The Thirty Six

Question

Hi Rabbi, I read that there are 36 righteous people in every generation whose identities are hidden from the world. My question is: Why do they stay hidden? Shouldn’t they be in the thick of society as renowned Torah leaders? I wonder if it’s possible that I might be one of these 36?! Thanks for this terrific Ask the Rabbi service which Gateways provides!

 

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Answers

  1. Jewish tradition teaches that the world’s existence is dependent on there being 36 truly righteous people in each generation. They are colloquially known as the “Lamed Vav” — because the Hebrew letter “Lamed” corresponds to the numerical value of 30 and the letter “Vav” corresponds to the number 6.

    The identities of these 36 righteous people are not known to us. Even if we attempt to guess their identities — which I have heard many people do, at least partially — we cannot be certain that our conjecture is correct. Why not? As mortal physical beings — despite the Divine soul inside each of us — we are capable only of distinguishing the righteous aspect of a person that the person wishes to reveal.

    And why would they not wish to reveal the true extent of their elevated righteousness? Since a major task of the “36 hidden righteous ones” is to sustain the world through their righteousness, they are not to be distracted by the mantle of leadership. A leadership role often requires being involved in trying to settle difficult (and sometimes impossible) ugly disagreements and discord. Although it certainly necessary that wise and righteous people dedicate themselves to positions of leadership, there is always a risk that such involvement will — even to a miniscule extent, undetectable to others — result in their diminished spiritual existence.

    This does not mean that a great Torah leader cannot be righteous — even totally righteous. Of course it is possible! But even if a person’s greatness as a leader clearly ranks that person in the “Top 36,” the true degree of his real righteousness can be discerned only by God.

    Could you be one of the 36? Possibly. I say this without knowing you, but, based on what I have written, even if I knew you well, I don’t think I would have a clue what the answer to your question is!

    Best wishes from the AskTheRabbi.org Team