WHEN PEOPLE IN PERIL despair of human succour, they turn to the supernatural. This theme, which lies at the heart of the folklore of many cultures, is also the motif of the medieval legend of the golem--a humanoid created at God's behest to rescue the unjustly persecuted. There are many variations of the golem story. The one chosen for this book is among the best-known.

In 16th-century Prague, a wastrel nobleman, having gambled away his fortune, is heavily in debt and turns to a Jewish banker, Reb Eliezer. When the banker, to whom the count already owes a good deal of money, refuses to make an additional loan, the count devises a vengeful plot to destroy the banker while giving himself access to the jewels that are his young daughter's legacy. He resorts to a well-worn libel: that Jews bake Passover matzohs with the blood of a Christian child. His own little daughter, the count declares, has been abducted by Reb Eliezer for this nefarious purpose.

Things look grim for the banker and other leaders of the Jewish community who are accused of being co-conspirators. At his prayers, the community's spiritual leader, Rabbi Leib, is interrupted by a heavenly messenger who materializes through a locked door to tell the rabbi:

"Make a golem and he will save you."

"A golem? How? From what?"

"From clay. You will engrave one of God's seventy-two names on the golem's forehead, and with the power of that Sacred Name he will live for a time and do his mission. His name will be Joseph. But take care that he should not fall into the follies of flesh and blood."

Obeying the messenger's instructions, the rabbi constructs a clay giant in the image of a man, and the golem saves Reb Eliezer by producing the missing child. News of the event reaches the emperor, who commands Rabbi Leib to bring the golem to the palace. "With a giant like this," the emperor says, "you Jews could conquer the whole world. What guarantee do we have that you will not invade all the countries and make all of us into slaves?" The rabbi responds, "We Jews have tasted slavery in the land of Egypt and therefore we don't want to enslave others. The golem is only a temporary help to us in a time of exceptional danger."

The golem is due to be destroyed, but the rabbi's wife begs him first to employ the giant's strength to help the poor by moving a heavy boulder under which gold is said to be buried. The rabbi yields, only to discover that, just as he has disobeyed the injunction that the golem's sole mission is to save people in peril, the golem is now able to disobey the rabbi's commands and refuses to bend its head so that the life-giving word on its forehead can be erased. Rampaging over the city, the golem explores the sensations of eating, drinking and carousing, each day falling deeper into "the follies of flesh and blood" until an orphan girl who has befriended him succeeds in lulling him into a drunken stupor. Now the rabbi can remove the Holy Name and reduce the golem to lifeless clay.

Ten brooding black-and-white drawings by Uri Shulevitz suggest the dark nature of the legend. No translator is cited, although, as is well known, Singer writes in Yiddish. Whoever did the translation (perhaps Singer himself?) produced a careless piece of work. In the book's first sentence, for example, Rabbi Leib is described as "the famous Cabbalist" but the term is not explained here or in subsequent references to the Cabalah, a mystical interpretation of the Scriptures. Nor has the author (or his editor) taken the trouble to translate other Hebrew words, so that the book's young readers are helped to understand that "yeshivah" is a school and that "kaddish" is the memorial prayer for the dead. There is also a curious mistranslation. The rabbi is said to have conjured up supernatural forces by using "various cameos and talismans." A bright child-- the publishers classify this book as suitable for ages 8-up-- might be able to understand, or at least look up, "talismans." But "cameos"?

More regrettable than these flaws are the frequent lapses from idiomatic English. The golem is described as "grunting from pleasure." The emperor hesitates to aggravate Rabbi Leib; what is meant is "antagonize." The rabbi tells the heavenly visitor, "We are sinking to our very necks in tribulations." At one point Singer forgets he is writing a third-person narrative and slides into the first person. "Our" salvation, he says, cannot come from physical strength.

All told, one has the impression that this text is a draft that no one bothered to review or edit. Children deserve better.