Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Golem of the Maharal - Fact or Fiction/Oral history

There is a fascinating article from Dei'ah veDibur regarding the historical reality of the Maharal's Golem. It deals with many of the issues connected to our previous discussion of the nature of the dispute between the Gra and the Chassidim as well as the issue of the Ger Tzedek. In particular it wrestles with the issue of the veracity of oral traditions which are unsupported by other sources. Below are some excerpts. I also included similar concerns expressed by Prof. Marc Shapiro.

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.[...]

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.[...]

Similar views were expressed in Prof. Marc Shapiro's critical review "Of Books and Bans" concerning the Making of a Godol published in the Edah Journal:

Another serious shortcoming is his use of sources–in particular, the hundreds of personal communications he records. While oral history can be valuable, it has to be used carefully and must yield when faced with documentary evidence to the contrary. The haredi culture is in many respects an oral culture, with stories of gedolim told and retold, and with this come distortions and falsehoods. Kamenetsky at times shows that he is aware of this, but only when the oral history is contradicted by another version of oral history or by a reliable written source. Otherwise, he chooses to rely on all sorts of tales. It is one thing when oral history focuses on an event or an oral exchange witnessed by a particular individual–and there are numerous such examples in the book— but often Kamenetsky will record a story he heard from X who heard from Y who heard from Z, sometimes about an event that happened 100 years ago!

Clearly, this does not qualify as history. Again, if this were a book of hagiography, one would expect this type of thing. In that sort of book we would anticipate being told what R. Hayyim Soloveitchik said when he was on a train or how the Rogochover rebuked another gadol in the privacy of their hotel room. But Kamenetsky wants his book to be judged by the standards of historical scholarship, and in this respect it is sorely lacking.

This failure to recognize the unreliability of oral history leads Kamenetsky to take different versions of the same story and try to determine what actually occurred. While there is no doubt a kernel of truth in the basic story, a historian must acknowledge that at this late date it is simply impossible to come to any firm conclusions. Similarly, his detailed and tedious analysis of events, most notably the mission of Max Lilienthal in Russia (pp. 188-257), combine what is best about the book – a gathering together of widely scattered material – with the book's weakness, a reliance on stories and traditions, together with hypotheses, which, at the end of the day, have no basis


  1. There is at a tenuous connection between the two articles. One points out that the paucity of documented evidence by historians of that time, and similar, stands in contrast to an oral tradition.

    The other classifies a text as hagiography on account of a lack of any other documentary support. It's not as if one would expect a historian to write down that eg X allegedly slapped other Rabbonim or that Y dabbled in Z. The making of a gadol is essentially the transfer of an oral history to paper. The lack of comment about the Golem in documented history as per the article is a far bigger and different issue. On the contrary, it is natural to expect a lack of any documentary evidence for the types of things mentioned in the making of a gadol. Chareidi culture hardly publishes exposes of this type---even if they may be true.

  2. It's not whether or not he made a golem. It's how we start the production process up again today to replace the declining number of kids going into the Israeli army.

  3. "It's how we start the production process up again today to replace the declining number of kids going into the Israeli army."

    The Jewish Agency already tried that; and it was in operation until the Conversion Institute was shut down.

    Rabbi Loew's Golem did not have a soul.

    You seem very into the idea of Israel dominating the Middle East with a mighty army.

    Have you ever served in the IDF???

    Will you someday send your children?

    I am not a "hawk" from my arm chair in North America because I would not sacrifice my children as cannon fodder in Gaza, Lebanon or Iran in order to provoke the War of Armageddan on behalf of Western Evangelicals.

  4. > The Jewish Agency already tried that; and it was in operation until the Conversion Institute was shut down.

    They were making golems? How did the press miss that?

    > Have you ever served in the IDF???

    Can't say I've had the privilege but if I lived there I certainly would.

    > Will you someday send your children?

    If we live there then yes, of course.

    At any rate, even if I was an arm chair hawk (I prefer the reclining ottoman myself) I still think my golem idea is a good one. That way we put less of our boys on the line and still defend the country.

  5. Jersey girl says: "...I am not a "hawk" from my arm chair in North America because I would not sacrifice my children as cannon fodder in Gaza, Lebanon or Iran in order to provoke the War of Armageddan on behalf of Western Evangelicals."

    What a convoluted set of concepts, a veritable cholent, and always seeing the "evangelicals" as the root of all evil when it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with the Jewish people and geopolitics http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geopolitics: "Geopolitics is the study that analyzes geography, history and social science with reference to spatial politics and patterns at various scales (ranging from the level of the state to international). It examines the political, economic (see geoeconomics) and strategic significance of geography, where geography is defined in terms of the location, size, function, and relationships of places and resources..."

    But dont worry, the Israeli army doesn't need your help, they have plenty extras in their own land, so you can enjoy life in the happyland that is Deal NJ.

  6. I heard about the maharal of Prague when I was a little boy. Is it the sefer yetziroh that helps you make a miracle or a miracle?


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