Editor's note: A Maryland author writes of a saintly rabbi who miraculously brings to life a clay giant to help protect the Jews of 16th century Prague.

Within the beautiful city of Prague, fierce hatreds have raged for a thousand years. People of differing beliefs in God and nation have clashed violently here: Czech against German, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Jew.

In the year 1580, the Jews of Prague were bearing the ignorant fury of others. Enemies had accused them of mixing the blood of Christian children with the flour and water of matzoh, the unleavened Passover bread. This "Blood Lie" incited angry mobs to great cruelty against the Jews.

Judah Loew ben Bezalel, chief rabbi of Prague, knew that violence lay ahead. Deeply troubled, he entered his study to fast and pray for the deliverance of his people. He fell into restless slumber and dreamed of fire and ruin. When all seemed lost, a hand of light appeared and wrote one glowing word upon the smoke and ashes: GOLEM.

Rabbi Loew woke with a start. Golem was a giant of living clay, animated by Cabala, mystical teachings of untold power. Only the most righteous man, a tzaddik, could create and control such a creature. Was this the heavenly answer he sought? Rising from his desk, the rabbi peered into the night. Shouted curses and drunken threats hurtled over the ghetto wall like stones. He decided it must be so.

Rabbi Loew led Golem to the attic above his study. "You have been created for one reason," said the rabbi. "To protect the Jews. Do you understand?"

"Yes," said Golem.

"You will guard the ghetto at night and catch those planting false evidence of the Blood Lie. They are godless men, carrying bottles of blood or the body of a missing child. You must bring them unharmed to the authorities. Do you understand?"

"Yes," said Golem.

"By day, you will be a servant in the synagogue - a shamash. Your name will be Joseph. Do you understand?

"Yes," said Golem. He stared at the rabbi. "How long shall I live?"

This startled Rabbi Loew. "Until the Jews are no longer in danger," he replied. "Then you will return to the earth from whence you came. Do you understand?"

Golem said nothing.

"Do you understand, Joseph?" repeated Rabbi Loew.

"Yes," said Golem.

Golem's arrival shocked Rabbi Loew's people, but the rabbi calmed them. "Joseph is a devoted servant of Israel," he declared. "His strength will be a blessing to us all." And so it was. Hardly a night passed that Golem did not frustrate efforts to spread the Blood Lie.

With the jail full of Golem's arrests, the thoughtful people of Prague began to see the Blood Lie for the slander it was. This enraged the enemies of the Jews. They gathered a mob and marched to the ghetto, hoping to start a riot.

Rabbi Loew summoned Golem and hurried to the gates of the ghetto. The giant seemed taller than before; the rabbi could barely see the mark of Truth on his forehead.

The first wave of attackers screamed in terror when they saw Golem looming above them. With the back of his hand, he swept them aside. Still the rabble surged in, propelled by those in back. Golem took hold of the battering ram and, snapping it in two, raked great furrows in the crowd.

Leaving the dead and wounded, the mob fled in panic.

The next day, Rabbi Loew was summoned to Prague Castle. "What will you do now?" demanded the emperor. "Will you conquer this city with your giant and enslave us all?"

"Would a people celebrating the end of their own slavery wish to inflict slavery on others?" replied the rabbi. "No! Golem was created to protect the Jews. He has no other purpose."

"How long will the monster live?" asked the emperor.

"Until the Jews are no longer in danger," answered Rabbi Loew.

"Then I guarantee the safety of your people," the emperor declared. "Destroy Golem!"

"It will be done," said the rabbi. "But if we are threatened again, Golem will return, stronger than before."

From GOLEM. Text and illustration copyright ) 1996 by David Wisniewski. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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