Thursday, February 08, 2007

Shnayer Z. Leiman: Did a Disciple of the Maharal Create a Golem?

What follows is a short essay by Prof. Shnayer Z. Leiman, whose article on this topic, "The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London: R. Yudl Rosenberg and the Golem of Prague," appeared in Tradition 36:1 (2002): 26-58 [PDF].
Did a Disciple of the Maharal Create a Golem?
Shnayer Z. Leiman

I. In March 2006, Dei’ah VeDibur, a Charedi internet newsletter, published an essay on the Maharal and the Golem. Its conclusion was that “it is unclear whether or not the Maharal ever made a golem.”[1]

At the time, I responded on the internet with a congratulatory note praising Dei’ah VeDibur for its sober assessment of the evidence, and for its readiness to admit that it may be that the Maharal did not create a Golem.[2]

Shortly thereafter I received what appeared to be an angry email note from a distinguished academician at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It read
“You still haven’t responded to the evidence that a talmid of the Maharal is known to have created a Golem and that this factoid is documented.”

Since I had never claimed that a disciple of the Maharal either did or did not create a Golem, it was unclear to me why I had to respond to such a claim. Nonetheless, I knew precisely what my academic colleague had in mind. The author of the Dei’ah VeDibur essay mentioned in passing that the story connecting the Maharal to the making of a Golem was ”invented at some stage or, alternatively , 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).”[3]

Alas, we know precious little about R. Eliyahu (b. R. Aharon Yehudah) Ba’al Shem of Chelm (16th century).[4] In 1564, he joined a coalition of distinguished rabbis including R. Solomon Luria (the Maharshal, d. 1574) -- that permitted an agunah to remarry.[5] Most importantly, he was an ancestor of R. Yaakov Emden (d.1776), who preserved the following tradition about him:[6]
As an aside, I’ll mention here what I heard from my father’s holy mouth regarding the Golem created by his ancestor, the Gaon R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of blessed memory. When the Gaon saw that the Golem was growing larger and larger, he feared that the Golem would destroy the universe. He then removed the Holy Name that was embedded on his forehead, thus causing him to disintegrate and return to dust. Nonetheless, while he was engaged in extracting the Holy Name from him, the Golem injured him, scarring him on the face.

Thus, there clearly existed a 16th century rabbi by the name of R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Chelm (contemporary sources prove this), and the creation of a Golem was ascribed to him (so according to 17th and 18th century sources).[7] Not a word is mentioned about his being a disciple of the Maharal.

So I sent off a note to my academic colleague in Jerusalem. It read in part:
“There is no evidence that any talmid of the Maharal created a Golem. You write: “this factoid is documented.” Let me assure you that no such “factoid” is documented. The claim has been made – I am well aware of that, but the claim is based on a misreading of texts that I plan to expose in a footnote or essay in a future publication.”

The remainder of this essay is devoted to fulfilling the promise I made to my academic colleague in Jerusalem.

II. The claim that a disciple of the Maharal created a Golem appears most prominently in an essay published by a close friend -- and scholarly colleague – of mine, Dr. Shlomo Sprecher, in the Torah periodical Yeshurun. [8] I am certain he will forgive me for correcting him, if I am right. And if I am wrong, I urge him to correct my error publicly, thereby advancing discussion, and pray that he forgives my indiscretion.

The ישורון essay reads in part:[9]
“Regarding R. Eliyahu of Chelm, we know that he studied Torah under the Maharal and that he was a colleague of the Rabbi, author of the Tosafot Yom Tov.... The “true” Golem -- according to a reconstruction based upon trustworthy sources -- was the creation of R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem, Chief Rabbi of Chelm, who was a disciple of the Maharal (as mentioned earlier). For whatever reason, the Master and the disciple were confused, with the resulting confusion [as to who created the Golem.]”
In fact, R. Eliyahu of Chelm was neither a student of the Maharal nor a colleague of the Tosafot Yom Tov. Sprecher can hardly be faulted; he was misled by the source he quotes, namely R. Menahem Mendel Krengil (d. 1930) in his commentary to R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai’s Shem Ha-Gedolim.[10] In turn, Krengil was misled by the source he quotes, R. Yitzhok Shlomo of Ozorkov’s introduction to Mikhlol Yofi (Warsaw, 1883).[11] In turn, R. Yitzhok Shlomo was misled by the source he quotes, R. Yehiel Heilprin’s (d. 1746), Seder Ha-Dorot.[12] In common, all these sources – and others not mentioned here – confused two different rabbis with the same name and cognomen, Eliyahu Ba’al Shem, and compressed them into one person. Despite the best efforts of nineteenth and twentieth century Jewish historians to expose this error,[13] shabashta keyvan d’al ‘al.

