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1 Adar 5766 - March 1, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Golem of Prague — Fact or Fiction?

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

The Maharal's Greatest Feat

HaRav Meir Arik zt'l was once asked whether the Maharal of Prague really made a golem. He replied that he didn't know the answer to the question but that the Maharal's having produced a talmid like the Tosafos Yom Tov was a far greater feat! (Zer Zahav, p. 40, Bilgoray 5693 (1933)

Whether or not the Maharal ever made a golem remains unclear. Doubt arises mainly from the failure of the principal historians of the times to mention a word about the subject. In his forthcoming book, Rabbi Yitzchok Nachman Eshkoli (author of Tzaar Baalei Chaim Behalochoh Uve'agoddoh) discusses the nature and laws governing creatures — such as a golem — created according to Sefer Yetziroh. His new book contains many fresh details about the golem story and this article presents his main conclusions about the episode.

In recent years, controversy has once again raged over the veracity of stories that have been published about the Maharal's creation of a golem. Irrespective of the accuracy of these particular tales, it is clear that many holy tzaddikim of previous generations did possess knowledge of the secrets governing the creation of men and animals, based on Sefer Yetziroh.

Secrets of Sefer Yetziroh

Several seforim contain allusions to this type of creation. The gemora mentions the creation of a man and a calf in this way (Sanhedrin 65, 67). Additional, reliable sources attest to other tzaddikim who have done so. Sefer Yetziroh, whose authorship is ascribed to Avrohom Ovinu, discusses amongst other things the letters of the alef-beis and their various combinations through which our world and its contents were created. Rashi tells us, " `G-d understood its path [i.e. of Torah wisdom] and knew where its place is' (Iyov 28:23) — He looked into it and created the world through its letters; in their order and balance He formed every creature, as is written in the secret of Sefer Yetziroh."

On the same topic the Levush (quoted by the Shach on Yoreh Dei'ah 179:15, se'if katan 18) writes, "Hashem yisborach invested them [i.e. the various holy Names] with power so that men of piety and prophets could act through them. Whoever uses them displays the greatness and might of Hashem yisborach Shemo, so long as he does so in holiness and purity and for the sake of sanctifying Hashem or for the sake of a great mitzvah."

Before discussing the golem of Prague, the term golem deserves a word or two of explanation. In the language of Chazal and the early authorities it denotes something existing in a primary, basic and incomplete form (see Rambam Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah, perek 4).

In our context it refers to the form of Odom Horishon which was composed of earth and water before being invested with a neshomoh and with vitality. Such a creature became known as a golem because a human created through Sefer Yetziroh possesses no neshomoh (and for that reason cannot speak).

When Hakodosh Boruch Hu created man, He first gathered earth from all corners of the globe (Sanhedrin 38) and formed a golem in the shape of a human being. Then He breathed a neshomoh into him — "and He blew a soul of life into his nostrils" (Bereishis 2:7); see also Pesikta Rabbosi, perek 23).

When creating the animals, Hakodosh Boruch Hu also first formed their bodies from earth and then invested them with life. The Or HaChaim writes (Bereishis 2:5), "It also tells us that the wild animals were created, as the posuk says, `And Hashem formed . . . all the wild animals' but He prepared a golem from earth as He did with the man's form."

In extreme eventualities, tzaddikim are also permitted to create men and animals. The esoteric secrets governing these processes were recorded in cryptic form by Avrohom Ovinu in Sefer Yetziroh and conveyed to select individuals from generation to generation.

Discussed by the Poskim

Although a golem created by man using combinations of Hashem's holy Names that are brought in Sefer Yetziroh has a human appearance, he differs from other men in both his essence and his characteristics. The poskim therefore discuss whether the same halochos that apply to people apply to a golem as well.

