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The making of a Jewish folk hero: the Maharal in The Golem of Prague.

But amid th[e] frenzy of Judeo-Christian interaction, one figure stands out. He was born in the early sixteenth century and died in Prague in 1609. The most original Jewish thinker of his time, he led a tireless campaign against the intellectual persecution of the Jews, yet he was intellectual confidant to the Holy Roman Emperor himself. His memory pervades Prague, yet his statue in the heart of the Czech capital was left untouched by both Nazis and Soviets. In a shelf-full of philosophical works, he makes only shadowy allusions to Kabbalah, yet say his name today and people will say "Golem!" He is Rabbi Judah Loewe, known among Jews as the Maharal (Glinert 2001:4).

Jewish folk and fairy tales function as powerful vehicles that reinforce Jewish traditions and values. (1) Their unique construction of Jewish mythical, folkloric, cultural and historical themes maintains Jewish ethnic memory and identity from generation to generation while still remaining relevant and personally meaningful to each listener. An essential part of their uniqueness is in their portrayal of the distinctly Jewish hero archetype, typically a (male) rabbi or biblical figure. He is endowed with an extraordinary intellectual and spiritual prowess that is matched only by his humility. Built as a composite based on genuine figures in Jewish history, the hero is at once a legendary figure, a mythical creature and fairytale icon. He serves as a symbol and affirmation of Jewish beliefs and traditions, both modelling and inspiring the proscribed Jewish thought and behaviour.

The Jewish fairy tale The Golem of Prague provides one of the finest examples of this synthesis of history, culture and religion in its hero the Rabbi Judah Ben Loewe, (2) known as the Maharal. (3) For while his association with the golem is fictional, the Maharal himself was a very real person. Based on the genuine sixteenth century rabbi and teacher, the Maharal's character is an artful blend of historical fact and Jewish mythology. He functions in the story as a primary means of communicating key Jewish ideas and images. In this paper, I deconstruct the role of the Maharal as the Jewish hero in The Golem to provide greater insight into how history, folklore and culture have worked together to create one of Judaism's greatest folk heroes.

The fictional Maharal of the Golem is a complex figure, and his character incorporates multiple themes. As the story's protagonist, the Maharal personality consists of several related identities, drawn out and then incorporated into his fictional persona. These include the traditional role of the rabbi and his family in the medieval Jewish communities on which the story is based, along with the corresponding cultural themes and folkloric motifs. Each of these identities adds its own set of images and themes to the story, which in turn conflate to result in a hero and a story line that is both believable and inspirational.

Like the biblical heroes after whom he is modelled, the Maharal was handpicked by God for his role in history. He did not make the personal decision to create the Golem and save the Jews of Prague; he was selected and then instructed by God to do so. Much like the Agaddic (4) Moses, his role in history was preordained since conception. His mother's cries of labour pain during his birth draw a crowd to his home, thwarting the attempts of the unnamed Christian man to frame the Maharal's father, Rabbi Bezalel, for a blood libel accusation of ritual murder. (5) His destiny as hero is confirmed by Rabbi Bezalel at the feast following the infant Maharal's bris (circumcision). The rabbi tells the crowd: "The child is our people's comforter. He has come into the world in order to free us from the terrible blood-lie, the most ignominious calumny which we suffer" (Bloch 1988:44).

It is interesting to note that the fictional Maharal also sees himself in terms of a biblical hero. In the story, he compares himself to the future King David when David was still a shepherd boy. He views his opponent Thaddeus, the evil priest of The Golem obsessed with destroying the Maharal and the Jews of Prague, as the equivalent of David's foe--the powerful and feared giant Goliath. Indeed, he tells his disciples, "I fear this Thaddeus, for his soul is a spark of Goliath the Philistine giant. I hope, however, to subdue him, for my soul is a spark of the Jewish youth and later king, David" (Bloch 1988:64). (6)

Following explicit instructions from God, the Maharal uses river mud to create the Golem, an automaton without a human soul. He then harnesses the Golem's supernatural strength and powers to save the Jewish community of Prague from being framed by a series of blood libel accusations. The Golem himself is neither good nor bad, but merely a divinely-provided tool. It is the Maharal who has both the necessary skills and personal integrity to create the Golem and command him; it is the Maharal's responsibility (one he acquits himself of without hesitation) to ensure that the Golem is used only for the holy purpose of saving Prague's Jews and not exploited for personal gain.

