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)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (9) 17 April 2023

The Cathedral of Agios Minas in Iraklion … the seat of the Archbishop of Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the second week of Easter, and yesterday (16 April 2023) was Easter Day in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.

Before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

As this is Easter Week in the Orthodox Church, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on an Orthodox church in Crete;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Agios Minas Cathedral, Iraklion:

The Cathedral of Agios Minas (῾Ιερός Μητροπολιτικός Ναός ῾Αγίου Μηνᾶ) in Iraklion is the seat of the Archbishop of Crete.

Saint Minas the martyr and wonder-worker (285-309), is the patron saint and protector of Iraklion, the capital of Crete. His feast day on 11 November is a public holiday in Crete.

This is the largest cathedral or church in Crete, and one of the largest in Greece. It was dedicated 128 years ago.

The site of the cathedral was once the garden of a local Turk. The architect, Athanassios Moussis, was also the architect of the Church of Aghios Titos in Iraklion.

The cathedral was built over time, from 1862 to 1895, but building work was interrupted during the Cretan Revolution in 1866-1869. Building work resumed in 1883, and the cathedral was completed in 1895.

The church has a cruciform shape with a central dome. The external maximum dimensions are 43.20 metres long and 29.50 wide. Inside, this is a three-aisle basilica. The right aisle is dedicated to Saint Titos and the left one to the Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete.

There are two bell towers, one in the north-east corner and the other in the south-east corner.

The smaller, older church of Agios Minas and Pantanassa stands beside the cathedral. This church is known to have existed in the Venetian period. An interesting feature is a Gothic window in the north aisle, survives today. After the Turkish occupation of Crete, the church fell into disuse until 1735, when it was refurbished as the metropolitan church or cathedral of Iraklion.

The church had two aisles roofed with two arches. The north aisle is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the south aisle to Saint Minas. The carved, wooden iconostasis or icon screen on the north aisle is gold plated. Many of the icons are the work of 18th century Cretan icon painters.

This church is connected with one of the major atrocities in the history Crete, over 200 years ago. Six bishops of Crete and many priests and lay people from Iraklion were slaughtered by Turks in the ‘Little Church of Saint Minas’ on 24 June 1821. Five years later, tradition recalls, on Easter Day 18 April 1826, while the Christians of Iraklion were in church, a Muslim mob plotted a mass murder. However, an aged officer on horseback, resembling their fiercest warrior, Ayan Agha, intervened, calming the mob and dispersing them.

Why did a well-known Turkish persecutor of the Christians act as their protector at the last moment? The Christians attributed the appearance of the rider to a miraculous intervention by Saint Minas, saying it was the saint and not Ayan Agha, who appeared to the Turks.

Ever since, Saint Minas has been depicted in icons as a Roman general on horseback and honoured as the patron saint of Iraklion.

The church was damaged by an earthquake in 1856, and was restored and renovated a year later. However, by the mid-19th century, it was too small to serve as a cathedral for the growing Christian community in Iraklion.

Saint Minas and the church feature in a number of books by Nikos Kazantzakis, including Report to Greco, in which he writes, ‘whenever the Turks sharpened their knives and prepared to fall upon the Christians, Saint Minas sprang from his icon once more in order to protect the citizens of Megalo Kastro (Iraklion) ... For the Kastrians (the people of Iraklion), Saint Minas was not simply holy, he was their captain. They called him Captain Minas and secretly brought him their arms to be blessed.’

Inside the cathedral in Iraklion, one of the largest in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 3: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3 Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

The Cathedral of Saint Minas reflected in modern buildings surrounding the square (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Safeguarding the Integrity of Creation.’ This theme was introduced yesterday by USPG’s Regional Manager for East Asia, Oceania and Europe, Rebecca Boardman, who reflected on ways to get the climate justice conversation started, in the light of this week’s International Earth Day.

The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (17 April 2023) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for our church communities. May they work together to care for the environment locally and globally, and be beacons of hope for climate justice.


Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him:
deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The small Church of Agios Minas stands beside the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org