Gershom Scholem

Gershom Scholem was born in Germany but eventually made his way to Israel where he became one of the greatest scholars of mysticism. While I have just made an enormous jump chronologically in my pursuit of the 36 Men of God, I felt it important to acknowledge Scholem because his work in was crucial for directions to finding these individuals.

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He published a book called “The Messianic Idea in Judaism” and one full chapter was dedicated to the 36 entitled “The Tradition of the Thirty-Six Hidden Just Men.” First and foremost to respond to the question I have been asked most regarding this quest is “why just men and not also women?” I have told everyone that my research would dictate the search not my thoughts or egalitarian preferences. I did find and explain Rav’s Daughter, although nameless¬† and paired with her two sons. But from Scholem, the greatest scholar in this area, his title also suggests these righteous individuals were all or most commonly men.

As of his book published in 1974 he wrote, “What are the origins of this legend and how did it develop? It is curious that, despite the wide popularity of this idea in Jewish circles, no scholarly studies of any kind have been written on its development.” He goes on to proclaim that its recent popularity stemmed from a book by Andre Schwarz-Bart “The Last of the Just” which we will examine later in a different blog post(s). I want to explore a few other notes that Scholem mentions in his chapter. He writes:

“But nowhere in these stories do you find any indication that their heroes belong to a special category of just men whose hiddenness is essential for the fulfillment of their function.”

This is to say that while many of the Lamed Vavnickim were/are hidden some were not like we saw when studying about R’ Simeon bar Yochai, Rav and others. But certainly some were and it was a common theme. Why were they hidden is a whole other question. Scholem gives us more insight into these men:

“It is entirely conceivable that the conception of the hidden just men derives from the folk heritage of the great religious movement which swept German Jewry in the thirteenth century and which is designated German Hasidism. The crystallization of the idea would definitely fit in with this group’s entire attitude towards life. In any case, it first appears among the German and Polish Jews, the so-called Ashkenazic Jews of the east. The Yiddish language has even coined a special word for these hidden just men who popular speech are called ‘Lamed-vovnicks.'”

The folklore of the Lamed Vavnickim, as Scholem breaks down for us, is in two categories:

“Hasidic authors speak frequently of two categories of Zaddikim: those who are hidden and keep to themselves, and those who are known to their fellow men and to some extent fulfill their task under the critical eye of the public. The just man of the first type is call nistar, i.e hidden; the one of the second type mefursam, i.e. known.”

As we move from our Talmudic sages and examples, we will soon go into the stories and individuals of Mysticism. It is important to have Scholem’s background information. He ends the chapter clarifying one last point:

“There are no families of hidden just men. The hidden just man – if he is anything at all – is your neighbor and mine whose true nature we can never fathom.”

This was a direct response to Schwarz-Bart’s book which is about the Lamed-Vavnick gene being passed down from male to male in each generation. We have seen, in this research, family lineage for righteousness. It could conceivably be coincidence or for the protection of their children. Either way Scholem believed its hiddenness was not something passed down.

As for Scholem himself, I have not included him as a Lamed Vavnick although he was certainly one of the most knowledgable and informed on the subject. His work was crucial to my research and I have not ruled out that his deep knowledge on the topic was a way to keep the information of these men clarified and known. He could have purposefully hid behind his research as his knowledge of this world was unparalleled and extensive.