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The Legend of the Thirty-Six

There are not less than 36 tzaddikim/righteous persons in the world who receive the Shekhinah/the Divine Presence

-- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b

            The notion of the thirty-six righteous ones appears in the Talmud, the oral tradition of Judaism, as a teaching of one of the Babylonian rabbis, Abbaye. In Abbaye's teaching, the world required a minimum of thirty-six righteous individuals in order to exist. There follows an argument: what happens if there are not thirty-six in the world? How will the world be redeemed?

            The idea may have been suggested by the famous story in the Bible of Sodom, in which Abraham argued with God to save the wicked city (Genesis, chapter 18). God agreed, if ten righteous individuals could be found there. Abraham won the argument but lost the fight; Sodom was destroyed, seemingly because the minimum, ten righteous individuals, could not be found. That's the shadow side of the story of the thirty-six: it's a minimum. Sometimes the world may not contain thirty-six righteous individuals.

            In later Kabbalistic folklore, the thirty-six hidden ones have the potential to save the world, they appear when they are needed, and one of them might be the Messiah. They come at times of great peril, called out of their anonymity and humility by the necessity to save the world. Because they can, because we need them.

            We began to get familiar with them, referring to them in Yiddish as the lamed vov-niks (lamed vov is Hebrew for thirty-six), and seeing them everywhere in the anonymous acts of good people who rise to great acts in difficult circumstances. And because one of the lamed vov-niks, one of the anonymous thirty-six might be the Messiah, we tended to treat strangers with kindness and the possibility that he or she could be the one.

            It could be the person we least suspect, because the thirty-six, like all the sustaining notions of the world in the Kabbalah, are hidden. They may appear, they may not appear. If they do appear, they may be known, they may be unknown. In each generation, we look for them everywhere.

The Hidden and the Revealed

            This is how I came to understand the legend of the thirty-six, of the lamed vov-niks, as a story about redemption, through the implied question, the shadow story: what if there were not thirty-six? What then?

            I knew that Ben-Zion had done a book of poems and drawings on the theme of the Thirty-six. Ben-Zion began as a poet, writing in Hebrew. When he came to the United States in 1920, he learned that there might not be much of a market in New York City for a Yiddish-speaking poet writing in Hebrew, so he threw himself into the visual arts. He continued to write poetry. "Where are your poems?" Hillel Halkin once asked him. "Under my bed."

             What is it about the individual stories of the tzaddikim, of the righteous ones, that captivates? They were identified not only by being anonymous, or secret, but because they were all agents of making the hidden revealed. In some accounts, that was their purpose: to make the hidden revealed.

             I went searching for the story of the thirty-six in the Talmud and I found that what follows it is the argument between the two Babylonians, Rav and Shmuel: was teshuvah [transformation] necessary for the redemption of the world, or was it enough to stand in our mourning?

            In my mind, I went swimming in the sea of the Talmud and bumped into someone I knew. If I knew the two stories were contiguous, I had forgotten. I learned, again, that for Shmuel, suffering is enough for redemption.

            About the thirty-six, about teshuvah, neither will save the world. Not the thirty-six, because it's a minimum of thirty-six according to the Talmud, the implication being that there may come a generation, there may have been, in which there are not thirty-six. Isn't that what occasions the argument between Rav and Shmuel? The thought of a world without thirty-six was inexorably sad to me.

             I knew, in my blood in my bones, that I had been born into a generation in which there were not thirty-six. I knew this from the stories that my parents hid from me, from a world abandoned, if not to evil, to complacency.

            There was a letter in the newspaper quoting a great light of a previous generation. When asked why the Holocaust, the Lubavitcher Rebbe put his head down on his desk and cried.

            Teshuvah, too, will not save us. I understood, like Shmuel, that the world will not be saved by this, by that, what to do? Be with your suffering. Those are actually the words from the Talmud: to stand with your mourning. It sounds so contemporary.

            I don't know how the world is to be saved, unless it is to repair it with tears. To weep the world well, so to speak, saving the world with our tears. I understood something new about the place of tears in our High Holiday liturgy.

            I realized, too, that weeping was the center of the story in the Talmud, and the connection between the legend of the thirty-six and teshuvah. The world would not be saved in the common, obvious ways; it may not be saved even by the righteous, there may be too few of them, nor by the sincere acts of repentance. It would be saved only by our tears.

james stone goodman

united states of america

"36 Stories," Poems about the lamed vov-niks can be found here

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