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The Human Touch

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Last Sunday The Bulletin reported the death of Rabbi Yisroel Meier Ha’Cohen, better known as the Chofetz Chaim, at the ripe age of something like one hundred and six. I read that he was a lamed vovnik, or one of the thirty-six saints because of whose goodness and piety the Lord has not destroyed the world.

I decided to find out about lamed vovniks, who they were, how they were chosen, how distributed on the face of the earth. I wondered if the idea of the world’s salvation though selected surrogates had originated in that conversation between Abraham and God, wherein Abraham had won the Lord’s promise to save the cities of the plain from destruction provided ten good men could be found in them. Abraham had begun by suggesting fifty and worked his way down to ten, which seemed to be the Lord’s absolute minimum.

In all humorlessness, then, I proceeded to find out who were the thirty-five surviving vovniks for whose goodness and piety the Lord refrained, during the present generation, from destroying this not yet God-forsaken world.

The source of my information laughed at the form of my question and after discoursing briefly about the thirty-sixers, led me gently but firmly to several encyclopedias, from which the blown dust fell in a gentle mist on the office furniture.

In the first place, the death of the Chofetz Chaim does not mean that only thirty-five lamed vovniks remain, but there must always be thirty-six, no more, no less. Nobody knows that the Chofetz Chaim was one of the thirty-six; only he knew, and he was bound to deny his mission, not to affirm it. On the day, or even the minute, of his death, somewhere another lamed vovnik was born into the world.

Lamed vovniks are not usually found among our “best” people. In all probability, neither of the Rabbi Wises is a lamed vovnik. It is rarely, I understand, that politicians, authors, orators and the likes of them produce lamed vovniks. The village beggar, or the tailor or the shoemaker may be one of the world’s saintly thirty-six. He is most likely to be of the same social status as the humble “strangers” and “wanderers” who populate Jewish legend and folk-lore.

Peretz, in his story, “If Not Higher,” tells an episode in the life of such a lamed vovnik.

There lived in a small village a rabbi for whom claims of saintliness were made by the other people of the village, But among the villagers was one, a misnagid, or anti-chassid (the conception of the lamed vovnik is a Chassidic one), who mocked at these pretensions. He swore he would show up the rabbi as an old fraud and no saint at all. It was known that during the night the rabbi would leave his bed and those who believed in him believed that he went to Heaven. One night the misnagid hid in the rabbi’s bedroom to see what happened. He saw the rabbi rise, after a certain period of sleep, and go out into the forest. He saw him chop down several trees and cut them up into kindling wood. He followed him to the threshold of a poor Gentile cottage and in answer to the “Who’s there?” heard the rabbi give a Gentile name. He saw the rabbi deliver the kindling wood and return to his home. The following morning, when a friend of the doubter asked him, “Well, does he go to Heaven?” the converted doubter replied: “If Not Higher.” This episode is consistent with the life and the spirit of a lamed vovnik, an anonymous doer of good. He is one who offends no one, slanders no one, who goes quietly about his work, who does not aggrandize himself, either in wealth or esteem. The type of the lamed vovnik, of course, is esteemed in other faiths beside the Jewish.

Other beliefs cluster about the idea of the lamed vovnik. In cases of extreme danger to the community they come forward to avert it, still not revealing their identity and even stoutly denying it, and after their work is done they retire to some place where they may live without disturbance. The belief is so universal that when any pious stranger comes into a town he is regarded as a potential lamed vovnik.

There is of course no Who’s Who of the lamed vovniks of all time. But it is supposed that Israel Baal Shem-Tov, the founder of Chassidism, was one. But more typical of the run of lamed vovniks is Chaim, the tailor of Cracow, who lived at the time of the famous rabbi, Moses Isserles (1520-72). According to legend, Chaim averted a plot to extort money for the Polish king from his Jewish subjects. The plot had been devised by the King’s Minister, who, after Chaim the tailor set to work, fled and became converted to Judaism. I do not doubt the skill and the shrewdness, or the acumen if you wish to call it that, of Chaim the tailor, but the story bears a rather remarkable resemblance to that wherein Ahasuerus and Haman and Mordecai are involved, except that the ending of the story for the Polish Haman was a little less strangulating than it was for Haman himself.

The basis of the belief is in the following quotation in the Talmud: “There are in the world not less than thirty-six righteous persons in every generation upon whom the Shekinah rests [the Shekinah being God], for it is written, ‘Happy are all they that wait for Him.’ The last word stands numerically for thirty-six.” That is, the Hebrew characters, which may be rendered in English as lamed and vov, together mean Him and numerically stand for thirty and six. But according to Zohar—you might as well know this—there are seventy-two lamed vovniks in every generation, thirty-six in Palestine and thirty-six scattered over the rest of the word.

Superficially it seems rather unfair to put into a place no larger than the state of Vermont as many saints as in the rest of the world, but bear in mind that saintly men have a habit of gravitating towards Palestine and the distribution doesn’t seem so unjust.


The Letter which I published in this department some weeks ago on the subject of intermarriage has prompted further correspondence. In one of the letters I am gently rebuked for not having taken to task more roughly the anonymous writer who represented the danger of intermarriage as greater than it was. The percentage of intermarriage, writes this correspondent, is very small and is limited only to that segment of Jews for whom their religion has no meaning, or rather far less than that of getting along in a Gentile world. This writer represents intermarriage as being motivated chiefly by ambition. It seems to me, however, that both correspondents are wrong. Intermarriage has not reached the proportions of a first-class peril to American Jewry; neither is it true to say that love is not a motive in intermarriage.


Aimee Semple McPherson Hutton, the evangelist with sex appeal who operates Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, has chosen this week to open a revival campaign in the theatres of the country, beginning with the Capitol Theatre in New York. Bearing in mind the annual campaign against mushroom synagogues which is conducted by the heads of established synagogues, one wonders whether it would be lese majeste to refer to the Capitol Theatre as a mushroom church?

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