In Jewish folklore, a golem (/ˈɡoʊləm/ goh-ləm; Hebrew: גולם) is an animated anthropomorphic being, magically created entirely from inanimate matter. The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material (usually out of stone and clay) in Psalms and medieval writing.
The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the golem was brought to life and afterwards controlled.
The word golem occurs once in the Bible in Psalm 139:16, which uses the word גלמי (galmi; my golem), meaning "my unshaped form," connoting the unfinished human being before God's eyes. The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person: "Seven characteristics are in an uncultivated person, and seven in a learned one," (שבעה דברים בגולם) (Pirkei Avot 5:6 in the Hebrew text; English translations vary). In Modern Hebrew, golem is used to mean "dumb" or "helpless." Similarly, it is often used today as a metaphor for a brainless lunk or entity who serves man under controlled conditions but is hostile to him under others. "Golem" passed into Yiddish as goylem to mean someone who is clumsy or slow.
The oldest stories of golems date to early Judaism. In the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b), Adam was initially created as a golem (גולם) when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless husk". Like Adam, all golems are created from mud, by those close to divinity; but no anthropogenic golem is fully human. Early on, the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. Sanhedrin 65b describes Rava creating a man (gavra). He sent the man to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to him, but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, "You were created by the sages; return to your dust".
During the Middle Ages, passages from the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) were studied as a means to create and animate a golem, although there is little in the writings of Jewish mysticism that supports this belief. It was believed that golems could be activated by an ecstatic experience induced by the ritualistic use of various letters of the Hebrew Alphabet forming a "shem" (any one of the Names of God), wherein the shem was written on a piece of paper and inserted in the mouth or in the forehead of the golem.
In some tales (for example, some versions of those of the golems of Chełm and Prague, as well as in Polish tales and version of Brothers Grimm), a golem is inscribed with Hebrew words, such as the word emet (אמת, "truth" in Hebrew) written on its forehead. The golem could then be deactivated by removing the aleph (א) in emet, thus changing the inscription from "truth" to "death" (met מת, meaning "dead"). Other versions add that after creating an entity out of clay, it would be brought to life by placing into his mouth a shem with a magic formula, and could later be immobilized by pulling out the shem, or by reversing the creative combinations, for, as Rabbi Jacob ben Shalom, who arrived at Barcelona from Germany in 1325, remarked, the law of destruction is the reversal of the law of creation.
Joseph Delmedigo informs us, in 1625, that "many legends of this sort are current, particularly in Germany".
The earliest known written account of how to create a golem can be found in Sodei Razayya by Eleazar ben Judah of Worms (1165–1230).