The 36 saints….ask the the rabbi

December 19, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple has the answer about the 36 hidden saints.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. I have heard that Judaism believes there are 36 unsung heroes in every generation. What does this concept mean?

A. This fascinating topic of 36 hidden saints of each generation, the “Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim”, has several principles:

• The world rests on righteousness, especially on righteous people.
• They are often not aware of their own greatness: Moses “knew not that his face shone” (Ex. 34:35).
• If their greatness were known, the spell would be broken.
• Each generation has 36 such “tzaddikim”.

Andre Schwarz-Bart used the theme to build his novel, “The Last of the Just”, 1959. It depicts generations of inherited virtue beginning in the Middle Ages and ending with the Holocaust.

The story is intriguing and addictive, but historically questionable – not in relation to the events it relates, since a novel is not a history, but because there is no evidence that being a “Lamed-Vavnik” is inherited and can come to an end.

What is the basis of the concept? Mishlei 10:25 says the tzaddik is the foundation of the world. The Talmud says that every generation has tzaddikim who are as great as the patriarchs.

How many are there in each age? There are various views; the sages of Eretz Yisrael (Chullin 92a) say 30, the Babylonians (Sanh. 97b) say 36. Both figures are supported by gematrias.

Why these numbers, which are both multiples of 6? And where do we get the idea of tzaddikim being concealed?

The significance of 6 is that it is not 7. 7 represents completeness, 6 symbolises imperfection, like a week without Shabbat: so in a sense the tzaddik is the Shabbat of the world. 36 is six sixes.

In Alexandrian Jewish philosophy, imperfection is 6 squared; in astrology there are 36 decans, each governing ten degrees of the 360 degree zodiac, and medieval manuscripts give each of them the name of a Biblical character from Adam to Ezra.

The idea that the power of the righteous depends on their concealment is quite recent, though Judaism is punctuated by stories of modest tzaddikim.

Gershom Scholem thinks the Jewish idea of hidden saints may have been adopted and developed in Islam and re-entered Judaism in the distinction between the “concealed” and “revealed” tzaddik, the “nistar” and “mefursam”, and the Chassidic doctrine that anyone can have latent messianic potential.

The two concepts – the 36 saints and the latent messiah – appear to have become woven together to produce the idea that one of the 36 tzaddikim of the age is the Mashi’ach, who will be revealed only if the generation is worthy.

The message is twofold: my quiet unassuming neighbour may be a “Lamed-Vavnik”: so may I; and no-one should be too impressed or intimidated by noisy, assertive religiosity. Real piety does not need to throw stones or go on parade.


Out of sheer kindness you sometimes ask a friend, “How are you?” and the answer is, “You shouldn’t ask… my head hurts, my back hurts, my legs hurt; I’m going to the doctor, the physiotherapist, the acupuncturist, the psychiatrist, all the ‘ists you can think of. How am I? You shouldn’t ask!”

In Judaism, the rule is quite different. On Pesach, for example, you should, you must ask. Without the questions there would be no Seder.

Questions are part of every aspect of Jewish life. The questions are sometimes for rabbis; on religious and ethical issues, one must use the rabbi for information and guidance.

Sometimes our questions are for God; one that Moses addressed to the Almighty echoes through the ages – “Why do You deal harshly with Your people?”

Sometimes the questions are for ourselves; at the very beginning of history God asks Adam, “Where are you?”

The one thing that a Jew should not do is to imagine that “M’darf nicht fregen” – “one shouldn’t ask questions”. Nor should one say, “Az m’fregt a sha’olah, iz treif” – “if you ask a question, the answer is always no!”

Abraham, Moses, Job, Rabbi Akiva… all asked God difficult questions about how He ran the universe, and God did not remove them from Jewish history. God gave us minds and expects us to use them.

So what if the questions we ask of other people, God, or ourselves are difficult? It is said that a chief rabbi of London, Hirschel Levin, was asked why he was leaving and he answered, “Because that’s the first question anyone has asked me!”

In today’s world so much is happening, and we dare not squash or suppress our curiosity. In Jewish life likewise. The Midrash says that when a child asks, “What is Judaism?” it is a bad sign because there is ignorance; but a good sign, because there is interest.

Where do you find answers? Buy books and read them. Attend courses and classes, and get your mind working. Find a mentor, and ask questions. Use the electronic media; the Internet is a remarkable source of stimulation.

Above all, never pretend that you know enough and are comfortable with the sort of Jew you are. The best Jew is the one who every day is trying to become a better Jew.

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