Bound together in the Jewish cultural psyche, the Maharal and the Golem of Prague are unique figures in Jewish folklore. While multiple rabbis were credited with having created golems, they were always made for secular purposes, typically to demonstrate mastery of ancient mystical texts. (7) The Maharal is the only rabbi said to have created a golem purely for a holy purpose rather than a personal one. This important distinction is why, as rabbi and Golem author Gershon Winkler says, that only "the Golem of Prague seems to have left the most profound and memorable imprint on both Jews and Christians, for close to four hundred years" (1980:5).

Rabbis in the role of legendary figures and mythical heroes abound in Jewish folk literature. They first appeared in Jewish literature after the Diaspora in the first century CE, replacing the prophets and biblical leaders of the Aggadah. As Judaism and the world evolved and expanded, the fictional rabbi heroes incorporated these changing values and motifs. Influenced by the dominant European Christian culture, by 1000 CE the mythical rabbis of Jewish folklore were a blend of medieval Jewish and Christian traits. Like their Christian counterparts the medieval knights and saints, they were renowned for their selflessness, self-sacrifice for their people and their dedication to upholding the word and law of God. Some rabbis, as did the Maharal, used their skills and intellect to battle the ever-growing anti-Judaism (8) of Europe.

Jewish legends about rabbis tend to fall into two main groups. The first is the traditional motif of rabbi as folk hero (such as the Maharal) famed for saving the Jews from danger. The second is the later wonder tales of the saint rabbis found in Hasidic lore. Both types of figures share similar characteristics of wisdom, piety and humility, and there is much overlap between the two groups. Both groups were based on genuine rabbis, although the Hasidic tales were much more recent, coming exclusively from Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century. As the Maharal was not a Hasidic rabbi but a medieval one, this paper will focus exclusively on the older and more traditional folk hero motif. It is worth noting that although the motif the Maharal represents is an ancient one, The Golem itself is a modern story, first written by the Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg in 1909. (9) Thus, the Maharal's twentieth century literary character is very much also a product of pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish culture, upon whom Hasidism had enormous influence.

Folk hero rabbis were typically well-known historical figures ranging from biblical prophets such as Elijah to famous scholars Rabbis Akiva and Eliezar Ben Hyrcanos in the first and second centuries CE. Eventually, each of these cultural and religious role models would become attached to a body of legend. In keeping with their roots in the Aggadic tradition, they resembled in both personality and actions biblical heroes such as Moses, Elijah and Jacob. Like the Maharal, they were known for their learnedness, determination and fierce love of the Jewish people. Some, like Rabbis Simeon and Hananiah, were also martyrs. (10) Magical abilities were common, including the ability to create very basic golems.

Judaism is no stranger to magic, having a long tradition that dates back to biblical time. The rabbis' skill with magic was common knowledge in Jewish folklore. As Howard Schwartz, an expert on Jewish fairy tales and folklore describes, "sorcery is resorted to on a great many occasions in rabbinic literature, sorcery not only by wizards and witches, but even by some of the most respected rabbis" (1998:69). A Jewish fairy tale would typically consist of "a confrontation between the Jewish sorcerer and an evil sorcerer, who often serves as a viceroy to an emperor or king and whose primary purpose is to bring harm to the Jews" (1998:79). One of the most well-known models for this hero is found in the biblical Book of Esther, the Megillah. In this work the evil Haman, viceroy to King Ahasuerus (identified by some scholars as the Persian king Xerxes I), plots the destruction of the kingdom's Jews. As in The Golem, it is an elderly, humble and pious Jew--Esther's cousin Mordechai--who (although he himself does not use magic) also brings about the salvation of the Jewish people.

