In this essay, Shnayer Leiman, professor of Jewish history and literature at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, explains how the legend of the Golem of Prague is largely based on a literary hoax known as Niflaot Maharal, falsely ascribed to Maharal’s son-in-law. The work, which claims to be an eyewitness account of how Maharal created the Golem, was really authored by Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg, who published it in 1909. Ed.
Excerpted with permission from “The Adventure of the Maharal of Prague in London: R. Yudl Rosenberg and the Golem of Prague,” by Shnayer Z. Leiman, Tradition 36:1 (2002).
In brief, Niflaot Maharal tells the following story. In 1572, the Maharal was appointed Chief Rabbi of Prague. Upon his arrival, he learned that the Jews in Prague were repeatedly the victims of blood libel. In order to stave off further accusations, the Maharal turned to the head of the Christian community in Prague, Cardinal Johann Sylvester, and offered to engage in a debate with him about the false blood accusations. The terms of the debate were agreed upon, and the debate took place over a thirty day period. The Cardinal was persuaded by the Maharal’s defense, and a copy of the proceedings was sent to the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II (d. 1612). The King too was persuaded by the wisdom of the Maharal’s arguments, and on the first day of Shevat, 1573, he granted the Maharal a private audience in the royal palace. Rudolph agreed to draft and enforce new legislation which would protect the Jews against the blood libel. Despite these impressive political gains, the Maharal decided in 1580 that it was necessary to create a Golem in order to protect the Jews against their enemies. On 20 Adar, 1580, the Golem was created; on Lag Ba-Omer, 1590, it was destroyed. The bulk of Niflaot Maharal is devoted to a detailed account of the adventures of the Golem during its ten years of service to its master, the Maharal of Prague.
In fact, much of the information provided by Niflaot Maharal is historically inaccurate. In 1573, Rudolph II was neither King of Bohemia nor Holy Roman Emperor. In that year, Maximillian II (d. 1576) served in both capacities. Indeed, Maharal was granted a private audience with Rudolph II. A contemporary account of this meeting has come down to us; it states unequivocally that the meeting occurred in 1592! Alas, not only did no Cardinal by the name of Johann Sylvester serve in Prague during the lifetime of the Maharal, but no Cardinal by that name seems to have served at any time in Prague or, for that matter, anywhere else.
Clearly, Niflaot Maharal was not written by the Maharal’s son-in-law. It appears to be a literary hoax, and like all the other alleged manuscripts from the Royal Library in Metz, it was a modern forgery published by R. Yudl Rosenberg.
Did the Maharal create a Golem? If our only evidence for the Maharal’s Golem came from the writings of R. Yudl, we would perforce conclude that the Maharal’s Golem is imaginary. In fact, the tradition that the Maharal created a Golem antedates R. Yudl. Already in 1837 (before R. Yudl was born), legends about the Maharal and the Golem appeared in print. The early printed accounts indicate that these legends had an oral history before being recorded. They probably go back at least to the second half of the eighteenth century. Unlike R. Yudl’s version, these accounts never speak about blood libel, and they know nothing about a Cardinal Johann Sylvester. Nonetheless, the gap between the death of the Maharal in 1609 and the first printed account in 1837 in striking. There is certainly no evidence contemporary with the Maharal that he—the Maharal—created a Golem. Rationalists dismiss the late accounts out of hand; mystics hold on to them dearly, though they often seem unaware of just how late and thin these traditions really are. . . .
Rationalism aside, what militates against the notion that the Maharal created a Golem is the fact that nowhere in his voluminous writings is there any indication that he created one. More importantly, no contemporary or disciple of the Maharal—neither Jew nor Gentile in Prague—seems to have been aware that the Maharal created a Golem. Even when eulogized, whether in [David] Gans’ Tzemach David or on his epitaph, not a word is said about the creation of a Golem. No Hebrew work published in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (even in Prague) is aware that the Maharal created a Golem.
In this context, it is worth noting that R. Yedidia Tiah Weil (1721-1805), a distinguished Talmudist who was born in Prague and resided there for many years—and who was a disciple of his father R. Nathaniel Weil and of R. Jonathan Eibeschuetz, both of them long time residents of Prague—makes no mention of the Maharal’s Golem. This, despite the fact that he discusses golems in general, and offers proof that even “close to his time” golems existed. The proof is a listing of famous golems, such as the golems created by R. Avigdor Kara (d. 1439) and R. Eliyahu Ba’al Shem (d. 1583). Noticeably absent is any mention of the Maharal and his Golem.