I was at a popular education conference in Tucson, Arizona in the late 90s when, as I was leaving, a fellow participant approached me and motioned me aside. Her demeanor suggested she had a secret to share. I had noticed her at the conference but had not spoken with her. She looked to be about 80ish, had always appeared cheerful, wore thick glasses and had a smile with noticeably missing teeth. I had told a number of stories during the conference and it was this she first mentioned to me. “You like to tell stories, don’t you?” she asked. I agreed that I did, indeed, like to tell stories. She said she had one she wanted me to know.
When she was a little girl in the 30s she lived in Chicago with her mother and grandmother. Occasionally hobos would come by their house and her mother was always kind to them, always giving them something to eat. But she never let them in the house. One day her mother was away when a hobo came to the door. Her grandmother welcomed the fellow in, showed him to the bathroom and told him to wash up if he liked. When he came out of the bathroom, there were some clean clothes waiting for him and a hot meal on the table. The fellow ate while her grandmother packed food in a bag. All this the young girl watched with interest, knowing that her mother would be upset to find out a hobo had been in her house. The grandmother kindly sent the hobo on his way. The young girl looked at her grandmother and asked, “Why did you let him in and give him food and clothes like that. Mother never does that and will be upset.” The grandmother put her finger to her lips saying conspiratorially, “Don’t tell your mother. He might be one of the Ten Just Men.”
I had learned of these anonymous and righteous saints from my friend Alec Gelcer and I knew there to be 36 of them known variously as the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, lamedvavniks, Tzadikim Nistarim (this last meaning “hidden righteous ones). I’ve searched out many stories of these hidden saints and some say that these righteous souls spend their life living in anonymity and committing acts of kindness. I recall one story about a person who was known to be cranky and even misanthropic who was, after their death, discovered to have committed countless acts of generosity and aid to their fellow villagers. Another account I recall said that even the lamedvavniks did not know themselves as such but were merely people of surpassing kindness and generosity. I like this latter explanation as it, of course, implies that any of us could be such and I like the ethical challenge that this lays before us. But all the stories make the point that it is on account of these 36 hidden saints that the earth endures; and should one die, the earth would be out of balance until a new one is identified. One legend says that these 36 souls exist as part of a compact with God who, after destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, promised never again to destroy the world as long as 36 righteous souls existed at any one time.
But why 36? Numbers in stories always catch my attention. And 36 is an interesting case for it is a number that is one of set that includes 72, 108, 540, 1,080, 2,160, and others. These are numbers that appear in many very ancient stories from Finland to Egypt to Cambodia. They are known as “Osiris numbers” as they are part of the mathematics of precession (the phenomenon caused by the earth’s almost-26,000 year wobble). Precession and its mathematics is something that was known by ancient civilizations (and which is a whole other rather fascinating discussion). But here in this story of the 36 righteous souls I see a strange correspondence. For if this number finds its way into jewish mysticism on account of ancient astronomical knowledge, then the idea that the world would be out of balance should one of the 36 die is an affirmation of the unchanging mathematics of the earth’s movement. For should this number change, astronomically-speaking, it would spell disaster for our spinning ball of mud.
Some people write of the lamedvavniks as a metaphor. Perhaps that is all that it is. Perhaps it’s an encoding of ancient astronomy as well.
But I know that I met one person who believed they walk amongst us. And I wasn’t about to “correct” this woman who made such a special gift to me of this story. Legends still do walk the world and I am made glad by this.