Count Valentine Potocki, a young Polish nobleman went to Paris to finish his education, There he became close friends with another Polish nobel, 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 they became 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 Potoki had grown 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 he was arrested and sent to Vilna where 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.
Jewish mystical teachings relate that the souls of Jews who were cut off from the Jewish people, without leaving physical descendants to propagate their lineage, will reincarnate in later generations of close friends or extended family.
The Lamed Vav 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 the minimum 36 was missing, the world would come to an end. 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) 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.
For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the 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 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 scholars, the powerful, the beautiful or the successful, who everyone thinks are very important, the 36 are the really important people because without even one of them the world would destroy itself. Christians will know this from their own Bible “Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30)
Of course, Rabbi Abaye said 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.
But that is not so, for did not Raba say: The row [of righteous people immediately] before the Holy One, of blessing, consists of eighteen thousand, for it is written, “it shall be eighteen thousand round about” (Ezekiel 48:35) That is no difficulty: the former number (36+) refers to those who see through a bright speculum, the latter (18,000) to those who see through a dim one.
But are there that (18,000) many? Did not Hezekiah say in the name of R. Jeremiah on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: I have seen the sons of heaven, and they are but few; 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: the former number (1,000)] refers to those who enter (experience Shechinah) with permission; the latter (100) to those who enter without permission. Sanhedrin 97b
So there are between 36+ and 18,000 righteous people 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.
Due to the fact that in Hebrew grammar a mixed group of men and women, even a group of 99 women and one man, are referred to as men. Thoughtless people always 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 they men are. Clearly the 36+ are both men and women. Reform Rabbis like Rabbi Allen Maller, teach that the 36+ are composed of at least18 men or 18 women who keep the world alive.
Or perhaps there are 3 sets of 12+. The first third are from the tribe of Levy; half 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 one of them a descendant of Ruth, and at least one descendant from David.
The last third are descendants from Noah, half of them are righteous Gentiles (many of them among the almost 24,000+ recorded by Yad V’Shem) and the other half are converts to Judaism (among the tens of thousands in North America). When the numbers of righteous people are much higher than 36+ the percentage of righteous Gentiles and converts to Judaism becomes very high.
The Talmud relates an incident which demonstrates the futility of comparisons. Rabbi Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, became ill and passed away. He subsequently came back to life, and his father asked him what he had seen in the other world. He answered, “I saw an upside-down world; people whom we consider important are on the bottom, while people whom we consider unimportant are on the top.” His father responded, “My son, what you saw was the clear world.” Talmud Pesachim 5Oa.