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Jewish World Review
June 19, 2008
/ 16 Sivan 5768
The saints who don't come marchin' in
Rabbi Elazar Meisels
The role of the "hidden righteous"
I've heard that there is a Jewish tradition that there are no less than 36 righteous people upon whose merit the entire world exists. Is this really so, and is there some special significance to this?
Jed T .
Thank you for your question. This tradition is actually found in the Talmud [Tractate Sukkah 45b], which writes, "Abaye said: The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who merit [the sight of] the Shechinah's countenance, for it is written, 'Praised are those who yearn lo [for him]' the numerical value of 'lo' (lamed-vav in Hebrew) is thirty-six." The Talmud goes on to explain that these thirty-six individuals merit to perceive the Divine Presence with exquisite clarity, which is known in Hebrew as "Aspaklaria Meirah," a lofty level of Divine perception accessible to only the most spiritual and righteous of men.
The commentary Etz Yosef [Sanhedrin 93b] understands this idea to be referring to heavenly advocates. He explains that every single day the world is judged on its merits by the Heavenly Sanhedrin [High Court], which is comprised of 71 presiding judges. Thirty-five of the judges examine our collective sin and decide against our existence. The remaining thirty-six argue in our favor and since they are the majority, Hashem accepts their opinion and the world is spared Divine wrath.
Most commentators however, understand this to be referring to tzaddikim [the truly righteous] who reside on this earth, and in whose personal merit the world continues to endure. Essentially, what this means is that there exists in this world an overpowering force of negativity generated by man's sins that seeks to deny the Divine's existence in both word and deed. Barring the positive forces generated by the exceptional righteousness of these thirty-six individuals, the world would be overwhelmed by the negativity and lose its right to exist.
Practically speaking, I am not aware of any significant ramifications that this tradition has on our daily life other than to spur us to attain this lofty level whose sum is greater than its parts. To the best of my knowledge, these individuals do not advertise their status, nor is it relevant to us who they are. I would assume that someone who claimed to be a member of this exclusive club, would actually be providing proof positive that he is clearly not, as humility is a defining characteristic of tzaddikim. It is because of the ambiguity surrounding their identity that they are often referred to as, "Thirty-six hidden tzaddikim."
It is interesting to observe that the number thirty-six finds expression in other areas as well.
For example, in the Torah's account of the first of the six days of creation, it writes of how the Divine curtailed the intense light that He created on the first day of Creation with the words, "Let there be light." However, tradition teaches us that He did not immediately reduce the illumination. Rather, He allowed it to shine for thirty-six hours and only then diminished it's luminescence. The well-known commentator Rashi notes that the Divine did not remove it permanently. Instead, He placed it in safekeeping for only the truly righteous to access. This should not be mistakenly understood to mean that the Divine underwent a change of heart, G-d forbid.
Rather, the world needed this illumination. However, this level of illumination was so powerful that it could not be left for just anyone to access. Instead, the expectation was that through their single-minded devotion to Hashem, each of the thirty-six tzaddikim would access one unit of the thirty-six levels and reflect that to the world at large.
There was a time in our history when even common Jews demonstrated such a high level of devotion to the Divine that they merited a glimpse of this Divine light. That was during the story of Chanukah and for that reason the total number of Chanukah candles that are kindled through the eight days of Chanukah is thirty-six.
Additionally it is interesting to note that the Mishnah in Tractate Krissus enumerates all the sins for which one is visited with the most severe of all divine consequences: Karess, which means, "spiritual excision." Although difficult to describe, the result of this is that the offenders' soul is severed from the Jewish people. In total, there are thirty-six sins for which this consequence is prescribed. The commentaries point out that correspondingly, there are thirty-six tzaddikim whose righteousness offsets the disastrous effects of these sins and without which we would be totally severed from our Source.
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Rabbi Elazar Meisels is founder of the Lidrosh Institute for Jewish Education. He serves as the Rabbi of The Michigan State University Hillel and Educational Director of The Partners In Torah Telepartners Division.
© 2008, Partners in Torah