Halachic literature contains scores of questions and analyses concerning creatures made through Sefer Yetziroh. For example, whether it is permitted to create them on Shabbos is discussed. The Beis Yosef permits their creation (Yoreh Deah 179:15; see the Shach ibid. who cites the relevant conditions). It is worthwhile noting that all the halachos that the Beis Yosef brings in the Shulchan Oruch have practical application nowadays; he doesn't deal with halochos that will only apply after Moshiach comes.

The law of an animal created through Sefer Yetziroh is mentioned in Pischei Teshuvoh (Yore Deah 62, se'if katan 2). Darchei Teshuvoh discusses whether a man created in this way may slaughter an animal while supervised by others (Yore Deah 7:11). Moreover, although in Mishnah Berurah the Chofetz Chaim zt'l usually confines himself to discussing halachos that are relevant in ordinary day to day life, he surprisingly saw fit to include a reference to Teshuvos Chacham Tzvi (siman 93) which discusses whether a golem can make up a minyan (see Mishnah Berurah 55, se'if katan 4).

HaRav Osher Weiss (Minchas Osher, vol. II, siman 9) quotes Rabbi Aryeh Leib Hacohen zt'l, the Chofetz Chaim's son, who asked his father why he mentioned this question which hardly has practical application. His father replied that he had mentioned it, "in order to reinforce simple faith within the hearts of bnei Yisroel, so that they should know that such things existed, even in the latter generations, which is wondrous." (I haven't found where this is written.)

The Chazon Ish (Yore Deah 116:1) writes that such a creature does not have the same claims as normal people and he also discusses the definition of an animal created in such a way (ibid. 110:4). Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 55, se'if katan 12) cites further sources that deal with these matters. In his sefer Nachal Eison, HaRav Chaim Kanievsky discusses whether such a calf can be used for the mitzvah of eglah arufoh (siman 8:5, se'if katan 5).

Fact or Fiction?

It is unclear whether or not the Maharal ever made a golem. The main ground for doubt is the fact that none of the major historians of those times breathe a word on the subject. How, for example, could the famous historian HaRav Dovid Gans, author of Tzemach Dovid (Prague, 5352 [1592]) have entirely omitted to mention it or even to allude to it? He lived in Prague at the time and was in fact a talmid of the Maharal. (Reb Dovid was born in 5301 [1541] and was niftar in Prague on the fifth of Elul 5373 [1613], approximately four years after the Maharal's petiroh.)

How did the Chido zt'l, fail to document the episode in his sefer, Sheim Hagedolim, which recounts the praises of gedolei Yisroel throughout the generations? In the same sefer he doesn't omit to mention that Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem zt'l, the rov of Chelm, created a man using Sefer Yetziroh.

The dayan HaRav Meir Pereles of Prague was a relative of the Maharal's who recorded all his kinsman's biographical information in a Megillas Yuchsin (genealogical record), without mentioning a word about the golem. (Rav Meir wrote the Megillas Yuchsin approximately one hundred years after the Maharal's petiroh, "at the request of the elder Rav Yeshayohu Katz, brother of the great gaon HaRav Naftali Katz, author of Semichas Zekeinim" who were grandsons of the Maharal. Only the editor of the 5649 (1891) edition of Megillas Yuchsin mentions that the Maharal made a golem. Neither is there any mention of the golem on the Maharal's gravestone.

Neither Korei Hadoros (by Rabbi David Konforto zt'l) nor Seder Hadoros (by Rav Yechiel Halperin zt'l) contain the slightest hint of the Maharal's having created a golem.

Amazingly, the first written testimony to the episode only appears 230 or 240 years after the Maharal's petiroh. The first stories about the golem of Prague appeared in a book written in German in 5612 (1852). The story was briefly mentioned fifteen years earlier, in 5597 (1837), but that writer also expresses reservations about its veracity.

Don't all these silences on the part of contemporaries and others who would be expected to share such information suggest that the story was invented at some stage, or alternatively, that it was mistakenly attributed to the Maharal while in fact it was his talmid HaRav Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm who made a golem (though the Maharal might have played a part)?

