In Neil Gaiman’s 1991 comic The Sandman, the character Death tells the soul of Joshua Norton that “the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints — 36 unselfish men and women. Because of them the world continues to exist.” Thirty-six living saints who sustain the world? Where did Neil Gaiman get that idea? Today’s daf!
The earliest mention of the 36 people whose righteousness surpasses all others appears right here on Sukkah 45b. The Gemara quotes Abaye who says that:
The world has no fewer than thirty-six righteous who greet the Divine Presence every day.
Greeting the Divine Presence is a big deal. In Tractate Yoma, we learned that the high priest was able to enter God’s presence only once a year on Yom Kippur. Yet these 36 righteous individuals that, as Jewish tradition later came to understand are found in each generation, greet God every day.
Where does Abaye get the idea that the number of these people is consistently 36? Given that the number 18, the numerical value of the word chai (חי), meaning “life,” has significant value in Jewish tradition, one might suppose that he has posited 36 righteous souls because that is exactly twice eighteen. In fact, his derivation is unrelated to the word chai, though it does rely on biblical gematria (numerology):
As it is stated: “Happy are they that wait for Him (lo).” (Isaiah 30:18) The numerological value of lo (לו), spelled lamed vav, is thirty-six.
The two letters that make up the number 36 are lamed and vav, which is also the final word in the verse from Isaiah that points to God. It is for this reason that Abaye thinks there are exactly 36 exceptionally righteous individuals in each generation — individuals who later in Yiddish, and now English, are called by those two Hebrew letters: lamed-vavniks.
In this earliest mention of the lamed-vavniks, what distinguishes them from everyone else is their ability to join in God’s presence every day. Eventually, Jewish tradition came to describe these 36 individuals as the hidden righteous of each generation who sustain the world. This idea becomes most prominent in Hasidic thought emerging out of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Gershom Scholem, the most significant 20th-century scholar of Hasidism and Kabbalah, wrote of these 36 as they appear in Hasidic thought: “[T]he hidden just men belong to a higher order because they are not subject to the temptation of conceit which is virtually inseparable from public life. Some of them devote special effort to presenting their fellow men an image of themselves which is in the starkest contrast to their real nature. Others may not themselves be aware of their own nature; they radiate their holiness and righteousness in hidden deeds without even knowing that they belong to those chosen thirty-six.”
Scholem’s writings highlight two remarkable features of the lamed-vavniks. First, where the Talmud does not specify the gender of the thirty-six, the texts Scholem discusses assume they are men. Interestingly, the author Neil Gaiman seems to be aligned more closely with the original gender-neutrality of the Talmudic tradition. Second, Hasidic texts, as Scholem notes, imagine that the 36 are hidden, some of them intentionally hiding their gift from the world and others perhaps not even knowing they are part of this uber elite club.
It seems almost too simple to ask what it might mean to treat everyone we meet, regardless of social status or public religiosity, as though they might be one of the hidden 36 righteous people sustaining the world. But sometimes it is easier to be kind to others than it is to be kind to ourselves. So to me, the harder question that emerges from Scholem and the Hasidic interpretation of the lamed-vavniks first mentioned on today’s daf is this: What might it mean to treat ourselves as though we are one of the thirty-six who have God’s explicit permission to be in God’s presence every day, who sustain the world through their actions and presence?
Read all of Sukkah 45 on Sefaria.