The Legend of the Lamed Vovniks
Lamed Vav Zaddikim or the Tzadikim Nistarim
Lamed – thirty
Vav – six
Zaddikim / Tzadikim – righteous men
Nistarim – those who are hidden
The Jewish legend of the Lamed Vovniks describes thirty-six righteous men in every generation upon whose merit the world is kept from entire destruction. Based in part on the story of Abraham and his conversation with the Lord about the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18, the Lamed Vovniks are those who, by virtue of their compassion for others and the prayers they offer, cause the Lord to answer, “I will spare all the place for their sakes” (Genesis 18:26).
Most versions of this legend declare that the hidden thirty-six are unknown to the world and cannot be known, to others or to themselves. They are humble servants of their fellows, tirelessly working to dry tears, show compassion, and shoulder the burdens of those who suffer. Like the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness, they have felt of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. They have recognized the power of God in their lives-the pillars of cloud and of fire-which guides them and protects them.
The Lamed Vovniks are not powerless in this wicked world. Rather, they use the gifts and talents which they possess to lift all those around them. They help to save us all.
Although many instances of this legend point to the thirty-six as being “righteous men” only, it seems apparent by the stories which come to us in holy scripture that this cannot be the case. At times of great turmoil when the world needed a shining light, righteous women stood up and made a difference. Ruth, an ancestor to King David, preserved not only Naomi, but her own progeny by being faithful. Esther, through her selfless bravery, saved an entire nation from destruction. And Deborah, instrumental in delivering Israel from Canaanite bondage, served as judge until the Lord chose Gideon to lead the people. These were not simply tzadikah—righteous women—but they also fulfilled the mission of a Lamed Vovnik, for they literally held the fate of their world upon their shoulders.
The Mission of the Lamed Vovniks:
“Rivers of blood have flowed, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.” — from The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart
Who are the Lamed Vovniks? We may not know. They may not even know themselves. But wherever they are, we can be assured of this: They lead. They comfort. They teach. They protect. They are filled with compassion. They are the very best among us.
Thirty-Six. These are the stories of the Lamed Vovniks.