The Letter of the Maharal on the Creation of the Golem: A Modern Forgery
By: Shnayer Leiman
For a related post by Dr. Leiman see "Did a Disciple of the Maharal Create a Golem."
In 1923, Chaim Bloch (1881-1973), noted author and polemicist,1published a letter of the Maharal (d. 1609) that was previously unknown to all of Jewish literature.2 The letter, dated 1582 (or more precisely: Tuesday of parshat va-yera, 343), was addressed to R. Jacob Günzberg (d. 1615), Chief Rabbi of Friedberg in Hesse.3 Rich in content, the letter provides a lengthy and detailed account of why it was necessary for the Maharal to create a Golem, how he went about doing it, and the precise spiritual, psychological, and halakhic status of the created Golem. Bloch assured his readers that the letter was published from an original copy in his possession. In order to quell any doubts, he reproduced a facsimile of the Maharal’s autograph, as it appeared on the original letter.4
Bloch did not provide much detail about the letter’s whereabouts for the more than 300 years it apparently had been withdrawn from circulation and unknown. He thanks Rabbi Samuel Neuwirth of Vienna for his efforts in acquiring the letter and handing it over to Bloch for publication. Given that it was published together with a series of hasidic documents (including letters of the Baal Shem Tov), allegedly recovered from East European archives that had been plundered during World War I and its aftermath, the impression one has is that the Maharal letter belonged to these archives as well – though this is never explicitly stated by Bloch.5
In 1931, R. Yitzchok Eizik Weiss (d. 1944), the Spinka Rebbe,6 published the very same letter of the Maharal (without any mention of the prior Bloch publication) based upon -- what he believed to be -- an original manuscript in his possession. He appended it to the posthumous publication of his father's אמרי יוסף על המועדים7 . Although he gave no indication as to when or how the letter came into his hands, two witnesses provide us with some interesting detail.
The first witness, R. Yitzchok Weiss (d. 1942), Chief Rabbi of Kadelburg,8 in his אלף כתב, a book written primarily between 1927 and 1939 but published posthumously in 1997, includes the following entry:
Thus, we know that the letter reached the Spinka Rebbe no later than the beginning of July in 1922.The Gaon and Zaddik of Spinka informed me on Monday of [parshat] Hukkat-Balak, 7 Tammuz, 5682 [= 1922], that a manuscript written by the hand of the Maharal of Prague came into his possession. In it, he responded to R. Jacob Günzberg about the making of the Golem, how and why it was done, and whether the Golem will be included in the resurrection of the dead.9
The second witness, R. Samuel Weingarten (d. 1987), noted scholar of Hungarian Jewry and religious Zionist,10 reported that he was present at the home of R. Hayyim Eleazar Shapira (d. 1937), the Munkatcher Rebbe, circa 1922-23, when two of the sons of the Spinka Rebbe [R. Yitzchok Eizik Weiss], R. Naftoli and R. Yisrael Hayyim, approached the Munkatcher Rebbe with a query. They carefully removed a manuscript from a large envelope and asked the Rebbe to examine it. It was a handwritten letter signed by the Maharal of Prague and it dealt with the creation of the Golem. They explained that a soldier who had been taken captive at the Russian front during the World War, and who had participated in the looting of government archives during the Russian revolution, had brought the letter to their father and was prepared to sell it to him for a stiff price. Since the Spinka Rebbe was not expert in Hebrew manuscripts, he sought the advice of the Munkatcher Rebbe. The latter examined the manuscript carefully for some fifteen minutes. He then asked that a magnifying glass be brought and he re-examined the manuscript. He concluded that it was worthless; it was a forgery. The sons thanked the rabbi and went on their way with the manuscript.11
In 1969, the very same letter of the Maharal was published once again by R. Zvi Elimelech Kalush of Bnei Brak.12 The title page of the volume assures the reader that the text of the letter was copied from the “original handwritten holy manuscript” penned by the Maharal of Prague himself. Kalush admits that he is simply reprinting the text published by the Spinka Rebbe in his father’s אמרי יוסף. Indeed, Kalush’s text incorporates all the misreadings and printers’ errors of the text as it appeared in the אמרי יוסף and, as often happens when type is reset, adds several new printers’ errors as well.13
Since the letter is often reprinted and quoted as an authentic letter of the Maharal, it is probably useful to list some of the reasons that led the Munkatcher Rebbe and others14 to declare that it is a forgery. In order to facilitate discussion of the evidence, the full text of the letter is printed below, with each line identified by number.
