The 36 Just Men who save the world

Jewish tradition holds that each generation is saved by 36 righteous people.

By CECIL BLOOM
October 10, 2005 22:09

 
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There is an old Jewish legend that every generation has 36 saints (lamedvavnikim) on whose piety the fate of the world depends. The Book of Proverbs provides an early source for the belief that the just man is the basis of the existence of the world: “When the storm wind passes, the wicked is no more, but the righteous is an everlasting foundation” (10:25). That is to say, that the righteous man holds up and supports the world just as the foundations of a building support it. Another source for the legend is from the Mishnaic period (1st2nd century): “When the righteous come to the world, good comes to the world and misfortune is removed but when the righteous pass away disaster comes and goodness leaves the world” (Tosefta, Sofa 10:1). The specific reference to this phenomenon is in the Babylonian Talmud, which attributes to a fourth-century Babylonian teacher, Abbaye, the statement: “There are not less than 36 righteous men in every generation who receive the Shechina (the Divine presence). It is written, happy are all they who wait for Him” (Sanhedrin 97b; Sukkot 45a). The Hebrew for “Him” (lamed vav) also represents the number 36 in Hebrew numerology (Gematria) and this provides the basis for the number of saints. The number may al so be derived from the verse in the : “Happy are all they who hope for Him” (Isaiah 30:18), which has been interpreted to mean: “Happy are all they who hope for the 36,” that is, who depend or rely on these 36 just men. There is a less well-accepted belief that there are 72 saints. The Zohar points to Hosea 10:2, which reads: “Their heart is divided.” The gematria of “their heart” in Hebrew is 72, which some have interpreted as representing 36 saints in Eretz Israel and 36 in the Diaspora. At first the Talmud viewed lamedvavnikim merely as being good individuals, but later they began to be seen as hidden saints and many legends then circulated about them. Unrecognized by their fellow men and unknown even to each other, they are said to pursue humble occupations such as artisans or water-carriers. They do not admit their identity to anyone and, if challenged, would deny their membership. The Almighty is said to replace a lamedvavnik immediately upon death. A just man is believed to emerge and use his hidden powers when a Jewish community is threatened and return to obscurity once his task has been completed. This belief has given rise to the suspicion that a stranger who suddenly appears and who seems mysterious may be a lamedvavnik. Several legends claim that one of the 36 is the Messiah, who will reveal himself when the time is ripe. Others contend that as soon as a hidden just man is revealed, he dies. It has been argued that the number 36 derives from sources other than those discussed above. One is that it comes from ancient astrology where the 360 degrees of the heavenly circle are divided into 36 units of “deans” and these deans were looked upon as guardians of the universe. Another theory is that 36 is the square of six which is said to be the symbol of the created world in Alexandrian Jewish philosophy but both these theories are not convincing. Little research, however, seems to have been carried out to conclusively identify the legend’s origin. The lamedvavnik tradition is an Ashkenazi belief Sephardim do not recognize it but it has been present in Kabbalistic literature from the 16th century and in hassidic legends from the late 18th century. There are two 18th-century kabbalistic books whose authors, Rabbi Neta of Szinawa and Rabbi Eisik, a shohet from Przemysl, have been described as being lamedvavnikim. Hassidim recognize two categories of saint: those who work in full view and the hidden ones who belong to a higher order of men. Tales of the lamedvavnikim are widespread, particularly in hassidic literature. The noted hassidic scholar, Martin Buber, also introduced the lamedvavnik into some of his writings. Some hassidic tales emphasize the role of the saint behind a boorish or uncouth facade, a theme also used in some stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Apparently, this was to make people believe that a noble soul could live within every man and that one should not draw conclusions from appearances. Prominent writers, from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in the 18th century to 20th-century writers of the stature of S.Y. Agnon and Elie Wiesel have been attracted to the subject. Rabbi Nachman’s The Prince who was made entirely of precious stones introduces us to two lamedvavnikim who, on different occasions, helped a king to beget a daughter and a son and also to save the son from disaster. In Agnon’s The Hidden Tzaddik, the lamedvavnik is a stovemaker who wants to be buried “in a plot where the stillborn are buried” and whose grave should not be marked with a tombstone. Agnon followed the tradition faithfully, but Rabbi Nachman’s tale indicated that others knew of the identity of the two lamedvavnikim because it was only when the king ordered the Jewish community to help him that the two saints were produced. Elie Wiesel’s One of the Just Men also abandons the idea that the identity of these men is hidden, but Albert Memmi keeps to the traditional view in his The Unrecognised Just Men. One novel on the subject, Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, achieved best-seller status in 1960. Ernie Levy, a descendant of the 12th-century R.Yom Tov Levy is depicted as being one of the Just Men, inheriting the honor through his family line. The story of the Levy family begins in York in 1185, covers the Inquisition and pogroms in Kiev and describes many other indignities. Ernie is the last of the line and he is destroyed in Hitler’s gas chambers. Schwartz-Bart’s interpretation of the legend is a controversial one because the honor of being a lamedvavnik is not handed down from father to son. Nevertheless, this novel that won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, France’s most important literary award, gave rise to much interest in the legend.

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