Many Jews have heard of the 36 unknown righteous men whose existence sustains the world. But this is not completely true. First of all, in Hebrew, a mixed group of men and woman are always called men even if 35 of the 36 are women. Second, there are at least 36 righteous people, but usually there are many more, and often there are many righteous Gentiles and converts to Judaism among them.
For example, Count Valentine Potocki, a young Polish nobleman who went to Paris to finish his education, There he became close friends with another Polish nobleman, Zarembo, Both of them met a Jewish teacher and asked him to teach them Hebrew. After some time each independently decided to become Jewish. Potocki went to Amsterdam where it was safe to convert to Judaism. Zarembo returned to Poland where he married into the Tishkewitch family. After some years, Zarembo took his wife and 5 year old son to Amsterdam where it was safe to become Jewish. Then the family went to Israel as Zarembo’s friend Count Potocki had done previously.
The Zarembo family remained in the Land of Israel, but Count Potocki grew homesick and took the dangerous step of returning to Poland. He settled in Ilja/Ilia in the Vilna district of Belarus posing as a born Jew, and spent all his time studying Torah. When the police found out he was a convert to Judaism he was arrested and sent to Vilna. There the bishop tried to save his soul with reason, followed by torture, and then by being burned alive in the center of Vilna in 1749.
The following month, when the Baal Sham Tov heard what had happened to Potocki, he said two things. First, Potocki’s soul was a Gilgul (reincarnation) of parts (sparks) of the soul of both Sarah and Ruth, who also were not born of a Jewish mother. Ruth was the most famous female convert to Judaism. According to a Midrash the souls of all future converts to Judaism were also standing at Sinai. According to Sefer HaPliyah a 14th century Kabbalistic text, most converts to Judaism are gilgulim- reincarnated Jewish souls from previous generations that were lost to the Jewish people, who are now returning home to their original people. Since Potocki left no children, his soul would be reborn in a Gentile body who would someday return (convert) to the Jewish people again. Jewish mystical teachings relate that the souls of Jews who were cut off from the Jewish people, without leaving physical descendants to propagate their Jewish lineage, will reincarnate in later generations in the bodies of close friends or extended family, who 3-7 generations later will revert to Judaism.
Second, according to the Baal Shem Tov, Potocki was one of the 36+ hidden saints. These 36+ hidden saints- Lamed Vav Tzadikim (ל”ו צדיקים or “Lamed-Vav(niks”) refers to a special group of at least 36 unknown righteous people whose devotion to Judaism keeps the civilized world from being destroyed by all the evil in it. In the 19th and 20th centuries Hassidic Judaism and Yiddish proletarian writers expanded this Jewish tradition of the 36+ righteous people whose simple role in life justifies the value of mankind in God’s eyes; by adding that if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. Their identity is unknown, even to each other. The lamed-vavniks are scattered throughout the world. On 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 one of the 36+. In fact, if a person claimed to be one of the 36, (as bar Yohai did-see below) that is proof that he or she is certainly not one, since the 36+ are each great exemplars of anavah, (“humility”). The 36+ are simply too humble to believe that they are one of the 36+. This is similar to the reaction of almost all Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Shoah; who deny being heroes and think what they did was only natural.
For the sake of these 36+ hidden saints, God preserves our world even if the rest of humanity degenerates to the level of total barbarism. This idea is based on the story of Sodom and Gomorra in the Bible, where God told Abraham that he would spare the town of Sodom if there were at least 10 righteous people in it. Since nobody knows who the 36+ Lamedvavniks are, not even themselves, every Jew should honor and respect all the simple, honest, unselfish, hard working and long suffering people around us, for one of them may be one of the 36+. Unlike the rich, the famous, the pious, the scholars, the powerful, the beautiful or the successful, who everyone thinks are very important, the 36+ are the really important people, because without even a few of them the world could destroy itself.
It is important to note that Rabbi Abaye said that there must be at least 36 righteous people in each generation. Usually there are more, lots more. The full Talmud text is as follows: Abaye said; The world must contain not less than thirty six righteous people in each generation who receive Shechinah’s face, as it is written, “Blessed are all they that wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18); the numerical value of him -‘lo’ is thirty six.
