17 April 2023

Is the Golem still hiding
in Prague in the attic of
the Old-New Synagogue?

Figures of the Golem on a stall near the Old-New Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I was recalling on Saturday the story of the statue of Mendelssohn on the Rudolfinum in Prague, and how it is said to have been saved by the Golem from destruction by the Nazis (see HERE.

The Golem is second only to Franz Kafka among the trinkets and souvenirs in the tourist shops in the Old Town in Prague.

The Golem of Prague is difficult to describe. He is to be seen everywhere, yet he is said to be hidden in the rafters of a synagogue. He lacks wisdom and intelligence, yet he is part of kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. He has no mind of his own, yet everyone seeks him out.

You are unlikely to have heard of him if you are unaware of Jewish folklore or the legends of Prague. Yet souvenir statues of him are on sale throughout the Jewish Quarter and the Old Town.

Is he a cross between the Gingerbread Man and Frankenstein’s monster?

He was never a person, yet he is one of the most famous personalities to have walked the streets of Prague.

Indeed, you may ask, did he ever exist?

During the reign of the Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel is said to have been endowed with supernatural gifts that he combined with the four elements: fire and water were represented by his assistants, air was represented by the rabbi himself, and earth was found in the Golem. He brought these together bring to life the Golem, a sculpture moulded from the mud of the riverbed in Prague.

The story of the Golem is used to promote the best-known kosher restaurant in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Rabbi Loew created the Golem according to the kabbalah, which specified he should be made of clay from the banks of the Vltava River. Following the prescribed rituals, the giant Golem was created, and came to life when his maker recited special incantations in Hebrew.

After the incantations, the Golem awoke but would do the biddings only of his maker, which included protecting the Jews of the Ghetto. Rabbi Loew placed the Hebrew word אֱמֶת (emet, ‘truth’) on the Golem’s forehead.

His purpose in life was to protect the Jews of Prague against anti-Semitic violence. To carry out his task, his master gave him a special necklace, made of deer skin and decorated with mystic signs, that rendered the Golem invisible. The Golem, who was called Josef and known as Yossele, patrolled the ghetto. It is said he could make himself invisible and call up spirits from the dead.

At first, the Golem was indistinguishable from ordinary people. He was diligent and hard-working, helping the Rabbi in his household and in the synagogue. The only thing he lacked was the ability to speak. But the Golem was regarded as a dumb klutz because he was literal-minded, could not speak and had no sechel or intellect.

He was large and shapeless, and he lived with a clay tablet in his mouth that was removed on Saturday because it was the Sabbath.

But there is a dark side to the legend. As the Golem grew stronger with each incantation, he also grew increasingly violent and is said to have gone on a murderous rampage. Some say this was due to a broken heart, but did he ever have a heart?

The Golem has given his name to a restaurant beside the Maisel Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Golem grew stronger and stronger. Instead of heroic deeds, he became more-and-more uncontrollable and destructive. Rabbi Loew was promised that anti-Semitic violence would end in Prague once he destroyed the Golem.

One day, the Golem was found uprooting trees and destroying the rabbi’s home while the rabbi was in the synagogue singing Psalm 92. The rabbi rushed out to remove the tablet from the Golem’s mouth. Fearing the Golem could fall into the wrong hands, Rabbi Loew smeared clay on the Golem’s forehead, turning emet into met, so that the Hebrew word for truth became the Hebrew word for death and life was taken out of the giant’s body.

Rabbi Loew put him to rest in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue. The rabbi then returned and continued to sing Psalm 92 … and so, it is said, the Old-New Synagogue in Prague is the only place in the world where this psalm is sung twice.

Rabbi Loew died in September 1609, at almost 100. A Jewish mystic and philosopher who was a leading scholar of the Talmud and kabbalah and wrote at least 22 books, he was known widely as the Maharal, a great sage.

The Golem is said to have been confined to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

For hundreds of years, entry to the attic of the Old-New Synagogue was barred and the stairs to the attic were removed. Some say, however, that Rabbi Loew’s son brought the Golem back to life, and may still be protecting Prague today.

During World War II, it was rumoured that Nazi soldiers broke into the synagogue, and Rabbi Loew’s Golem ripped them apart, limb by limb.

They say the Golem, with his glowing eyes and supernatural powers, is lurking once again in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, waiting to be called forth in times of crisis. Another rumour says that in the 1990s, the synagogue’s shamash or attendant, a man called Josef who shared the Golem’s first name, had been telling visitors he was the Golem’s great-grandson.

The synagogue receives dozens of requests each year for visits to the Golem’s attic lair, but each request is politely declined.

On our last day in Prague, before Shabbat began on Friday evening, we visited the Old-New Synagogue, without climbing to the attic, and then visited the Old Jewish Cemetery and Rabbi Loew’s grave. There, following Jewish custom, I placed some stones and a prayer on paper on his grave.

Later in the afternoon, we had lunch in the Golem restaurant, beside the Maisel Synagogue too.

Although I have wandered through the Jewish Quarter by day and by night, I have yet to see or meet the Golem.

The grave of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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