No Evidence Whatsoever

Writing in Yeshurun (vol. II, pg. 632, end of note 24), Rav Shlomo Shprecher makes the following remarks: "In 5643 (1883) extensive renovations were carried out on the Alteneu Shul in Prague. Every nook and cranny, every room and attic, was searched but not the slightest trace of a golem was found. The real golem, as far as can be pieced together from reliable sources, was the handiwork of Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem, av beis din of Chelm, who was a talmid of the Maharal. The rov was switched with the talmid, with confusion resulting."

A similar conclusion appears at the end of the first volume of Mishnah Berurah Hamenukad (published by Leshem) which contains the Chazon Ish's rulings. The editor writes, "The account of the Maharal's creation of a golem according to Sefer Yetziroh is known (although it is unclear whether the story is actually true). See in the sefer, Imrei Yosef (Spinka) on the festivals, the copy of a letter in which the Maharal of Prague was asked what the laws of a golem are regarding the Torah's mitzvos. Is he obligated or not? I long ago clarified with one of the rebbes of the Spinka dynasty that the entire letter is a fabrication. It was dipped into tea essence [to discolor the paper] and buried in the ground so that it would appear that the letter was from the time of the Maharal. There are many other proofs that the entire account is incorrect, with the exception of what is brought in sefer Chacham Tzvi, that his grandfather (Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem) created a golem. The name Maharal [Moreinu HaRav Luria] was confused with Mahar"al [Moreinu HaRav Eliyahu]. Although I was told by someone who was in Prague, where the story has wide currency, that the ezras noshim is closed in the room where the golem supposedly is, this is not the place for a longer discussion."

Greatness of the Maharal

The Maharal's immense Torah greatness is beyond any question and several sources document his knowledge of hidden Torah as well. In 5606 (1846), Bnei Yissoschor by Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov was published. We find there (Ma'amorei Kislev-Teves, maamar 2, #21), "It is known that the words of HaRav HaGaon Maharal of Prague were uttered with ruach hakodesh and he used to make use of Sefer Yetziroh."

This is reliable testimony that the Maharal was not only well acquainted with Sefer Yetziroh but that he also made use of it. While it could be adduced as support for the claim that he made a golem, it might equally be referring to other wonders that he performed. The Maharal's ruach hakodesh is also mentioned in Teshuvos Chacham Tzvi (siman 76). Referring to him, the Chacham Tzvi writes, " . . . who used Ruach Hakodesh, as is well known."

It should also be mentioned that Prague was a center for the study of Kabboloh in the Maharal's time. Three of his talmidim were outstanding scholars of Kabboloh. Rav Shlomo Shprecher (Yeshurun vol. II, pg. 628) writes, "Several sources attest to the Maharal's interest in Kabboloh . . . furthermore, we know that at least three of his talmidim were great mekubolim — HaRav Yissochor Ber, son of Rav Yisroel Leizer Parnas Eilenberg, author of the famous sefer Be'er Sheva, HaRav Eliyahu, son of Rav Moshe Luantz (who is known as Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem) and Rav Eliyahu Baal Shem, av beis din of Chelm."

Wonders of the Maharal — A Forgery

The book Niflo'os Maharal (Wonders Of The Maharal) by Y.Y. Rosenberg was published in 5669 (1909). It describes the wondrous exploits of the golem who was created in order to battle the enemies of the Jewish People. Several years later, in 5683 (1923), a journalist from New York named Chaim Bloch produced a letter that he claimed was written by the Maharal himself, describing how to create a golem and the purpose of doing so. Researchers have proven, however, that both the book and the letter are forgeries that were written approximately three hundred years after the Maharal's petiroh. Their contents are thus completely unreliable.