The loss of Jewish nationhood in combination with the advent of the Middle Ages and the increasing marginalisation of Jews in Europe resulted in the growing need for magical help in battling their enemies. As with many medieval quest tales, both Jewish and non-Jewish, the rabbis often received help from angels and other supernatural beings to defeat their enemies. However, the uniquely Jewish feature about these heroes was that they were not warriors (as were previous biblical figures such as David and Joshua, or medieval knights such as Sir Gawain), but scholars--they triumphed not by the sword, but by the book. (11) The "books" they used were the traditional religious Jewish texts, including the Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, (12) and obscure esoteric texts such as the Sefer Yetzirah. (13)

It was only through the mastery of these holy texts that the rabbis were permitted their magical powers. This mastery was obtained not only by years of study, but also by having the purity of intent and humility necessary to truly grasp the meanings hidden in the texts. The use of magic in Jewish fairytales is always presented as a testament to the power and glory of God, as opposed to non-Jewish stories where magical skills attest to the talent of the magician. Schwartz explains, "[t]hus what other fairy tales attribute to magical causes, the Jewish vision interprets as a demonstration of the power and beneficence of God" (1998:44).

Magic was a divine tool, available only to those rabbis who had the sufficient combination of piety and Torah study. A significant aspect of the rabbi mythology is their fabled genius both in interpreting and writing commentaries on ancient Hebrew texts, usually demonstrated at an extremely early age. It was this extraordinary ability that allowed them access to magical knowledge which was granted by God: "The kabbalists had to attain very high levels of purity and perfection, before they could bring about supernatural phenomena" (Winkler 1980:319). (14) In the world of folk tales, this translated into beloved figures with supernatural powers of prescience and the ability to contact and receive assistance from the spirit world.

The emphasis in Jewish fairytales put on the study of religious texts for knowledge of magic also reflects both biblical and medieval Jewish attitudes regarding the occult--that magic was a positive force, rather than a satanic one. Magical abilities come from God, and were not to be used for evil or harmful purposes. The magic afforded to rabbi heroes was protective, not aggressive. Even Moses, who clearly had no magical abilities of his own, used sorcery at God's behest before Pharaoh. Moses' use of magic had the added dimension of demonstrating God's superiority over the Egyptian gods, as Moses' skills were greatly superior to that of Pharaoh's magicians. In a classic scene from Exodus, when Moses and his brother Aaron appear before Pharaoh, Aaron turns his staff into a snake as a demonstration of the Hebrew God's power. Pharaoh's magicians also changed their staffs into snakes, but "the staff of Aaron swallowed their staffs" (Exodus 7:12).

Like Moses, the Maharal used his magical powers to confront and defeat the enemies of the Jewish people. In line with the belief system of magic as a divinely sanctioned gift, the Maharal's power was gained not by his intellect alone, but also by his holiness. It is only by virtue of his own integrity and his long record of religious scholarship that the Maharal is permitted to have magical powers. (15) In fact, the fictional Maharal had a considerable reputation as a magician. Author Chaim Bloch, who published an account of The Golem in 1919, included eight more stories of supernatural acts performed by the Maharal. Most concern the Maharal's use of magical acts, visions and prescience during interactions with the Emperor Rudolf II or the powerful nobility bent on bringing harm to Jewish communities.

In each case, the Maharal is able to use his wisdom, piety and kabbalistic skills to magically prevent disaster from being brought upon Prague's Jewish community. His high level of spirituality provides him with the ability to sense any hidden secrets that the dangerous Christian men who approach him may have buried within their souls. He is able to use this knowledge to stop those who threaten the Jews. This ability equalises the relationship between him and these otherwise more powerful men and wins him the grudging admiration of the Christian lords.

Even the Maharal's death became a supernatural event, one that again emphasises his selflessness and Ahavat Yisrael, "Love of the People of Israel." In his final chapter "Death," Bloch describes how the Maharal was able to save the lives of his entire congregation by wresting a list of sacrificial victims away from the Angel of Death's grasp, although a torn corner of the paper remained in the Angel's hand. The Maharal carefully checked the recovered list to ensure that the name of every member of his congregation was on the list, never noticing that the only name missing, the one written on the scrap of paper still held in the hands of the Angel of Death, was his own. He died within the week.

