The Tzadikim Nistarim
or Lamed Vav Tzadikim
(ל"ו צדיקים) (often abbreviated to "the Lamed Vav(niks)", the 36) refers to 36 Righteous people
, a notion rooted within the more mystical
dimensions of Judaism
. (In Hebrew gematria
is the letter representing "thirty", and vav
represents "six". Tzadikim
is the plural for "righteous").
The source is the Talmud
itself, explained as follows:
- As a mystical concept, the number 36 is even more intriguing. It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed, which is 30, and the vav, which is six. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim. This widely-held belief, this most unusual Jewish concept is based on a Talmudic statement to the effect that in every generation 36 righteous "greet the Shechinah," the Divine Presence (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b).
Mystical Hasidic Judaism as well as other segments of Judaism know that there is the Jewish tradition of 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of mankind in the eyes of God; their identity is unknown to each other; if one of them comes to a realization of his true purpose then he may die and his role is immediately assumed by another person:
- The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim are also called the Nistarim ("concealed ones"). In our folk tales, they emerge from their self-imposed concealment and, by the mystic powers, which they possess, they succeed in averting the threatened disasters of a people persecuted by the enemies that surround them. They return to their anonymity as soon as their task is accomplished, 'concealing' themselves once again in a Jewish community wherein they are relatively unknown. The lamed-vavniks, scattered as they are throughout the Diaspora, have no acquaintance with one another. On very rare occasions, one of them is 'discovered' by accident, in which case the secret of their identity must not be disclosed. The lamed-vavniks do not themselves know that they are ones of the 36. In fact, tradition has it that should a person claim to be one of the 36, that is proof positive that he is certainly not one. Since the 36 are each exemplars of anavah, ("humility"), having such a virtue would preclude against one’s self-proclamation of being among the special righteous. The 36 are simply too humble to believe that they are one of the 36.
is the Yiddish
term for one of the 36 humble righteous ones or Zaddikim
mentioned in kabbalah
or Jewish mysticism. According to this teaching, at any given time there are at least 36 holy Jews in the world who are Tzadikim
. These holy people are hidden, i.e., nobody knows who they are. According to some versions of the story, they themselves may not know who they are. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has degenerated to the level of total barbarism. This is similar to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah
in the Hebrew Bible
, where God told Abraham
that he would spare the city of Sodom if there was a quorum of at least 10 righteous men. Since nobody knows who the Lamedvavniks
are, not even themselves, every Jew should act as if
he or she might be one of them, i.e., lead a holy and humble life and pray for the sake of fellow human beings and for planetary healing. It is also said that one of these 36 could potentially be the Jewish Messiah
if the world is ready for him to reveal himself. Otherwise, he lives and dies as an ordinary person. Whether or not he himself knows he is the potential Messiah is debated.
The term lamedvavnik is derived from the Hebrew letters Lamed (L) and Vav (V), whose numerical value adds up to 36. The "nik" at the end is a Russian or Yiddish suffix indicating "a person who..." (In English, this would be something like calling them "The Thirty-Sixers".) The number 36 is twice 18. In gematria (a form of Jewish numerology), the number 18 stands for "life," because the Hebrew letters that spell chai, meaning "living," add up to 18. Because 36 = 2x18, it represents "double life."
In some Hasidic stories, disciples consider their Rebbes and other religious figures to be among the Lamedvavniks. It is also possible for a Lamedvavnik to reveal himself as such, although that rarely happens - a Lamedvavnik's status as an exemplar of humility would preclude it. More often, it is the disciples who speculate.
These beliefs are articulated in the works of Max Brod
, and some (like Jorge Luis Borges
) believe the concept to have originated in the Book of Genesis
- And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.
- André Schwarz-Bart's book The Last of the Just (Le Dernier des Justes) is organized around the tradition of the thirty-six just men and re-interprets this tradition in light of the Holocaust.
- An analogous group of individuals may be discerned within the Islamic tradition of the Kutb and The Abdals.
- Sven Westerberg's crime fiction novel The Silence of the Jewess is partly and loosely based around this concept.
- Also concerned with this subject are the fiction novels "The Righteous Men", written by Sam Bourne and "The Book of Names" by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori.
- In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series, it is suggested that Emperor Norton may be one of the tzadikim.
- In Nicole Krauss's book "The History of Love", the character Emmanuel Chaim Singer ("Bird") thinks he is a lamed vovnik and possibly even the Jewish Messiah.
- An episode of the 1970's radio show CBS Radio Mystery Theater called "The 36th Man" is about a dying Lamed Vavnik who endows a virtuous man with the title.
- In his funeral speech for president Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger referred to the Tzadikim Nistarim.