What Legends are Made Of: The Golem and Blood Libel

by Kenny Ramos

Topic: My paper will fill focus on the use of Jewish folklore to combat the blood libel with particular emphasis on the Golem of Prague narrative.  I’d like to investigate the origins of this legend, understand the practical value of using myths and legends to address real societal hatred and discuss the legend’s further development away from blood libel in the 20th century.


Introduction: According to the Prague narrative, this golem was created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a real-life 16th century Jewish scholar who lived in the city.  In the Hebrew Bible, the term golem is found in Psalms 139:16, and is translated as unformed or shapeless.  Rabbi Loew constructs the golem with a specific purpose in mind, which is to defend the Jewish community of the city against the slanderous and deadly blood libel.  Borne of clay and the spiritual breath of God’s name, this anthropomorphic being became the dutiful protector of the Jews; unfortunately, the golem, called Yossele, eventually becomes a danger, and must be put down by Rabbi Loew.  There are many tales of the golem, but this specific classic is the basis of my research.

What’s interesting about this tale is the internalized widespread understanding of the blood libel accusation.  The blood libel during the Middle Ages served as a motif of the struggles Jewish communities throughout Europe faced, and even became a part of their folklore.

Overall, this guide will be helpful to those who are interested in studying the blood libel through Jewish mythology.


“A Legendary Protector Formed From a Lump of Clay and a Mound of Terror”

This article in the New York Times discusses the cemetery in Prague’s old Jewish Quarter where Rabbi Loew is buried.   Although a lifeless setting, the graves have formed mounds making it appear as if the old bones buried underneath are not entirely dead.  It is through describing this scene that the author becomes reminiscent of the legend of the golem. Like the mounds of dirt in the cemetery, the golem was formed.  Also, like the refusal of the dead to rest peacefully in their lot, the golem legend represents resistance.

The fabled fallacy that before Passover Jews needed Christian blood in order to make matzah many times resulted in real persecution; therefore, the golem represents the active response to such threats.  The author describes the golem as the embodiment of resistance or defense, which offered Jewish communities the hope of being saved from wrongful persecution.  It makes sense to conclude that the story gave Jews the opportunity to indulge in such fantasy that differed from their reality when blood libel charges were drawn.  During those real life accusations, there were no golems to save them.  The author says, “So while the Golem has its costs, so does its absence.”  Despite the golems imperfections and troubles in the legend, the real tragedy is that it is a work of fantasy.

Rothstein, Edward. “A Legendary Protector Formed From a Lump of Clay and a Mound of Terror.”       The New York Times (New York, NY) , Sept, 11. 2006.

Peer-Reviewed Journals:

“Tales of Old Prague: Of Ghettos, Passover, and the Blood Libel”

This article discusses Elie Wiesel’s book The Golem: The Story of a Legend, and looks at the ways Wiesel has taken some of the golem’s most popular stories, and retold them in the first person by assuming the character of Reuven, a gravedigger.  The he author credits Wiesel’s take on the legend as unique since it retells the old myth in a way that is more mature, and not intended for younger audiences.  He compares and contrasts Wiesel’s account with that of other authors.  What’s unique about Wiesel’s book is that the rabbi is just as important as the golem, and that he describes the creation of the golem in a way that alludes to the book of Genesis.  Overall, this article clearly identifies the most frequently discussed contemporary versions of the Golem of Prague, and compares them.

Frongia, Terri. “Tales of Old Prague: Of Ghettos, Passover, and the Blood Libel.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 7 (2/3 (26/27)). Temporary Publisher: 146–62. 1995 http://www.jstor.org/stable/43308238.

“Golem! The Making of a Modern Myth”

This article discusses how the golem has grown to embody a historical archetype in literature.  This mythical being is an artificial man that despite its supernatural power eventually spirals out of control.  Beginning with its origins and significance, the article then analyzes the golem as a cultural, political, philosophical and scientific device that is widely represented in the West.  Despite the legend’s transition beyond Jewish folklore, the author emphasizes that the golem still represents the Jewish view that to struggle with reality and with one’s self gives life purpose.  This article will be helpful in looking at how the golem legend continues to be used in modern times.

Glinert, Lewis. “Golem! The Making of a Modern Myth.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures 55, no. 2 (2001): 78- 94.

“Blood to Ink, Bread to Dust: Transformative Jewish and Christian Legends of the Middle Ages”

This article discusses the anti-jewish character of the Prioress in Jeffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and the importance of the golem as a response to such sentiments. The article explores the origins of the golem as appearing in an ancient text, called the Sefer Yetsirah, and the story of it that became widely popular in Prague during the 16th century.  The creation of both tales is reflective of society at the time.  These tales, while meant to entertain, are projections of ideas that dominate the current thinking.  It is important to understand the meaning behind these two stories since they are more than just tall tales.

Herman, Elizabeth. “Blood to Ink, Bread to Dust: Transformative Jewish and Christian Legends of the Middle Ages”. The Pluralist 2 (1). University of Illinois Press: (2007) 108–26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20708891.


The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague

This book by Chayim Bloch provides comprehensive facts about the importance of the legend, and about Rabbi Loew’s life and Prague during that time.  This book is helpful in providing historical information about the golem legend, and discusses the topic beyond the genre of literature.

Bloch, Chayim. The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague. Vienna: Office John N. Vernay, 1925.

Yenne Velt Volume 1: The Great Works of Jewish Fantasy and Occult

This is a collection of Jewish mythology compiled and translated by Joachim Neugroschel.  The work contains many of the stories of the golem along with other myths.  The foreword to the section about the golem was written by Yudl Rosenberg, and is similar to his book.

Neugroschel, Joachim. Yenne Velt: The Great Works of Jewish Fantasy and Occult. New York: Stonehill Pub., 1976.

The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague

This book is a collection of stories of Rabbi Loew and the golem, but Rosenberg’s book pays special attention to the stories of the golem as the protector of the Jews in times of persecution. This book also contains historical context about the legend as well as references to other adaptations of the story before and after Rosenberg published this version.

Rosenberg, Yudl. The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague, Edited by Curt Leviant. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.