The enormous value that Judaism has historically placed on wisdom, scholarship and selfless leadership most likely earned the historical Maharal his place in Jewish legend. The genuine Rabbi Judah Ben Loewe of Prague, known as the "Maharal," was the youngest of four sons born to Rabbi Bezalel, himself a distinguished Torah scholar. The exact date and location of the Maharal's birth is not known, but it was thought to be in Worms in approximately 1512. While he did not possess the magical prowess of his fictional counterpart, the real Maharal was a brilliant scholar and educator, widely respected by Jews and Christians alike.

Like his brothers, the Maharal studied under the tutelage of distinguished rabbis and was able to secure an engagement to the daughter of a wealthy Jewish businessman who paid for a kest, the financial support which allowed the young Maharal to continue his studies. Although his future father-in-law Schmuel suffered a reversal of fortune before the marriage was carried out and offered the Maharal the option to withdraw and seek another bride, the Maharal refused, saying that "he, Maharal, would remain faithful to his word and await God's help" (Winkler 1980:291).

Eventually the couple was able to marry. Legend has it that the Maharal's future wife Perl ran a bakery to help support her aging parents. One day a starving soldier came into her bakery and traded Perl a piece of cloth for a loaf of bread, a cloth which she later discovered was stuffed with gold coins. The wedding was carried out immediately.

By his early thirties the historical Maharal had earned both wealth and the high esteem of Jewish rabbinic circles. The couple had six daughters and a son. All of his daughters married talented Torah scholars, some of whom became the Maharal's closest disciples (16) (the Maharal's son-in-law Rabbi Katz along with his closet disciple Rabbi Yaakov is credited with having assisted him in creating the Golem). His only son was also a Torah prodigy, but died while in his late thirties or early forties. The Maharal spent time leading Jewish communities in Prague, Moravia and Posen before returning permanently to Prague to serve as Chief Rabbi in 1592. The Maharal spoke several languages and was responsible for creating innovative teaching methods for yeshiva (traditional Jewish religious study) students. In 1572 he initiated and successfully completed the disputations before Cardinal Sylvester and the three hundred clerics described in the Golem. (17)

Renowned for his Kabbalah knowledge and experience, on February 23, 1592, the Maharal was given a private audience with Emperor Rudolf II, who was himself a student of the occult. This meeting, which serves as a pivotal point in the conclusion of The Golem, was an unprecedented honor for a medieval Jew. The exact conversations of this meeting are unknown, but certainly served to enhance the Maharal's reputation both within and outside the Jewish community. The Maharal remained Chief Rabbi of Prague for over twenty years until ill health forced his retirement in 1604. The Maharal died in 1608 and was joined by his wife eight months later. Typical of the Maharal's reputation for humility, their graves in the still-surviving Jewish cemetery in Prague are marked only by a common tombstone.

The historical Maharal's reputation as both a community leader and head of a successful family no doubt contributed to the creation of his subsequent fictional role. Perl, his stalwart wife and companion in both reality and fantasy, played an important role in this evolution. The rabbi and his wife (the rebbetzin in Yiddish) were two of the most important fixtures in any Jewish community. Together, they represented the most important values of a Jewish life--family, love of God (which included the rabbi's ongoing religious scholarship) and love of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish community. The central and stabilising factor of European Jewish life and community was the rabbi; it was he who served as the spiritual, civic and legal leader.

A rabbi's duties required him to have considerable foresight, patience, wisdom and stamina. For Europe's severely persecuted Jews, it was often the rabbi who negotiated with the outside world, doing his best to protect his community from conflicts with overzealous local and imperial officials, tax collectors and others seeking to exploit (perceived) Jewish wealth and vulnerability. Winkler writes:

[O]ur noble sages were men of unusual humility, who never attempted to glorify themselves for their accomplishments. They became great leaders of our people, not through politicking or self-serving public relations activities, but by fleeing from glory and by living justly. They knew their strengths and had no need for exhibitionism. As our sages taught us in the Talmud: "One who pursues greatness, greatness flees from him; and one who flees from greatness; greatness pursues him" (Winkler 1980:6)

Although the rebbetzin has remained almost invisible in both Jewish folklore and history, she was as vital to the success of her husband as were his own abilities and charisma. Her life was often a difficult one, and her over-riding priority was to safeguard her husband's ability to continue with his holy studies. His work was paramount and took priority over any of her needs. Her support of her husband was absolute, with her even serving as fodder for his sermons and homilies. Scholar and author of Stories from the Rabbis Abram Isaacs notes "the fondness of the rabbis to utter a joke at a wife's expense" (Isaacs 1911:115).

