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Tzadikim Nistarim

The Tzadikim Nistarim (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים, "hidden righteous ones") or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל"ו צַדִיקִים,x"36 righteous ones"), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks),[a] refers to 36 righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism. The singular form is Tzadik Nistar (Hebrew: צַדִיק נִסתָר).


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 6. 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).[1]

Their purpose

Mystical Hasidic Judaism as well as other segments of Judaism believe that there exist 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God. Jewish tradition holds that their identities are unknown to each other and that, if one of them comes to a realization of their true purpose, they would never admit it:

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 they are 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.[1]

The Tzadikim Nistarim exemplify a mode of leadership that differs from the notion of the visionary public leader that scholars suggest is overvalued in modern culture,[2] but is well encapsulated in the aphorism that Presidents Truman and Reagan cited, "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit".[3]


Lamedvavnik is the Yiddish term for one of the 36 humble righteous ones or Tzadikim mentioned in kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. According to this teaching, at any given time there are at least 36 holy persons 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. It is also said that one of these 36 could potentially be the Jewish Messiah if the world is ready for them to reveal themselves. Otherwise, they live and die as an ordinary person. Whether the person knows they are the potential Messiah is debated.

The term lamedvavnik is derived from the Hebrew letters Lamed (L) and Vav (V), whose numerical value (see Gematria) adds up to 36. The "nik" at the end is a Russian or Yiddish suffix indicating "a person who..." (As in "Beatnik"; 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 = 2×18, it represents "two lives".

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 themselves 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 18:26:

And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

Gen 18:26

It is said, that the assumed founder of the Jewish Hassidic Movement, Israel Ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, studied with a secret society of Jewish mystics, the Nestarim or Nistarim, and he eventually became a revered rabbi.[4]In modern times, (Rabbi) Yoel Erblich is assumed by many to be a "Lamedvavnick."[5] Rabbi Yoel has neither confirmed nor denied this appellation.[6]


In popular culture

The book "Stories of Deliverance", originally entitled "Les Justes" in French, translated by Michael Bernard from an original set of apparently true tales written by Marek Halter in the 1990s, relates the histories of 36 brave people who selflessly helped save victims and potential victims from World War II atrocities. The idea for the book came from the traditional assumption of The Righteous Ones being ever-present in the world.

  • The mystery thriller novel The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne deals with the murder of the righteous ones, one by one, and solving the murders.
  • In "Three Septembers and a January," from Neil Gaiman's comic The Sandman, Death remarks to the soul of Joshua Norton: "they say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints – 36 unselfish men and women. Because of them the world continues to exist. They are the secret kings and queens of this world" with the implication that he was one of the Tzadikim.
  • In the 1984 novel The Journeyer by Gary Jennings, Marco Polo is periodically saved from death by the 36. The rescuer's identity is never made explicit, and he may be more than one of the Righteous Men.
  • In the 1988 novel The Quest for the 36 by Steven Bilias, Dexter Sinister, a booking agent gets tasked by God to collect the 36 so they can avert the end of the world.
  • In the 1998 film The Cruise, the main character Speed discusses the Lamed Vovnik.
  • In the 1999 novel Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult, the main character, Faith White, is believed to be one of the Lamed Vovnik by Rabbi Solomon.
  • In Invincible by Werner Herzog, a fictionalized account of the life of Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart (aka Siegmund Breitbart), a Berlin Rabbi tells Zishe (played by Jouko Ahola) that he may be one of the 36 just men who feel the suffering of the world.
  • The 2007 novel The Book of Names by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori is a thriller based on the actual principles of the Kabbalah, which teaches that the world's existence requires that it be occupied by 36 Lamed vovniks.
  • In the 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the narrator of the Book One mentions hearing of the myth of "thirty-six hidden saints" while in college and compares the actions of his Christian brother Corrigan to one of the saints.
  • In the television series Touch, season 1, episode 9, "Music of the Spheres", Jacob "Jake" Bohm, a mute boy who mysteriously feels the suffering of those along his path and aims to positively adjust their fates, is revealed as possibly one of the "Lamed Vav Tzadikim" by a Hasidic man. In the second season of Touch Jake and other people who have special gifts are referred to as members of the 36; throughout the episodes they are exploited for their capabilities and are hunted down by one who believes they hold too much power. The final episode features consideration of the Kabbalah and the mystical roots of the legend of the 36.
  • In the 2013 novel Eyes Wide Open by Ted Dekker, the 36 are a group of children called Project Showdown. Orphans were raised by Christian monks to follow the path of light, in an attempt to rebirth the Earth into a new age.
  • The 2013 film "36 Saints" is loosely based on the legend of the 36
  • In the 1998 documentary "Cruise" it is suggested that the films subject, Tim "Speed" Levitch, a tour guide for Manhattan's Gray Line double-decker buses, is a Lamed Vovnick.


  1. ^ a b Zwerin, Rabbi Raymond A. (September 15, 2002 / 5763). "THE 36 - WHO ARE THEY?". Temple Sinai, Denver: Archived from the original on Jan 18, 2003. Retrieved 3 August 2010.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ Neyfakh, Leon (2013-10-20). "The myth of the visionary leader: We pine for boldness and charisma—but, say experts, we should vote for something else.". The Boston Globe. 
  3. ^ Wikiquote: Ronald Reagan
  4. ^ Spiro, Ken. "The Hassidic Movement". Crash Course in Jewish History #52. - Judaism Online. Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  5. ^ Private conversations.
  6. ^ Sourcing is not possible, as by definition, it is "hidden."

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