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Hidden Saints In Islam And Judaism – OpEd

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In both Islam and Judaism, a folk belief grew up in the Middle East, unsupported by the religious scholars, that if it were not for a small number of very righteous people, the whole corrupt society we live in would collapse upon itself. Neither the Torah nor the Qur’an explicitly proclaim such a belief, but the concept does support the ideal that a few people who continue to live in righteous purity, even when everyone else has become corrupt, can in some mystical way really make a big difference in society’s survival. 

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Even today the whole earth seems to be filled with violence, cruelty, oppression and injustice. The corrupt behavior of many political, economic, intellectual and even religious leaders is constantly being exposed. 

Of course, our generation is not the first to suffer from these wide spread social, political, cultural and national maladies; and religious people know that God is merciful and compassionate as well a just. Indeed, the God, who is known to Muslims and Jews as: Ar-Rahman, Ha Rakhaman, the Compassionate One; and Ar-Rahim. El Rakhum, the Merciful One, who shows patience and forbearance in the face of widespread human inequity and sin, can be understood in many ways. 

One explanation, that developed within some parts of both the Jewish and Muslim communities, is that in every generation there are a small number of very special hidden saints (60 or 40 Abdal in Islam and 36 or 30 Tsadikim in Judaism), whose souls are so kind, honest, trusting and righteous, that for their sake alone, the rest of the society of sinful human beings avoids collapse. 

Thus, the concept of the hidden saints emphases the importance God gives to a small number of very kind and righteous people who serve as the supporting foundations of the civilized world; and in some way known only to God, support human civilization against total disintegration. 

Although this idea is not stated in the Qur’an or the Torah, some faithful believers find it to be an inspiring concept. Thus, Abu Darda’ said: “When Prophethood ended – and they were the supports (Awtad) of the world – Allah substituted in their place 40 men from the nation of Muhammad called “Abdal” (Substitutes). Not one of them dies except that Allah replaces him with another one, and they are now the supports of this world. The hearts of 30 of them contain the same firm certainty (yaqin) which Prophet Ibrahim had. 

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They did not succeed or rise above other people due to much fasting or prayer…but rather through being honest, having noble intentions, and having sound wholesome hearts… They do not curse anyone, or harm anyone, nor do they see themselves as being higher or nobler than anyone under them, or envy those above them. They do not fake their humility… nor are they ostentatiously impressed with themselves.” (Tirmidhi, Asl #51, and Ibn Abi Dunya K. Awliya, #57) from Abu-z Zinad.)

According to Jewish folklore these hidden saints number at least 36 in each generation. Called in Yiddish lamedvovniks (36ers), they are responsible for sustaining and supporting the civilized world. At times of great peril, a 36er could even make a dramatic appearance to defeat the enemies of Israel, and then return to humble obscurity. 

The 36+ are unnoticed by other people because of their humble nature, status, education and vocation. The 36+ figured in Kabbalistic folk legends of the 16–17th centuries, and in Hassidic folklore from the end of the 18th century.

Yiddish proletarian writers in the 19th and 20th centuries expanded the folk tradition of the 36+ righteous people whose kind and simple role in life justifies the value of all mankind in God’s eyes; by adding that if even one of them was missing from the minimum 36, society would come to a bad end. 

For the sake of these 36+ hidden saints, God preserves our world even if the rest of humanity degenerates to the level of total barbarism. This idea is based on the story of Sodom and Gomorra in the Torah, where God told Abraham that he would spare the town of Sodom; but only if there were at least 10 righteous people in it. 

Since nobody knows who the 36+ are, not even they themselves, every Jew should honor and respect all the kind, simple, honest, unselfish, hard working and long suffering people around us, for one of them may be one of the 36+. I think this lesson rings true for all religions. 

Unlike the rich, the famous, the pious, the scholars, the powerful, the beautiful or the successful, who everyone else thinks are very important, according to this concept, the 36+ are the really important people, because without a few of them society could destroy itself.

