As a boy, and up until today, I was always intrigued by the concept and tradition of the 36 hidden righteous. I remember people speaking of them with great reverence, in whispers and undertones. Unfortunately, nowadays, they are spoken of in the wrong context and freely, whether out of ignorance or misconception and sometimes in the most inappropriate ways. And so I did some research in Hasidic and other sources and came up with some interesting points.
For many faiths, there are the punishments and rewards of the afterlife to motivate us to be good on earth. But not everyone spends a lot of time pondering these future realms or even believing in them. So then, why bother to be good?
But there is a wonderful old Hasidic legend that addresses this issue, with the suggestion that more might be at stake in this life than you think.
According to a very old Jewish mystical tradition, at all times in history there are 36 righteous men who wander the earth unknown to everyone else, including one another. These are the Lamed-Vavnikim, or the Tzadikim Nistarim.
These men, who wander the earth unknown, are absolutely critical to the existence of the human race, because as long as they continue to exist, the anger of almighty God is held back from the earth for their sake. Even if the world were to become completely depraved, for the sake of these few righteous men, doom will not yet fall on this present world.
The inspiration for this medieval idea certainly has its roots in the Bible. In Chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis, God descends to earth to visit Abraham, to inform the patriarch that his wife Sarah would bear a child in their old age. After this, the Lord announced that he intended to visit the city of Sodom because the outcry against their sins was very great.
Abraham interceded for the people of Sodom, asking the Almighty if he would not spare the city if only he found 50 righteous men there. The Lord agreed to this, whereupon Abraham argued God down to 45, and then 40, and then 30, and even down to 20 and then to 10.
Abraham’s debate with God is one of my favorite Bible stories, and it makes a gracious point—for the sake of the few God might spare the many.
In Genesis, God will spare Sodom for the sake of 10. The number 10 is certainly a sacred one and there are many examples of groups of 10 in the Bible, beginning with the 10 sons of Jacob who went down into Egypt. But while the unknown worthy men of Sodom account for the principle of hidden righteous ones, where does the number 36 derive from?
The origins of the legend may be with Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who lived in the Holy Land in the second century CE and who in a biblical commentary declared that if certain men were alive in his own day, God would certainly not destroy the world. In his list of urgently needed righteous types of men, Rabbi Shimon included himself and his son and various biblical worthies.
A century later, Abbaye, one of the sages of the Talmud, added his comment to Rabbi Shimon, saying that at all times, “there are never less that 36 men who greet the Shekhinah,” or the earthly presence of God.
Abbaye based his judgment on Isaiah 30:18, which reads in part, “blessed are all those who wait for Him.” The words “for Him” in Hebrew are also “lamed vav” or the digits for 36, and so the number became fixed. Modern scholars have suggested that the fact that ancient astrology believed that the sky, the courts of heaven, was traditionally divided into 36 sections of 10, giving us our modern 360 degrees of a circle, may have influenced the numbering for the Talmudic sages.
In medieval Jewish mysticism, the 36 men came to be known as the Tzadikim Nistarim, or the “hidden righteous ones.” Within the rich culture of the Hasidic Jews, this group began to be more and more defined. These secret people are righteous men whose actions are good and compassionate. They do not know that they are among the 36, and their humility is so great that were they to discover that they are indeed these righteous ones, they would cease to be them. Therefore any person who declared himself to be one of the hidden ones would certainly not be one. But God knows who they are and for their sake he spares the rest of us.
The Hasidic Jews loved to attribute wonderful powers to the holiest of their rabbis, and so in some of the writings one finds disciples of great rabbis wondering of their master might be one of the 36. In Hasidic legend these men are scattered around the Diaspora, that is, the communities of Jews across the world.
On occasion, one of the Tzadikim Nistarim will emerge from obscurity to save a Jewish community or some group of innocent people from disaster or persecution. But then he will always return to obscurity in the Jewish settlements again. These are, of course, ordinary men, not angels, who live and die as anyone else. When one of the hidden ones does die, his role is then passed unseen to another unknowing worthy character.
There is a beautiful moral point to this legend, which many Jewish scholars have noted. Since we do not know exactly who these 36 righteous ones are among us, it certainly calls forth some moral points for everyone.
First, we should all strive to be kind to all whom we meet, particularly the least among us, for one never knows if you may not be offering kindness to one of the very 36 on whom the survival of the world depends.
Secondly, each person should strive at all times to conduct himself or herself with honesty and charity according to God’s law, for who knows if you might not be one on whom the world depends?
And finally, the legend suggests a reminder call to humility for all people, because it is not by your own cleverness, power, wit or wealth that the community depends, but on those who are morally more sincere.
So let each of us be compassionate, humble and honest, because perhaps today you will walk by one of the Tzadikim Nistarim, on whom the world depends.
By Yehiel Levy