There once was a rabbi, a disciple of the Maharal of Prague, who wished to create a golem just as his teacher had done. He studied diligently for four years, one for each letter in the Holy Name, and then for one additional year to honor the unity of God. He then labored over the golem’s body for four weeks, sculpting the clay, and spent another four weeks inscribing a small piece of vellum with the Name, one letter after every Shabbos.
This piece of vellum he then placed beneath the Torah scrolls in the synagogue, and spent an additional four weeks drawing clay from the river. He allowed no one to help him, insisting that “by the sweat of your brow” he must work, in accordance with scripture, so that he might also make “adam b’adamah,” man from the mound. He prayed ceaselessly in the shaping, asking God to make true again the words of Jacob, which was to say, to make “a son of my right hand.”
When everything was in readiness, from the heavens to himself, the rabbi took the Name of God and inserted it into the mouth of the golem.
He had imagined this moment uncountable times. Would there be a sudden brilliance, as God had said, “Let there be light?” Would there be color, as God had said, “I have set my bow in the clouds?” Would there be shining, as the prophet said, “Over the heads of the living creatures there was a covering, shining like crystal?” He held his breath.
But eventually, he had to let it out. Nothing had happened. There was not any flame or brightness, nor the slightest scintillation. Another breath: he sighed, but not heavily. The rabbi was well-armored against failure. Why, the Maharal had been fifty when he created his first golem, and here he was, not even forty. More than a decade of prayer and study might yet produce the necessary wisdom and holiness.
He stood, bracing his hands on his knees, for though he was not yet venerable he was not young, either. The coming work made him tired just from thinking of it: he would have to dispose of all this heavy clay.
He looked down at his hope, now transformed into a task, and found, to his fearful startlement, a change had indeed occurred. The clay was subtly altered; it trembled ever so finely with the mysterious force of life. Slow, shallow breaths went in and out of its chest, minutely perceptible. Was it true? Had he—?
The rabbi raised his eyes to the golem’s face, and the golem stared at him unblinking. I did not make eyelids for him. Of all the thoughts he had imagined having, mundane self-rebuke was not one of them.
Trying to recover his awe, the rabbi examined the now-living creature before him. Alive as a tree or a cow. No. The rabbi recoiled at such blasphemy—this before him was a man, the image of the Living God.
Yet his eyes could not fail to see the many imperfections, nor his ears hear the dreadful silence. Even a stillbirth was accompanied by the sound of lamentation; even God, who was not in the strong wind or the earthshake, was yet a still, small voice, speaking aloud. This golem did not have a heart to drum, and its breath made no whisper.
The golem also did not seem to register his scrutiny, and stared into the distance as if life made little impression upon it. Its face was animate but still crude, a little bovine. The rabbi was not an artist. A rough mouth, a nose like a shriveled turnip, and two eyes of slightly different sizes were the sole contents of the doughy face, without any personality to leaven them. Its body was likewise cloddy, his best work and yet no fit temple to the Name.
But his children by his wife—God rest her—had been lumpen and blotched, too, had they not? It was a long time since he had thought of their births, and he tried in vain to stare down at the golem with the same exuberance as when he had stared down at the tiny infants. Had he not been partner in making them all? Where, then, was the sudden trill of delight, the sunlight and birdsong that was obedience to the most joyful commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth?”
He had indeed filled the earth. What now, what more must he do?
“‘Let the peoples praise you, O Lord,’” the rabbi whispered. “‘Let all the people praise you,’ as King David has said.”
The golem went on staring at him, blank as calm waters. Was there to be no echoing exultation? Not even a glad assent?
“Praise the Lord,” the rabbi commanded.
“Praise the Lord,” the golem agreed.
The rabbi—he could not help it—sighed. The golem of the Maharal had been able to understand many languages, and could interpret Torah and dreams besides.
But perhaps this golem only wanted instruction. His master had been a great teacher; perhaps he too could imprint his small wisdom on this malleable clay.
“Sit up,” the rabbi tried.
The golem sat up. He showed no curiosity, gave no infant cry.
“Has God given you a name?”
The rabbi frowned. “Has God given you a purpose?”
The rabbi sighed again. “As the Lord has decreed, ‘six days you shall do your work.’ Your first task is to sweep this room.”
The golem rose and obeyed.
Over the week, the rabbi set his golem to many tasks around the house, cleaning and chopping wood and carrying vegetables. His servant and his cook were much amazed, and grateful for the ease the golem allowed them. But their wonder was tempered shortly thereafter by reality: there were still errands to run, still meals to be cooked. After only a few days, the golem was not a miracle and not even a man. He was only a useful tool, a hammer they did not have to tire themselves wielding.