The tradition of the 36ers, others say 30, is found in the Talmud where Rabbi Abbaye says: “there are not less than 36 righteous people in the world who receive the Sakina-Divine Presence” (Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkot 45b). ‘Not less’ is not a fixed number, and there may be many more than 36 in some generations. These righteous people are usually and incorrectly called men although it is much more likely that they are at least 18 men and 18 women, since in Hebrew the number 18 spells out life. 

Ibn ‘Asakir (1105–1175) and Ibn Abi Khaythama narrate that Uthman ibn ‘Ata was having a conversation with his father, who told him, “The Abdal are forty Insan (humans).” So Uthman ibn ‘Ata said to his father, “Forty men?” and his father replied, “Do not say men, but rather say humans, for there could be women among them.”

The number 36 is not the only number offered in this connection. Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, the central character in the Zohar, believed, “the world never lacks 30 righteous people” (Genesis Rabbah 35:2) while Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak says (Ḥullin 92a. and Midrash Psalms 5:5) “the world exists by the merit of 45 righteous people”. Perhaps he meant 30 in the land of Israel and 15 in Iraq/Babylonia where Rabbi Simeon ibn Yehozadak lived. According to Rav Judah, the number 30 represents the number of “righteous gentiles among the nations of the world” (Ḥullin 92a). 

Thus, some Rabbis felt that women and non-Jews should be counted among the hidden saints, just as some Islamic sages have taught. All of these statements about the 30 or 36+ Tsadekim (saints) are the views of individual rabbis. Their views never become part of Jewish law or general belief, just as the Abdal never become part of general Muslim belief.

One winter, a young boy lost his only pair of gloves. “I felt very guilty about it,” he said, “don’t ask me why. I never even asked for another pair. I don’t think I ever had another pair until I went into the army. Ever since then, for me, being rich is being warm.”

My candidate for one of the 36+ hidden saints is a 11 or 12 years old boy who loses a glove and is scared to tell his parents, because he knows they can’t afford another pair? Can you see this boy who never forgets what it’s like to go around with bare hands in the bone-chilling winter of New York City? What happens to a boy like this?

Sometimes a boy like this grows up angry — angry that his parents couldn’t provide for him; angry with richer folks around him who walked right by and never gave a thought to a kid whose hands were freezing in the cold.

Sometimes a boy like this grows up hungry; acquisitive; working as hard as he can to amass a pile of money so he can buy more gloves than he’ll ever need.

Sometimes he grows up scared that everything he’s got will slip through his fingers and he’ll be out in the cold once again.

And sometimes he grows up callous, hard and suspicious — damned if he’ll offer anyone else a handout. He had to struggle to get where he is, after all — so why the hell shouldn’t they?

But this boy didn’t turn into a bitter tight-fisted man? He grow up to be Gloves Greenberg instead, a man who over 30 years gave away thousands of pairs of gloves to the poor and homeless in New York City. WHY?

The answer seems clear from his obituary. It was his father. It was this father about whom we know almost nothing, except that he was a baker who taught his son one simple thing, one good and true lesson about life: No matter how deprived you are, he said, don’t deprive yourself of the Mitzvah-duty of Tsadakah, the joy of giving.

And so an ordinary man with an unremarkable job took on a mitzvah—and in doing so, became extraordinary. Meyer Greenberg wasn’t a saint; although he might have been one of at least 36 unknown righteous Jewish men and women whose lives prevent the world from being destroyed.

He didn’t throw away all his wealth and move to Calcutta to care for lepers. But for one month each year, for thirty years in a row, he gave away hundreds of pairs of gloves to the homeless.

The story of Gloves Greenberg would probably never make it into a standard self-help book — the kind of book that tells you how to flatten your stomach or break your addiction to the wrong kind of lover. 

But it is a profoundly Jewish self-help story and it can be an inspiration to all of us who have suffered, lost out, or been victimized. In the coming High Holy Days see in yourself how often you have overcome a wound to enrich another. 

This is the miracle of Tsadakah-giving. This is the miracle of Teshuvah-repentance. This is the miracle of human living. This is the miracle of every annual Rosh HaShanah the Jewish New Year: a new beginning for a better year.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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