Is there a maximum number of hidden saints? The Talmud discussion continues. Did not Hezekiah say in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah, that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai said: I have seen the sons of heaven,and they are limited; if there are a thousand, I and my son are included; if a hundred, I and my son are included; and if only two, they are myself and my son? (Thus proving that Simeon bar Yohai and son are not among the 36+ ) There is no difficulty (says the editor of the Talmud): the former number (1,000)] refers to those who enter (experience Shechinah) with permission i.e. by self sacrificial Mitsvot; the latter (100) to those who enter without permission. i.e. by Mitsvot and great force of prayer .Plus Raba silenced Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai with proof from the Prophets: The front row (of righteous people) before the Holy One, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written (Ezekiel 48:35), “it shall be eighteen thousand round about” Sanhedrin 97b.
So there are between 36+ and 18,000 unknown Jewish and Gentile saints in the world in every generation. When the number is high as in the generation of the 1860’s, millions of American slaves and Russian serfs were freed. When the number dips below 100 the world is in big trouble. When it sinks close to 36; holocausts occur. As I wrote above, in Hebrew grammar a mixed group of men and women, even a group of 99 women and one man, are referred to as men. Many thoughtless people refer to the 36+ righteous as men, although there is absolutely no evidence that there are no female humble saints. Indeed, women are more likely to fit the 36+ mold then men are. Clearly the 36+ are both men and women. Reform Rabbis teach that the 36+ are composed of at least18 men or 18 women who keep the world (Hai) alive. Or perhaps there are 3 sets of 12+. The first third are from the tribe of Levy; half of them are descendants from Aaron, the first high priest, and half are descendants from Miriam, the first female prophet. The second third are from Judah with at least half of them descendants of Ruth, and at least half descendants from David. The last third are descendants from Noah, half of them are righteous Gentiles (many of them among the 24,000+ rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust recorded by Yad V’Shem in Jerusalem) and the other half are converts to Judaism (among the tens of thousands of converts in North America). When the numbers of righteous saints are much higher than 36+ the number of righteous Gentiles and converts to Judaism becomes very high.
These unknown righteous people have great influence with God, although they do not know it. A folktale from Syria illustrates this theme. Once, in the land of Syria, there was a great drought. A rabbi called all the Jews of his village to the synagogue. They prayed day and night, but still no rain fell. Then the rabbi declared a fast, and asked God to answer their prayers.
That night he heard a voice from heaven, saying, “God will send rain only if Rahamim, who always sits in the back corner of the synagogue, prays for it.” “But he’s an ignoramus,” protested the rabbi and I am not sure how kosher his home is. Silence was the response.
When Rahamim came to the synagogue the rabbi said, “tomorrow you will lead the congregation in prayers for rain,” “But I do not know how to pray,” said Rahamim. “There are so many others who know more than I.” “Nevertheless,” said the rabbi, “it is you who must pray.”
The next day the rabbi called all the people together to pray. The synagogue was filled to bursting. All eyes were on the bimah, where everyone expected to see the rabbi leading them in prayer. How great was their amazement to see poor Rahamim standing up there before the Holy Ark holding a clay jar with two spouts in his hands. “Now I ask that you pray with all your heart,” he told the congregation.
So they opened the Ark and the people poured out their hearts to heaven, wailing bitterly and beating their breasts. Then Rahamim lifted up his jar, first placing the one spout to his eye and then the other to his ear. Instantly there was a rumble of thunder and then the sky opened up, drenching the earth with rain. The rabbi later asked Rahamim, “Why did you bring that jar here? What did you do with it?”
“Rabbi, I’m a poor, ignorant man,” Rahamim replied. “What I earn as a cobbler barely feeds my many children. Every day they cry for bread and I have little to give them. When I hear their cries my heart breaks, and I too cry. I collect my tears in this jar. When you asked me to come here to pray, I looked into the jar and said, ‘Master of the Universe, if you do not send rain, I will break this jar in front of the whole congregation.’ Then I heard a voice that said, “Ask again when you stand before the congregation” “So I did and I heard a voice saying: ‘Do not break the jar’.
And then it began to rain.