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There is a well-known legend that there are always 36 "hidden" righteous people in the world at any given time. The source given for this is the Gemara in Succah 45b, where indeed it mentions 36 tzaddikim. However, nowhere does the Gemara describe them as being hidden. What is the original source for the notion that their righteousness is a secret?

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  • Although not a direct source, the Medrash Bereishis Rabba parsha 35 brings a statement from R' Shimon bar Yochai where he says if there's 30 then me and my son are from those 30 and if there's 20 then me and my son are from those 20 etc. Until if there's only 2 then it's me and my son. So it seems clear that R' Shimon was not aware who they were except that he and his son were one of them. Obviously they're hidden, but it doesn't say so explicitly
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 25, 2021 at 21:52
  • According to the Novardok Dibbuk story, they do not need to be hidden, but if they are famous that reduces their ranking.
    – pcoz
    Jul 26, 2021 at 22:48

3 Answers 3

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Great question, your absolutely correct, that from the Gemora in Suka there is no indexation of them, of even some of them being hidden.

However, there is a similar Gemora in Chullin 92a, but over there the sages tell us that their are 45 Tzadikim in the world. Some in Eret Yisroel and some in the diaspora. From that Gemora it seems that we learn that the majority of them are indeed hidden:

אמר אביי ורובייהו משתכחי בבי כנישתא דתותי אפתא

Abaye said: And most of the fifteen righteous individuals in Babylonia are found in the synagogue under the upper room.

The Ben Yehoyoda over there clarifies that this is the intention of the Gemora, to be relevant in our days as well, not only giving us a fact about the Tzadikim in Abayes time.

To paraphrase his words: Therefore if one was to go looking for the Tzadikim of the generation trying to enumerate them, he won't necessarily find them amongst the famous, respected "Gedolim", rather he will likely find the majority of them sitting in humility in Shuls.

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    Doesn't this automatically mean that they are able to found? At least Abaya knew where they were and presumably, we can also if we look in the shuls. The common understanding is that the 36 can never be found or disclosed, at least according to popular belief nowadays.
    – Chatzkel
    Jul 26, 2021 at 3:00
  • Doesn't really answer the question, the Gemara in Chullin doesn't mention the number 36. Still it was a interesting point.
    – Moz
    Jul 26, 2021 at 8:11
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    @MiZeh The source for people calling these Tzaddikim "hidden" is from the above Gemara in Chulin. Although the Gemara in Suka only numbers them at 36, the two Gemoras were combined, and it is justified as the ideas are very similar. To quote from Wikipedia: "These two sources were combined into the idea that the world is sustained by 36 righteous people.". As only the source in Chulin, says that the world is sustained by 45.... I'd also like to suggest that perhaps the Gemara in Suka refers to those in the land of Israel, as it says in Chulin, that a lot of the 45 are in Israel, some in Bavel.
    – Reb Moishe
    Jul 26, 2021 at 10:05
  • @Chatzkel According to the Ben Yehoyoda, in the theoretical yes... Practically? Improbable. Lemaase, if they were discovered by people they would certainly be revealed soon... And such a thing happened, the ones who were found did come into the public eyes once their greatness realised and people wanted to learn from their Torah.
    – Reb Moishe
    Jul 26, 2021 at 10:12
  • @RebMoishe I get your point, however it would be nice to see a Rishon or Achron who actually combines these Gemoros together.
    – Moz
    Jul 26, 2021 at 10:17
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In the בני יששכר Nissan 2:5 he says that the tzadikim in each generation are hidden, sometimes being woodchoppers or water carriers;

ויש לפרש. דרצו לדרוש. החדש הזה לכם ראש וכו' מהו לכם. לגם כל הענין כפל. דהרי כתוב מבואר אח"כ ראשון הוא לכם. ע"כ דרש דהש"י הראה למשה סימן שכבר נשלם הגלות. והסימן הוא. מיד גילו הצדיקים את ראשיהם. דהנה בכל דור ודור יש צדיקים גדולים יכולים לפעול פעולות נוראות. אבל הוא כשהדור אינו ראוי לכך. כל מדריגת הצדיקים הם באיתכסייא. ואינם נודעים בשם ובאפשר הם לפעמים חוטבי עצים ושואבי מים וכיוצא בשארי ענינים. וכמ"ש בגמ' שיצאה להם ב"ק יש בכם אחד שהוא ראוי שתשרה עליו שכינה וכו' אלא שאין דורו ראוי לכך. כיון שהוא בחשכות הגלות בכל דור ודור בימי גלותינו. וכן היה במצרים ודאי הוה בהם צדיק' גדולים. וכמו שאמרז"ל אין לך דור שלא יהא בו כאברהם וכו'

The last reference to the Chazal about every generation having Tzaddikim like Avrohom Avinu is referring to the Medrash Bereishis Rabba Parsha 35 mentioned in my comment earlier;

Rabbi Hezekiah in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah said: "So spoke Rabbi Shimon son of Yochai: "The world is not able to stand except by thirty men righteous like Abraham our father. If thirty, I and my son are two from them. If twenty, I and my son are two from them. If ten, I and my son are two from them. If five, I and my son are two from them. If two, I and my son are they. If one, I am he"".

The variation between 30 and 36 seems to be a machlokes.

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  • Interesting, thanks for sharing. Still looking for something more solid about 36 itself then any other number.
    – Moz
    Jul 26, 2021 at 20:14
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One (very late) source for this, is this work (pub. 1934) which casually assumes (evidently reflecting an earlier belief) that the 36 righteous folk are hidden:

אין העולם מתקיים ועומד אלא בזכות ל"ו צדיקים נסתרים

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