Like most Eastern European Jewish wives, the rebbetzin was the breadwinner of the family, either through her parents or by her own business acumen, and very often a combination of both. Historian Yaffa Eliach captures perfectly the essence of the rebbetzin in her description of the dedication of Hendl Hunter (1850--1928), an Eishyshok (18) rebbetzin. Eliach tells how "[h]er reverence for scholarship was matched only by her respect for an honest day's work. 'God save me from idle time and scot-free money' was the prayer she later taught her granddaughters to recite, after the traditional one for the kindling of the Sabbath candles" (Eliach 1998:101). The Maharal himself benefitted by this tradition. By his early thirties he had "achieved the distinction of meriting ' Torah ugedullah bemakom echad,' excellence in Torah scholarship and material prosperity simultaneously" (Winkler 1980:291), due in part to his wife Perl's excellent housekeeping skills.

Although Perl appears as only a minor character in the story, she is the perfect personification of the mental toughness and endurance of the genuine rebbetzins of Europe. In a classic scene, she is annoyed at the Golem's idleness during the frenetic pre-Passover cleaning that everyone, even the Maharal, must participate in. She sharply tells him, "There's no reason whatsoever why you should be lying on your back all day staring at the ceiling while great scholars are on their knees staring at the floor!" (Winkler 1980:44).

The Maharal of the Golem displays in abundance all the essential qualities of a Jewish hero. (19) Like the mythical rabbis of Jewish folk lore and legend, he was "a learned sage ... who loved goodness, and lived a righteous life, in the stir and turmoil of the Western world" (Isaacs 1911:162). He was both a strict teacher and compassionate friend and advisor to his congregation. Through the adventures of the story, it is easy to see that "a double influence was clearly at work--the one purely intellectual, impelling men to study the law with ceaseless diligence; the other more emotional, spring from a certain moral cheerfulness which made them social beings, and preserved their sense of humor" (Isaacs 1911:114).

It was truly through his exemplary life and embodiment of Jewish hopes and values that resulted in the Maharal's place in The Golem. For there is no known link between the genuine Maharal and golem creation of any kind; the scholar Joshua Trachtenberg ties the association of the Golem legends to the Maharal as beginning only in the 1700s. He notes that "The legends of the golem were transferred, not before the eighteenth century, to R. Judah Low b. Bezalel, without any historical basis" (Trachtenberg 1939:85). Given this, it is a tribute to the Maharal and the incredibly high esteem he was held in by both Jews and non-Jews that the Golem of Prague has become solely his creation.


Primary source

Tanach: The Stone Edition edited Rabbi Nosson Scherman. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications. 1988.

Secondary sources

Bloch, Chayim. 19882. The Golem. New York, NY: Garber Communications.

Buxbaum, Yitzhak. 2005. The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Eliach, Yaffa. 1998. There Once Was a World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

Glinert, Lewis. 2001. "Golem! The making of a modern myth." Symposium, 55.2: (accessed June 11, 2007).

Goldstein, David. 1980. Jewish Folklore and Legend. London, UK: Hamlyn Publishing Group.

Goska, Danusha V. 1997. "Golem as Gentile, Golem as Sabra: an analysis of the manipulation of stereotypes of self and other in literary treatments of a legendary Jewish figure." New York Folklore, 13 golem.html (accessed October 19, 2007).

Honigsberg, David Rabbi. 2003. "Rava's Golem." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 96 rabbi/ravasmanr.htm (accessed October 13, 2007).

Isaacs, Abram S. 1911. Stories from the Rabbis. New York: Bloch Publishing Co.