II. Letter of the Maharal15
III. Evidence of Forgery16
p. 86, l. 2: ושלום The 1931 edition reads correctly: והשלום. As an epistolary formula, the phrase חיים שלום וברכה (and its variations) does not appear in Jewish literature prior to the eighteenth century.
אל כבוד יד"נ As an epistolary formula, the phrase אל כבוד יד"נ does not occur in Jewish literature prior to the eighteenth century.
כקש"ת This abbreviation for כבוד קדושת שם תפארתו first appears in Jewish literature in the eighteenth century.
p. 87, l. 6: בשנת השלום (בו?) לפ"ק The 1931 edition reads correctly: בשנת ה' של"ב לפ"ג. Thus, according to the Letter, Maharal was appointed Rabbi of Prague in 1572. According to the historical sources, the Maharal was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Prague in 1573. His appointment as Rabbi of Prague came many years later.
p. 87, l. 8: The Maharal is depicted throughout the letter as devoting all his energies to countering the blood libel in Prague. There is no historical evidence – Jewish or Christian – of a charge of blood libel in Prague during the lifetime of the Maharal.
p. 87, l. 12: Cardinal Johann Sylvester is described here as the leading Christian authority in Prague. No cardinal by that name served in Prague or, for that matter, anywhere else in Christian Europe. For a list of the cardinals who functioned in Prague, see Hierarchia Catholica Medii Aevi 3(1920), pp. 297-354; 4(1935), p. 288; and 5(1952), p. 323; and cf. A. Frind, Die Geschichte der Bischoefe und Erzbischoefe von Prag, Prague, 1873, pp. 178-249.
p. 87, l. 27: An anti-Semitic priest and rogue in sixteenth century Prague by the name of Thaddeus is unknown to all of Jewish and Christian literature prior to the twentieth century.
p. 87, l. 28: יהודים חשוכים בדעתם, used here in the sense of “unenlightened Jews,” is a usage found only in modern Hebrew literature.
p. 88, l. 4: Rudolph II is described here as serving as King of Bohemia in 1572-3. In fact, Maximilian II served as King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor in 1572-3. It is surprising that the Maharal confused these two kings with each other.
p. 88, l. 6: The Maharal reports that he was summoned for an audience with King Rudolph in 1573. Aside from the fact that Rudolph was not in office at the time, the Maharal met with Rudolph only once – in 1592. See the testimony of the Maharal’s disciple, R. David Gans, צמח דוד, ed. M. Breuer, Jerusalem, 1983, p. 145. Since this letter was allegedly written and sent to R. Jacob Günzberg in 1583, the confusion here is astonishing.
p. 89, l. 7: מולדווקא refers to the Moldau River, today the Vltava River. It is surprising that the Maharal was unaware of the correct spelling for this river in Hebrew – an essential ingredient for the writing of legally valid divorce documents. In the commentaries to the standard editions of the שלחן ערוך it is always spelled מולטא17. It is even more surprising that the Maharal was unaware of the fact that the Moldau flows through the center of the city of Prague, and not on the “outskirts of the city” (see line 6).
p. 90, I. 21-22: Maharal here refers to the permutations and combinations of the Hebrew letters that enable one to create a Golem, as they appear in the printed editions of Sefer Yetzirah. Alas, no such permutations and combinations appeared in any of the printed editions of Sefer Yetzirah until 1883 (פירוש הר"א גרמיזא על ספר יצירה, Przemysl, 1883).18
p. 91, l. 20: כלי המ"ש = כלי המורה שעות, a watch or clock. This term first entered Hebrew in the nineteenth century.
p. 91, l. 25: מכונה in the sense of “machine” entered Hebrew in the modern period.
p. 94, l. 9: The signature reads: Judah, dubbed Leib, son of R. Bezalel. In fact, the Maharal never signed his name in this manner. See A. Gottesdiener, המהר"ל מפראג: חייו תקופתו ותורתו, Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 19 and 29.