Rav Avrohom Benedict (a maggid shiur in Yeshivas Machaneh Avrohom, Bnei Brak) was one of the first to write about the unreliability of Niflo'os Maharal and also of other books by the same author. His comments appeared in Moriah (vol. XIV, issue 3-4, pg. 102, Sivan 5745). There are several proofs that Niflo'os Maharal is a forgery. The book is written in a style inappropriate to the Maharal's period and also contains words that did not exist at that time. It also contains historical inaccuracies whose correct version would have been known to any contemporary. Chaim Bloch has also been exposed as a forger of other letters and books.

It is clear however, that the book is not merely a baseless fabrication. The author drew upon various stories about the golem that had already been circulating for scores of years (such stories were already published in 5597 (1837), seventy-two years before Niflo'os Maharal appeared), to which he added other tales that he made up himself.

A Substantiated Tradition of Protest

Niflo'os Maharal is well-written and has a gripping plot; it captivated the hearts and imaginations of its readers. It went through many editions, arousing widespread interest among gentiles as well. For decades though, scant attention was paid to a sixteen-page pamphlet entitled Yetziroh (Creation), by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Eckstein of Sighet that was published just one year after Niflo'os Maharal. It demonstrated, based on Niflo'os Maharal itself, that the source of the book's contents was neither the Maharal himself, nor the writings of his son- in-law but simply the inventiveness of Y.Y. Rosenberg.

In the introduction to his booklet Rabbi Eckstein writes, "For approximately six months I have been hearing about the discovery of a manuscript by Rav Yitzchok, son-in-law of the Maharal of Prague . . . and I was very happy with the news. However, after perusing it in its entirety I saw a number of mistakes and other things that contradict the literature of the Rishonim and Acharonim and the halochoh. The whole thing is composed of lies and falsehood. The manuscript is not what it purports to be; neither are the wonders that it describes real — it is simply a golem [i.e. a lifeless imitation]. It is shameful enough nowadays to seek lies and falsehood and spread them among Yisroel, attributing them to high authority . . . signed in Sighet, Adar Sheini 5670 (1910)."

Rabbi Eckstein's sefer received the blessing of HaRav Yekusiel Yehudah Greenwald of Sighet. He wrote, "Because you have acted zealously, for Hashem's sake, to clarify the issue of the veracity of the sefer Niflo'os Maharal, know my friend that I too wrote a long treatise on the subject but was unable to complete it because of my tremendous preoccupations."

At one point the author of the book actually admitted that he had invented the story. In Halelu Avdei Hashem, which contains stories in Yiddish about HaRav Moshe Aryeh Freund zt'l, av beis din of the Eida HaChareidis, Rav Yechezkel Halberstam zt'l of Shineveh, author of Divrei Yechezkel, is quoted as having made the following comment. "A shochet ubodek from Antwerp heard from the Rov z'l, who heard from my father the rov of Honiad (an important Jewish community in Hungary), who had heard it from the Rov of Shineveh (eldest son of the Divrei Chaim zt'l of Sanz). The Shinever Rov said that whenever he sees the book Niflo'os Maharal it pierces him because the author of the stories personally admitted to him that he fabricated the whole thing."

"Rabbi Aharon Eckstein once said that he repeated this to the Admor Rav Yaakov Leizer zt'l of Peshvorsk and Reb Yankele (the Admor R' Yaakov) didn't want to agree. When the rov of Yerushalayim (HaRav Freund) was in Antwerp the rov of Peshvorsk asked him about the incident again and he said the same thing again. He repeated what the Shinever Rov had said in front of R' Yankele — that the author had himself admitted that he made the whole thing up and that it simply never happened."

Setting the Record Straight

Rabbi Eshkoli emphasizes that we should be raising our children with literature that is historically reliable, for which our extensive traditions about the greatness and holiness and the powerful prayers of the tzaddikim and Torah giants of earlier times amply suffice. Niflo'os Maharal therefore ought no longer to be circulated unless each copy carries a clear disclaimer stating that the story is fiction. Neither, he also points out, should the book be quoted from as though it was reliable information.


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