Hanah, the wife of the Baal Shen Tov, the founder of Hassidism, was one of the 36+ Tsadekim (unknown righteous saints) whose unacknowledged great human kindness and trust in God, prevent the total collapse and disintegration of the larger society in which they live.
The 36+ Tzadikim (ל”ו צדיקים) (or “the Lamed-Vav(niks”, the 36) refers to a special group of at least 36 unknown Righteous people. The source is the Talmud itself.
Rabbi Abaye said that at all times there are at least 36 very special people in the world, The two Hebrew letters for 36 are lamed, which is 30, and vav, which is six. Thus, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim.
This belief is based on a Talmudic statement that in every generation at least 36 righteous “receive-experience the Shechinah,” the Feminine Divine Presence (Sanhedrin 97b; Sukkah 45b).
in the 19th and 20th centuries Hassidic Judaism and Yiddish proletarian writers expanded this Jewish tradition of 36+ righteous people whose 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 to each other. The 36ers 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) that is proof that he or she is certainly not one, since the 36+ are each 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 Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Shoah, who deny being heroes and think what they did was only natural.
Now to Hanah the wife of the Besht. Her father, Reb Ephraim of Brody, was a rich and learned man whose son Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov, was head of a rabbinical court in Brody and a recognized authority in Talmud and Kabbalah.
Reb Ephraim of Brody, who wanted the best husband possible for his wonderful daughter Hanah, asked his son Rabbi Avraham Gershon to select a young man who was very pious, and the best Talmud student of a very famous yeshivah.
But, this Talmud genius turned out to be a harsh, narrow minded, self righteous, overly judgmental person, who did not listen to or respect his wife Hanah.
It soon became evident that the Talmud genius was a failure as a husband; and Reb Ephraim paid him some money to divorce his daughter Hanah and leave town.
A few months after the divorce was over, Ephraim of Brody told his daughter Hanah, that this time he was determined to find for her an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; who enjoyed encouraging people to worship God through joy; and most important, who respected a woman.
Unfortunately, long time study in a yeshivah did not usually stress these ‘mentch’ qualities; and Ephraim was determined to avoid making another mistake like his first one.
One day Ephraim met a young man, newly arrived in Brody from a near by village, praying with great joy and enthusiasm.
Ephraim talked for a long time to the young man, Israel ben Eliezer, who he had encountered in the synagogue, and learned that Israel ben Eliezer was truly an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; one who enjoyed helping and encouraging people, and who respected women.
This was the kind of man Reb Ephraim wanted for his daughter Hanah, even though his ‘professional resume’ was not impressive.
When Reb Ephraim returned home he told his daughter Hanah that he had found a wonderful mentch for her. Unfortunately, before he could explain all the details of why he had chosen this mentch for her, he suddenly died the next day.
A few weeks later, Israel ben Eliezer arrived at the door of Reb Ephraim’s large house, and told her brother that he was the man chosen by Hanah’s father to be her husband.
Rabbi Avrahah Gershon could not understand why his father would want his sister Hanah to marry a poor orphan who had been a synagogue janitor, elementary school teacher, circumciser and ritual slaughter, but who was not by any means, a Talmudic scholar?
Finally, Rabbi Avrahah Gershon said that if his sister was willing to marry him, he would not oppose it.
After a long conversation Hanah agreed to marry Israel ben Eliezer. After the marriage, Hanah’s brother gave them some money to buy a wagon, and encourages them to return to Israel ben Eliezer’s village.
There they lived for several years while Israel ben Eliezer who had become the prayer leader of a small congregation of workers, started healing people after learning about herbal remedies.
After several years of healing people with prayers, herbal remedies and a story or two, Hanah urged her husband to start calling himself a Ba’al Shem or a Ba’al Shem Tov (interchangeable terms meaning that one was a “master of God’s name,”) which one could use for healing and other purposes.
Ba’al Shem Tov, in its abbreviated form, Besht, soon became the title, and even the name, used by most people who knew of him.
At first, he resisted this title because he was modest. Then his wife Hanah, who he understood was one of the 36+ Tsadekim, said to him: “Do not become a Tsadik in a fur coat.”.
Then Hanah said: When it is winter and it’s freezing cold, there are two things one can do. One can build a fire, or one can wrap oneself in a fur coat. In both cases, the person is warm. But if one builds a fire, all who gather around the fire will also be warmed. With a fur coat, the only one warmed is the one who wears the coat.”
Rabbi Israel followed Hanah’s advice, and became a Baal Shem Tov, and later became the Besht.
Hanah’s advise was later repeated by many of the Besht’s disciples, especially the Kotzker Rabbi.