THE 36 UNKNOWN ARE HIDDEN
"There are not less than 36 tzaddikim/righteous
persons in the world who receive the Shekhinah/the Divine
Presence". — B.T. Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b
The notion of the thirty six righteous ones appears
in the Talmud, the oral tradition of Judaism, as a teaching of one
of the Babylonian rabbis, Abbaye. In Abbaye's teaching, the world
required a minimum of thirty six righteous individuals in order
to exist. There follows an argument about what happens if there
are not thirty six in the world? How will the world be redeemed?
The idea may have been suggested by the famous story
in the Bible of Sodom, in which Abraham argued with God
to save the wicked city (Genesis, chapter 18). God agreed,
if ten righteous individuals could be found there. Abraham won the
argument but lost the fight; Sodom was destroyed, seemingly because
the minimum, ten righteous individuals, could not be found.
That's the shadow side of the story of the thirty
six: it's a minimum, and sometimes the world may not contain thirty
six righteous individuals.
In later Kabbalistic folklore, the thirty six hidden
ones have the potential to save the world, they appear when they
are needed, and one of them might be the Messiah. They come at times
of great peril, called out of their anonymity and humility by the
necessity to save the world. Because they can, and because we need
We Jews began to get familiar with them, referring
to them in Yiddish as the "lamed vov-niks" (lamed
vov is Hebrew for thirty six), and seeing them everywhere in
the anonymous acts of good people who rise to great acts in difficult
circumstances. And because one of the lamed vov-niks, one
of the anonymous thirty six might be the Messiah, we tended to treat
strangers with kindness and the possibility that he or she could
be the one.
It could be the person we least suspect, because the
thirty six, like all the sustaining notions of the world in the
Kabbalah, are hidden. They may appear, they may not appear. If they
do appear, they may be known, they may be unknown. In each generation,
we look for them everywhere.
THE HIDDEN AND THE REVEALED
This is how I came to understand the legend of the
thirty six, of the lamed vov-niks, as a story about redemption,
through the implied question, the shadow story: what if there were
not thirty six? What then?
And these pictures. What is redemptive about the pictures?
The human forms? Thirty six pictures of sticks and bricks and stones
and wire that intimate human form? No. It's the subtext. I realized
this as I sat in a hallway of the museum where the thirty six photographs
were hung. It is the shadow and the subtext, all the hidden qualities
of this show and its metaphor.
Each picture has a name: Hands, Lovers, Face, and
a place, beneath the title, in a caption. What is redemptive was
in the caption:
Berlin, Auschwitz, Dachau, and I realized that was
the redemptive part, not hands praying, trees that look like faces,
what is redemptive is the silent subject and place names underneath
The Scribe, Torah returning to Auschwitz, Auschwitz,
Mourner, Cracow, Poland
The Thirty Six, Dachau, Germany
Cantor, Berlin, Germany
The Lovers’ Farewell, Block 11, Auschwitz, Poland
That's the redemption in the pictures, and that completes
the myth for me. That and the realization as I had researched the
individual stories of the tzaddikim, of the righteous ones,
that they were identified not only by being anonymous, or secret,
but because they were all agents of making the hidden revealed.
That was their purpose: to make the hidden revealed. Sometimes it
was secret, hidden, sometimes completely conscious and expressed.
I sat and felt the redemptive possibilities in these
pictures, these places, the sadness and the possibility in the legend
of the thirty six, the importance of the myth, the necessary confrontation
with its shadow question, the possibilities of redemption if only
to stand in our sadness, to be with our suffering, as if we were
revealing something that was hidden, as if these lovers in Auschwitz
were indeed both stones and bones, an idea and a picture, both.
— Rabbi James Stone Goodman, United States