Kohler, Kaufmann and Louis Ginzberg. 2002. "Sefer Yetzirah." Jewish Encyclopedia jsp?artid=40 & letter =Y & search =sefer %20 yetzirah (accessed September 2, 2007).

Marendy, Peter M. 2005. "Anti-Semitism, Christianity, and the Catholic Church: origins, consequences, and responses." Journal of the Church and State, 47.2 (accessed June 21, 2007).

Rosenberg, Yudl. 2007. The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague trans. Curt Leviant. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

Schwartz, Howard. 1998. Reimagining the Bible: the Storytelling of the Rabbis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Singer, Isidore and Isaac Broyde. 2002. "The Ten Martyrs." Jewish Encyclopedia =228 &letter= M& search=ten% 20martyrs (accessed February 2, 2007).

Trachtenberg, Joshua. 1939. Jewish Magic and Superstition. New York, NY: Athenum.

Winkler, Gershon. 1980. The Golem of Prague. New York, NY: The Judaica Press.

Zipes, Jack. 1994. Fairy Tale as Myth/Myth as Fairy Tale. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.


(1) The scholar Jack Zipes, who has written extensively on psychosocial importance of fairy tales, notes: "These myths and fairy tales are historically and culturally coded, and their ideological impact is great" (Zipes 1994:4).

(2) Also written as Loewe, Loew, "Liva, Lowi, Leib, Low, Levi" (Goska 1997:1).

(3) The Rabbi Yehudah Loevy of Prague was best known as the "Maharal" (the Hebrew acronym for Moreinu Harav Rabbeinu Loevy--Our Teacher the Rabbi Our Master Loevy).

(4) Aggadic or Aggadah. The Aggadah are biblical narratives, "hundreds upon hundreds of legends and fables, most of which serve to illustrate in some way the Scriptural text" (Goldstein 1980:9). The term "aggadah" is also sometimes used by scholars to refer to any sort of non-legal narrative in either the Bible or the Talmud.

(5) Blood libel is the medieval belief that Jews used Christian blood for secret religious rituals, particularly those related to the Jewish holiday of Passover. Most often the accusations featured a ritual murder charge, typically of young children. Blood libel accusations have created devastation in Jewish communities for centuries. These false and inflammatory accusations have fueled the torture, executions, massacres and mass expulsions of Jewish communities by a variety of opportunists eager to seize Jewish lands and possessions, including Christian mobs, greedy princes, and inquisitional courts.

(6) The Maharal, Jehudah Loevy Ben Bezalel, is said to have come from a "distinguished family that traced its ancestry back to the Davidic dynasty" (Winkler 1980:289). Bloch also links the Maharal to the biblical King David, saying that he was the "descendent of Rav Hai Gaon, scion of the seed of David in the male line" (1988:38).

(7) Much of golem making was carried out more for spiritual than practical purposes. In the Talmud, golem creation was considered primarily a mental exercise, not as a means to an end. Adepts used it almost as a type of capstone project, demonstrating their mastery of meditative skills, "that the Sefer Yetzirah had been mastered, and the golem was de-constructed upon its completion" (Honigsberg 2003:2). In contrast, Golem creation such as that described in the Golem was a wholly medieval process, derived from a mixture of Jewish and Christian medieval cultures.

(8) I deliberately use this term rather than "antisemitism" as I feel it more accurately describes the situation in medieval Europe. In his article "Anti-Semitism, Christianity, and the Catholic Church: origins, consequences, and responses," Peter Marendy draws a distinction between two very similar and often interchangeable terms: anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Specifically, he notes how the term "anti-Semitism" is generally used to mean the "racist oriented modern anti-Semitism which came to prominence in the late nineteenth century" (Marendy 2005:1). The concept of anti-Judaism, however, is based solely on religion, and "can be traced back to the growing estrangement between the early Christian communities and the Jewish leaders of formative Judaism in the Roman Empire of the first century of the common era." Marendy ties it specifically to the Jews' "stubborn refusal to accept [Christianity's] teachings about the Law and the Kingdom of God" (2005:2).