The rabbi watched them and watched his golem and refused to name the feeling in his chest. Was not obedience good? Was not work holy? Why then could he only think of the clay, malleable and squelching, cold with the darkness of the river and the season? God had been with the Israelites in the desert, when all was stone and dry dust. It was She’ol that was made of mud …
At last, before Shabbos, he ordered that his servant and his cook celebrate with their own families and leave him to solitary prayer. Then he commanded the golem into his study and had it sit down again in the place where it had been made.
“As the Lord has said, ‘I will question you and you shall declare to me.’ What are you?”
“And what is your purpose?”
That lumpen face twisted and clenched with some unseen struggle, a welcome change from the blankness it displayed when the golem undertook even the most strenuous tasks. Many long minutes it worked over the question, and the rabbi again began to hope: perhaps it struggled to express deep truths. Did it not, after all, contain the Holy Name? Was it not a vessel for the miraculous?
“To be a golem,” it answered at last.
The shadow that had been steadily growing in the rabbi’s heart unfurled fully, and turned as pitch as night. All his other questions dropped away. Except for one, which had occurred to him before he fell asleep, and which had seemed absurd when he woke. Yet why not? Why not ask foolish questions? For he was a fool, to think he could make glory from mud.
“What does the Name of God taste like?” he demanded.
The golem smiled at him. It was the first time it had done so, and the rabbi should have been pleased. But it gave the guileless, toothless smile of an infant or an idiot, and the rabbi despised it, and dreaded its reply all the more.
“Like dirt,” it said.
Before he could think, the rabbi struck the golem across the face. It was pure reaction to blasphemy, nothing more but nothing less. He had never been a man of violence, and in the wake of his instinct he feared both himself and the golem, for he did not know how either of them were meant to react.
The golem was still smiling.
More slowly this time, and with great deliberation, the rabbi struck it again.
The golem went on smiling its idiot smile, as if pain and kindness were the same, as if a mouth that concealed the Holy Name could not also contain the means of expressing it. Was that it? Was God so divorced from the understanding of God, the expression of God, that all attempts at wisdom were futile? Was God’s presence so inaccessible—or worse, so mundane—that he would only ever see a dredged-up heap of river muck?
“Open your mouth,” commended the rabbi.
The golem did, unhesitatingly. Its eyes were half-closed like a cat in a sunbeam. How could the product of such austere and devoted study be so … creaturely?
The rabbi snatched out the paper with the Name.
Any last, desperate hopes of, as God had said, “darkness that can be felt,” or, as the prophet said, “the floods covered them, they sank like stones,” left the rabbi alongside his creation. As he had come to life, so did the golem leave it: without revelation or fuss. He only stopped being a man; the clay became only mud in the shape of a man. Yet that smile! The meaningless grin on that lolling mouth, the laughing curve to those sightless eyes!
Without fully meaning to, the rabbi struck that face again, and felt his hand sink into what was now only damp earth. It caused the face to distort, and so he did it again. And then again. He sank his fingers into the shape of the eyes and mouth and squeezed. And the feeling of the clay under his nails and between the joints of his knuckles was relief, terrible relief.
The rabbi ripped apart the clay with his bare hands. He threw it into the four corners of the room, and tossed clods from the window after crushing them between his fingers. He even smeared streaks on his face, and poured the dust over his hair and beard. He did not speak. He was beyond speech.
When the clay was finally so reduced that not even he could find a hint of the man it had been, the rabbi stood still, panting.
In the middle of the floor, pristine despite the madness, was the parchment with the Holy Name upon it.
The rabbi felt a great welling inside, something that would surely shake him to pieces just as he had torn his golem to bits. But he did not wait for it to overtake him. He fell on the parchment, and shoved it inside his mouth. Without pausing to let his horror catch up to him, he began to chew. To grind between his teeth the Holy Name! He wished with his whole heart that judgment should fall on him like a hammer and crush him into the earth.
He chewed and chewed. And no punishment came. The horror was unbearable: the gummy wad of pulp in his mouth, tasteless, the emptiness of the universe. He swallowed.
The next morning after Shabbos, the household, always a model of regularity, was thrown into disarray. The servant and the cook, punctual from long habit, were astonished to find that the rabbi was not in his kitchen. He was not in study. When they finally ventured to check his bed, they found the blankets atop the shape of a man. But the room was without life or breath. Fearfully, they turned down the covers.
All that was left of him was a pile of clay.
Christina Ladd is a writer, reviewer, and librarian who lives in Boston, MA. She will eventually die crushed under a pile of books, but until then she survives on a worrisome amount of tea and pizza. You can find more of her work on Strange Horizons, Speculative North, The Nerd Daily, The Dread Machine, and more.
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