1975.

    In German. This book discusses literary materials (poetry, drama, and prose fiction) through the lens of central motifs in the golem narrative (e.g., creator-golem reversals). Drawing on texts originally written in German, Yiddish, Spanish, and English, this comparative volume focuses on narrative plots and literary motifs.

  • Rosenfeld, Beate. Die Golemsage und ihre Verwertung in der deutschen Literatur. Breslau, Germany: Hans Priebatsch Verlag, 1934.

    In German. Rosenfeld’s influential volume devotes its first section to both Jewish and Christian golem sources, ranging from antiquity to the 17th century. The majority of the study surveys German literature from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries.

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