(9) The first story of the Golem that portrays the Golem as protecting the Jews from blood libel was published by Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg in 1909, as Nifla'ot Maharal im ha-Golem (The Golem, or the Miraculous Deeds of Rabbi Liva). He also simultaneously published a Yiddish version of the text, which was much abridged from the Hebrew version. A recently translated text of the Hebrew Version is now available (Rosenberg 2007).

(10) A famous Agaddic legend dealing with kiddush hashem is that of Asarah Haruge Malkut "The Ten Martyrs." It tells of the death of ten rabbis during the Mishnaic period (approximately 70-200 CE) who were martyred by the Emperor Hadrian for defying an edict forbidding them to teach their students the Torah. "Popular imagination seized upon this episode in Jewish history and embellished it with various legends relating the virtues of the martyrs and the fortitude shown by them during their execution." The legends eventually became a midrash, referred to by the same name or sometimes as Midrash Eleh Ezherah, of which four different versions exist. The ten rabbis named are Rabbi Simeon Ben Gamliel, who was beheaded; Rabbi Yishmael Ben Elisha, who was flayed; Rabbi Akiva, whose flesh was torn off with iron combs; Rabbi Hananiah Ben Teradyon, who was wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive; Rabbi Judah Ben Baba, who was pierced by lances; and Rabbis Huzpit, Yeshebab, Eliezer ben Shammua, Hananiah ben Hakinai, and Yehudah Ben Damah, whose deaths (mercifully, for the reader) were not described (Singer and Broyde 2002:1).

(11) Given that the Jewish communities in Europe were vastly outnumbered and most likely completely unarmed, this motif is hardly surprising.

(12) When people speak of the "Kabbalah," they generally mean the Spanish Kabbalah, the most well-known branch of Jewish mysticism that emerged from the twelfth-century Jewish communities in Spain. Jewish mysticism, a movement since the second century CE, sought a more intimate relationship with God, one that bypassed traditional paths of life-long study for a more emotional and personal approach. The most influential book on Jewish mysticism was the thirteenth century Book of Zohar.

(13) Sefer Yetzirah is actually the title of two different versions of one book: an older version called Hilkot Yetzirah (the Rules of Creation) and a later version also called Sefer Yetzirah (the Book of Creation). The former was a thaumaturgical text to which many of the miracles in the Talmud were tied. "Its basal idea is that the same mystic powers that were at work in the creation of the world should also aid the magician in performing his miraculous feats" (Kohler and Ginzberg 2002). The later and more esoteric version dealt with the concepts of angels and God, and was attributed to Rabbi Akiva and Abraham. It was and still remains extremely popular among Jewish mystics.

(14) The Torah forbids the use of magic, equating it with idol worship. Winkler says, "A sorcerer, or a practitioner of black magic, is therefore abhorred in the Torah, for such an individual lies his or her way into the sphere of the spiritual order and makes use of its energies illegitimately" (1980:346).

(15) This point is especially ironic with concern to blood libel accusation, because this very important principle actually prevented Jewish magicians or Kabbalists from practising black (harmful) magic, the very charge being levelled against them by blood libel accusations.

(16) Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shimshon HaKhohen Katz, and Rabbi Yaakov been Chayyim HaLevi Sasson (Winkler 1980:4).

(17) In Winkler's version, see page three of "Introduction." In Bloch's version, see the chapter "The Disputation," beginning on page 53.

(18) Eishyshok was a Lithuanian shtetl approximately thirty miles from Vilnus, destroyed during World War II.

(19) The fictional Maharal has also been compared to an earlier rabbi, Rabbi Adam (also known as Rabbi Adam Baal Shem). Rabbi Adam was also said to possess enormous Kabbalistic powers and "a handwritten manuscript of a book that contained the deepest secrets of the Kabbalah, including the practical Kabbalah--how to use divine Names to perform miracles" (Buxbaum 2005:36). Schwartz notes that the characterisations of the two men/mythical figures are so similar that a tale of a magical castle and banquet created by the rabbi is identical for each (this story appears in Bloch's version as "The Banquet" [1988:225]). Schwartz theorises that "The source about Rabbi Adam is the older of the two and is a vivid illustration of how Rabbi Adam became the model for subsequent Jewish sorcerers" (Schwartz 1998:80).
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Publication:The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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