We have hardly exhausted the evidence – historical and linguistic – that can be adduced in order to prove that Bloch’s Letter of the Maharal is a forgery. The cumulative evidence is sufficiently overwhelming that there is really no point in adducing more of the same. Suffice to say that anyone familiar with the syntax and vocabulary of the authentic, published writings of the Maharal will recognize instantly that the Letter of the Maharal is a crude forgery. What remains to be investigated is the identity of the forger. Who forged the letter of the Maharal? When was it forged? Why was it forged? While we cannot provide answers to these questions (due to our ignorance), the following comments may prove useful for others who wish to do so.
1. Much of the material in the Letter of the Maharal was borrowed directly from R. Yudel Rosenberg’s נפלאות מהר"ל, Piotrkow, 1909.19 Clearly, the Letter of the Maharal is dependent upon נפלאות מהר"ל. It is unclear whether both documents came from the same hand, or whether the Letter of Maharal was an independent work. Either way, the Letter of the Maharal may have been a forgery done in order to “prove” the authenticity of נפלאות מהר"ל by providing the original manuscript of the Letter, together with the signature of the Maharal. It would have been much too cumbersome to provide a forged manuscript of the entire text of Rosenberg's נפלאות מהר"ל 20.
2. It is noteworthy that the Letter of the Maharal was not included in, or even mentioned by, Chaim Bloch in his reworking and expansion of R. Yudel Rosenberg’s נפלאות מהר"ל18 This suggests that the Letter first reached Bloch sometime after 1919, i.e. after he had published his final version of the Golem stories.
3. I am not aware of any evidence that either suggests or proves that Bloch – despite his predilection for forgery21 – forged the Letter of the Maharal. It is perhaps more likely that the forger of the Kherson Geniza (see note 5) was responsible for the forged Letter of the Maharal.
One matter, however, deserves further attention. Bloch, after all, published a facsimile of the Maharal’s signature. Precisely for that reason the publishers of the later editions, misled by the signature, stress the fact that the Letter of the Maharal was written בכתב יד קדשו. In 2009, the four hundredth yahrzeit of the Maharal was commemorated throughout the world. Those commemorations have yielded a remarkable volume, recently published in Prague. Entitled Path of Life: Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the opening pages include a genuine facsimile of the Maharal’s signature.22
Here is the Maharal’s signature as published by Bloch:
In sum, the Letter of the Maharal is a modern forgery. It should not and cannot be cited as evidence relating to the Maharal, the Golem, or any of the events that occurred in the sixteenth century. It is a twentieth century document that was probably forged sometime between 1909 and 1922. At best, it sheds light (or: darkness) on what Jewish forgers were thinking and doing during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
1 See the entries on Bloch in G. Bader, מדינה וחכמיה, Vienna-New York, 1934, p. 40; I. Landman, ed., Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, New York, 1940, vol. 2, p. 396; and M. Wunder, מאורי גליציה, Jerusalem, 1978, vol. 1, cols. 502-506 (and vol. 6, col. 213). It is unconscionable that no entry on Bloch appears in either edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Bloch was a prolific author and an astute polemicist who contributed significantly to a variety of Jewish topics, including folklore, apologetics, and anti-Zionist sentiment. A biography and intellectual history of Bloch remains a scholarly desideratum.
2 קובץ מכתבים מקוריים מהבעש"ט ותלמידיו זי"ע, Vienna, 1923, pp. 86-94.
3 On R. Jacob Günzberg, see D. Maggid, תולדות משפחות גינצבורג, St. Petersburg, 1899, pp. 12-13. It is unclear when Günzberg was appointed Rabbi of Friedberg. R. Man Todros Spira served as Rabbi of Friedberg until circa 1582. He was succeeded by R. Samuel b. Eliezer, who was succeeded by Günzberg. See A. Kober, “Documents Selected From the Pinkas of Friedberg, a Former City in Western Germany,” PAAJR 17(1947), pp. 28-29.
4 See below for the facsimile of the signature. In fairness to Bloch, it should be noted that he equivocated somewhat as to whether the document was an original or a copy. On the title page of the volume, and under the facsimile of the signature itself, he clearly implied that the letter and the signature were originals, not copies. Toward the end of the Introduction to the volume, however, Bloch describes the manuscript as ancient, difficult to read, and “ascribed to the Maharal.” Indeed, he invites his scholarly audience to determine whether or not the autograph is authentic.
