LAMED VAV ZADDIKIM (Heb. ל״ו צַדִּיקִים, "36 righteous men"), the minimal number of anonymous righteous men living in the world in every generation. They are privileged to see the Divine Presence, and the world exists on their merit. The origin of this tradition, found in the Babylonian Talmud, is handed down in the name of the amora Abbaye: "there are not less than 36 righteous men in the world who receive the Divine Presence" (Sanh. 97b; Suk. 45b). This number has become renowned in fiction and in folklore, especially in Kabbalah and ḥasidic legends. Many suggestions have been made in the study of the origin of this number and its meaning. The majority are of the opinion that the origin is not Jewish. According to G. Scholem, it is drawn from the astrological belief in 36 celestial decans (see *Astrology), each of which rules ten days of the year and, thus, ten degrees of the constellations. This belief was also widespread in Western-Hellenistic culture and in Oriental teachings. Other conjectures have also been raised, but the subject remains unclear. It should be noted that the number 36 is not exclusively mentioned in the aggadah in this connection. The tanna R. Simeon b. Yohai believed that "the world never lacks 30 righteous" (Gen. R. 35:2,
According to Jewish folklore the hidden saints, called in Yiddish lamedvovniks, were responsible for the fate of the world and one of them is considered to be the Messiah. The idea is not found among Oriental Jews. The lamedvovnik was unnoticed by other men because of his humble nature and vocation. Lamedvovniks figured in kabbalistic folk legend of the 16th–17th centuries and in ḥasidic lore from the end of the 18th century. At times of great peril, however, the lamedvovnik makes a dramatic appearance, using his hidden powers to defeat the enemies of Israel, after which he returns, as mysteriously as he came, to his wonted obscurity. A tale in one of the Yiddish chapbooks relates how in Safed one such hidden saint was aided by the Ari ha-Kadosh (R. Isaac *Luria) disguised as a certain "Rabbi Nissim." The lamedvovnik theme may well have inspired the "Legend of the Three Nephites" in the Book of Mormon. In the 20th century, the Jewish tradition was reworked by the French writer André *Schwarz-Bart in his novel Le dernier des justes (1959; The Last of the Just, 1960), but in a way totally alien to the Jewish spirit, suggesting that the 36 saints were a long and tragic dynasty and that each lamedvovnik was "privileged" to become a martyr.
Beer, in: Bar Ilan, 1 (P. Churgin Memorial Vol., 1963), 172–6; G. Scholem, Das Buch Bahir (1923), 61f., 68 n.10; idem, in: JC (April 21, 1961), 23; R. Mach, Der Ẓaddik in Talmud und Midrasch (1957), esp. 134ff.; Montefiore and Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1938), 231–2, 665.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.