Lamed Vavniks

From: Dave Criss

Dear Rabbi,

What is the difference between “Lamed Vavniks” (the thirty-six secret righteous Jews in each generation) and the generic “Tzadik nistar” (hidden righteous person)?

Dear David,

The thirty-six are referred to as “lamed vav tzadikim” according to the numerical equivalent of the letters ‘lamed’ (thirty) and ‘vav’ (six). The idea is based on the verse in Isaiah 30:18 which praises those who faithfully trust in Him. Him is “lo” in Hebrew, spelled ‘lamed’, ‘vav’ (Succah 45b).

The Talmudic Sage Abaye taught (Sanhedrin 97b) that there are at least thirty-six of these secret, righteous Jews in every generation who receive the Divine Presence. However, Rova counters with a source that suggests there are eighteen thousand hidden righteous Jews. The Talmud reconciles this apparent contradiction by stating that only thirty-six see the Divine Presence with completely illuminated vision (‘aspaklaria meira’) whereas all the others see with occluded vision.

Perhaps this is the basis of the difference between the “lamed vav” and other hidden righteous individuals. Another difference might be that the “lamed vav” cannot be discerned at all, whereas the others may be recognized by those who know them well.

Interestingly, another source (Chulin 92a) reckons forty-five righteous Jews upon whose merit the world continues to exist – thirty in the Land of Israel and fifteen elsewhere. There are also thirty hidden righteous gentiles upon whose merit the nations subsist.

The Talmud teaches (Chagiga 12a), “The Light that G‑d created on the first day was a special, spiritual light with which Adam could see from one side of the world to the other. When G‑d considered the future misdeeds of the generations of the flood and of the tower of Babylon, He hid the light from mankind and preserved it for the future righteous”. This light shone for thirty-six hours from midday Friday through the departing of Shabbat at nightfall. The thirty-six hours that this primordial Divine Light shone served as a precedent for the thirty-six secret righteous Jews in each generation to behold the Divine Presence.

What about the rest of us, have we no glimpse of this hidden light? The answer is in the Chanuka menora. As we light an additional light each night, we contemplate how G‑d helped the forces of light overcome those of darkness: “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many to the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, and the wanton to those faithful to Your Torah” (special additional prayer for Chanuka). Night after night, the darkness of exile is expelled with the light of redemption, until on the last night of Chanuka we have lit a total of thirty-six lights. This, then, is our opportunity to behold the Divine Presence emanating from the Chanuka menora, enabling us to illuminate the little “lamed vavnik” within us.

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