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FRIDAY, MARCH 20, 2009
Lamed Vavniks: The thirty-six righteous who sustain the world
[One of the 36 hidden?]
A slight digression from my earlier entries on esoteric masters of the Talmud, but not much of one. Think of it as a byway on the theme. A congregant asked me about the Tzadikim Nistarim(Heb.) or Lamed Vovniks/"Thirty-Sixers" (Yiddish).
The Thirty-Six [Righteous] are the minimum number of utterly moral people in each generation that are necessary to sustain the world. The legend evidently evolved from an earlier tradition of interpreting the “thirty shekels of silver” mentioned in Zechariah 11:12 as an allegory for godly people; God ensures there will always be thirty righteous people in every generation.
It also may have roots in the story of Abraham's efforts to save Sodom (Gen. 18), where it becomes evident that any society must have a minimum number of decent people in order to survive (Gen. R. 49:3; Zohar I:105b; Tikkunei Zohar, 21).
In the earliest version of this idea in rabbinic literature, found in Gen. R. 49:3, there are forty-five, “fifteen in Babylon, thirty in the land of Israel.” There is no firm explanation for how the tradition settles upon the number thirty-six (Sanh. 97b). Perhaps it is symbolic of "abundant life": double the number eighteen, the number value of the word chai / "life." According to the “thirty-six” legend, most of the thirty-six are nisterim, unknown, anonymously doing their good work unnoticed by the world. A esoteric prooftext for the number is found in Isaiah 30:18 - "For the Eternal is a God of justice; fortunate are those who wait for Him." In Hebrew, the pronoun "for Him" has the numeric value of 36. Thus the verse is read as "...fortunate are those who wait - [the] 36" (Thanks to the anonymous reader who called my attention to this Isa. verse)
The reward for their anonymous labors is that they are privileged to directly experience the Shekhinah. One of them in each generation is suitable to be the Messiah (Sanh. 97b; Chul. 45a; Gen. R. 35:2; Mid. Teh. 5:5; Zohar 2:151a).
The fine Holocaust novel by Andre Bart-Schwarz, The Last of the Just, employs this legend, but "christianizes" this Jewish tradition in that the book claims that the 36 are destined to suffer for the sake of sustaining the world. Suffering and myrtrdom is not a big element of the lamed-vavnik tradition