The above-mentioned R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Chelm, the ancestor of R. Jacob Emden, may have created a Golem. But he was not a disciple of the Maharal, and he was not a colleague of the Tosafot Yom Tov, and -- so far as anyone knows – he never set foot in Prague. Yet another R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem was R. Eliyahu (b. R. Moshe) Loanz (1564-1636) of Worms.[14] Distinguished kabbalist and author, he was a disciple of the Maharal[15] and a colleague of the Tosafot Yom Tov, but no one ever suggested that he created a Golem! This is not even a case of the proverbial “two Yosef b. Shimons.” For R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Chelm’s father’s name was R. Aharon Yehudah, whereas R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Worms’ father’s name was R. Moshe.[16] Moreover, each was buried in the city where he served as Rabbi. Pilgrimages to the grave of R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Chelm -- in Chelm --were commonplace until World War II.[17] The tombstone inscription on the grave of R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Worms – in Worms – was published in the nineteenth century.[18]

Other famous disciples of the Maharal include his son, R. Bezalel; his son-in-law, R. Yitzhok b. R. Shimshon; R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, author of Tosafot Yom Tov; and R. David Ganz, author of Tzemah David.[19] No source prior to the twentieth century ever imagined that these -- or any other – disciples of the Maharal were involved in creating a Golem. In sum, until new evidence is forthcoming, the answer to the question raised in the title of this note appears to be: “No.”


[1] B.Y. Rabinowitz, “The Golem of Prague – Fact or Fiction?” Dei’ah VeDibur, March 1, 2006.

[2] Posting on Mail-Jewish, March 6, 2006.

[3] See note 1.

[4] In general, see J. Günzig, Die Wundermänner in jüdischen Volk, Antwerpen, 1921, pp. 24-26; A. Brik, "רבי אליהו בעל שם זצ"ל מחעלם," Moriah 7 (1977), n. 6-7, 79-85; and M.D. Tzitzik, "מהר"ר אליהו בעל שם מחעלם," Yeshurun 17 (2006), 644-667.

שו"ת ב"ח החדשות, ס' ע"ז [5]


שו"ת שאילת יעב"ץ, ח"ב, ס' פ"ב. Cf. his בירת מגדל עוז, Altona, 1748, p. 259a; מטפחת ספרים, Altona, 1768, p. 45a; and מגילת ספר, ed. Kahana, Warsaw, 1896, p. 4. See also שו"ת חכם צבי, ס' צ"ג, and the references cited in שו"ת חכם צבי עם ליקוטי הערות, Jerusalem, 1998, vol. 1, p. 421 and in the periodical כפר חב"ד, number 351 (1988), p. 51.

[7] See the sources cited by M. Idel, גולם, Tel Aviv, 1996, pp. 181-184 (English edition: Golem, Albany, 1990, pp. 207-212).

[8] S. Sprecher, בסתר בצל':קווים לדמותו הסמויה של הג"ר בצלאל בנו יחידו של המהר"למפראג זצ"ל in Yeshurun 2 (1997), 623-634.

[9] See the text on p. 629; and the end of note 24 on p. 632.

[10] R. Menahem Mendel Krengil, ed., שם הגדולים השלם, Podgorze, 1905, vol. 1, p. 11b, n. 85. Cf. Krengil’s remarks at p. 12a, n. 90, and at p.117a, n. 12.

[11] R. Eliyahu Loanz, מכלול יופי, Warsaw, 1883, introduction. R. Yitzhok Shlomo of Ozorkov (near Lodz), who wrote the introduction, arranged for this reissue of R. Eliyahu Loanz’ commentary on Koheleth. The introduction is particularly confused and misleading.

[12] סדר הדורות , Karlsruhe, 1769, p. 64a. Cf. סדר הדורות השלם, Jerusalem, 1985, part 1, p.248. The passage reads:
הג"מ אליהו בעל שם אב"ד דק"ק חעלם בווירמז חבר ספר אדרת אליהו פירוש על הזוהר כ"י (הוא היה מקובל גדול ובעל שם וברא ע"י שמות אדם.)
[13] See, e.g., H.N. Dembitzer, כלילת יופי , Cracow, 1888, part 1, pp. 78b-79a; H. Michael, אור החיים , Frankfurt, 1891, pp. 170-171; and E.L. Gartenhaus, אשל הגדולים, Brooklyn, 1958, pp. 92-94.

[14] See J. Günzig, op. cit. (above, note 4), pp. 37-39; N.Y. Ha-Kohen, אוצר הגדולים, Haifa, 1966, vol. 2, p. 184; and the entry in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, 1971, vol. 11, column 420.

[15] See R. Barukh b. R. David of Gniezno, גדולת מרדכי, Hanau, 1615, letters of approbation (reissued: Jerusalem, 1991, p. 3). R. Eliyahu Loanz, in his letter of approbation to this volume, writes:
“ והנה ידוע שמ"ו ה"ה הגאון מהר"ר ליווא מפראג היתה תורתו אומנותו מיום הכיר את בוראו.”
For legendary accounts of R. Eliyahu Loanz and his meetings with the Maharal of Prague and the author of the Tosafot Yom Tov, see R. Moshe Hillel, בעלי שם, Jerusalem, 1993, pp. 10-87.

[16] Already noted by A. Brik (above, note 4), p. 81.

[17] A. Brik (above, note 4), p. 85. Cf. J. Günzig, op. cit., p. 26.

[18] L. Lewysohn, נפשות צדיקים, Frankfurt, 1855, p. 59-60. Cf. E.M. Pinner, כתבי יד, Berlin, 1861, p. 166 and notes.

[19] See A. Gottesdiener, המהר"ל מפראג, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 88-97.

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