5 The hasidic documents allegedly recovered from East European archives are known in scholarly circles as the Kherson Geniza. The Kherson Geniza has generated a rich literature, too cumbersome to be listed here. Some of the more important discussions are: D.Z. Hilman, אגרות בעל התניא ובני דורו, Jerusalem, 1953, pp. 240-272; Y. Raphael, “גניזת חרסון,” Sinai 81(1977), pp. 129-150; B. Schwartz, “די כערסאנער גניזה,” Der Yid , November 2 – December 28, 1984; A. Rapoport-Albert, “Hagiography with Footnotes,” History and Theory 27(1988), pp. 119-159; H. Liberman, “הוי גוי חוטא,” in ספר הזכרון לרבי משה ליפשיץ, New York, 1996, pp. 139-140; and M. Rosman, Founder of Hasidism, Berkeley, 1996, pp. 123-125.
6 See Tzvi M. Rabinowicz, Encyclopedia of Hasidism, Northvale, 1996, pp. 534-535.
7 אמרי יוסף על המועדים, חלק ב׳, Vranov, 1931 (reissued: New York, 1969 and 1990).
8 Kadelburg, also known as Karlburg, Oroszvar, and Rusovce, was some 11 kilometers southeast of Pressburg (= Bratislava). On Weiss, see Y.Y. Cohen, חכמי הונגריה, Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 460-461.
9 אלף כתב, Bnei Brak, 1997, vol. 2, p. 47.
10 See the entry on him in אנציקלופדיה של הציונות הדתית, Jerusalem, 2000, vol. 6, columns 391-393.
11 Samuel Weingarten, "האדמו"ר ממונקטש רבי חיים אלעזר שפירא: בעל תחושה בקרתית" Shanah be-Shanah, 1980, pp. 447-449.
12 שלוש קדושות, Bnei Brak, 1969, pp. 127-135.
13 See, e.g., the last line of the letter, where Kalush (p. 135) mistakenly reads מתפורר, whereas Bloch and the Spinka Rebbe read correctly מתגורר.
14 See below, note 16.
15 The text is taken from קובץ מכתבים מקוריים, pp. 86-94.
16 The evidence of forgery is culled from G. Scholem’s review of Bloch’s קובץ מכתבים מקוריים in Kiyrat Sefer 1 (1924-5), pp. 104-106; the Munkatcher Rebbe’s comments as recorded by Weingarten (see above, note 11); and my own reading of the text.
17 See also R. Ephraim Zalman Margolioth, טיב גיטין, Lemberg, 1859, p. 52a, section on the spellings of towns and rivers.
18 For the correct year of publication of R. Eleazar of Worms commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, see S. Ashkenazi's note in Tzefunot 1(1989), n. 4, p. 122.
19 נפלאות מהר"ל, ascribed to Maharal’s son-in-law, is itself a literary hoax. See S.Z. Leiman, “The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London,” Judaic Studies 3(2004), pp. 1-43.
20 Chaim Bloch, Der Prager Golem: von seiner Geburt bis zu seinem Tod, Vienna, 1919. An English version, The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague, Vienna, 1925, became a best seller, and is often reprinted. Bloch’s version of the Golem stories first appeared in serial form in 1917 in the Viennese periodical Oesterreichen Wochenschrift. For a comparative study of the Bloch and Rosenberg versions of the Golem stories, see A. L. Goldsmith, The Golem Remembered, 1909-1080, Detroit, 1981, pp. 51-72. Unfortunately, much of Goldsmith’s analysis is flawed due to the fact that he read Bloch and Rosenberg in translation, rather than consulting the original texts.
21 See S. Weingarten, מכתבים מזוייפים נגד הציונות, Jerusalem, 1981. Cf. G. Elkoshi, “ספיחי פולמוס,” Moznayim 42(1976), pp. 212-215.
22 A. Putik, ed., Path of Life: Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, Prague, 2009. The signature, recorded in 1597, appears on the frontispiece and at p. 37. Cf. pp. 73-74.
23 The ז"ל ה"ה at the end of the signature stands for: זכרונו לחיי העולם הבא . Cf. the Maharal’s signatures with the very same endings in his הסכמה to R. Samuel b. Joseph’s לחם רב, Prague, 1609 (reissued: Jerusalem, 2003), p. 5, and in the document cited by Gottesdiener, op. cit., p. 29.