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.