Lamed Vavniks

by Wolf Pascoe on August 6, 2012

It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end.

— Rabbi Zwerin

And the Lord said, if I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.

— Genesis


I thought of Lamed Vavniks the other day when reading about the sad, sad state of the world (Scandal After Scandal, Lie Upon Lie …. What’s Going On?) This particular article opined that many of the people running Wall Street and D.C. are—literally—psychopaths.

I believe it. What are psychopaths but people who do not care about other people?

Though what, I asked myself, does that have to do with me?




Many things that occupy our attention are not of the here and now.

Three times in my life, for example, I’ve been wakened by violent earth-shaking. One of those times, half-asleep, I looked out my bedroom window and searched the blue ether for a flash and mushroom cloud, finding neither.

“Earthquake, thank God.” I murmured, and went back to sleep.

Later that day a cousin from New York called.

“Is everyone all right? We thought you fell into the ocean.”

That’s the way of it. Great things happen, and still we must sleep.




I was talking about Lamed Vavniks.

Have you heard of them? Here’s what you need to know:

Lamed is the Hebrew letter standing for thirty. Vav is the Hebrew letter standing for six.

The Lamed Vavniks are the thirty-six righteous ones, but for whose sake God would destroy the world.

Lamed, by the way, is pronounced LAH-med (rhymes with Mohammed) not LAME’d rhymes with famed.)

The Lamed Vavniks live morally pure lives in the simple, humble walks, hiding in plain sight as tailors, cobblers, carpenters. A Lamed Vavnik might not even know s/he is one. Certainly no one else does. Yet for their sake God preserves the world, even as it goes to hell.

Are you a Lamed Vavnik? If you were you wouldn’t say so. And if you did then you wouldn’t be.

It’s best, by the way, to treat everyone as if they were.




Once there was a poor tailor who barely made enough to eat, yet somehow he always had a penny for the local beggar. Whenever a customer complained about his work, he’d say, “This one’s on me.”

The tailor lived in a little shack at the edge of town. He was sometimes seen in the synagogue, but knew very little Hebrew so he always prayed silently. The townspeople thought he was a fool.

One day the rabbi’s daughter was struck ill. She lay in bed, feverish and out of her mind. The doctor was summoned and could do nothing. Prayers went up from the synagogue, but the rabbi knew in his heart he must prepare for the worst.

On the evening of the third day it snowed. The poor tailor appeared at the rabbi’s house.

“What do you want?” the maid said. “The rabbi has no time for you.”

“I’ve brought some ribbons the rabbi’s daughter,” the tailor said.

“Ribbons? What need does she have for ribbons?” the maid said.

“It’s what I have.”

She took the package, but only to rid herself of the foolish tailor, who shuffled off into the night. When he’d gone, she threw the package into the snow after him.

In the morning, the house woke to singing. The rabbi’s daughter, sitting up in her bed, was tying the ribbons to her hair.

“What’s this?” the rabbi said.

The maid confessed what had happened last night.

“But how did you get those ribbons?” the rabbi asked his daughter.

“The tailor left them on my dresser,” she said.

At once the rabbi led a party of townspeople to the tailor’s shack to demand an explanation. But when they arrived the tailor was gone, the shack bare except for a few remnants of cloth.

No one from the town ever saw the tailor again.




I get so angry when I think of those banks, those psychopaths running the world. But I don’t know whether I’m angry because what they do is so wrongheaded or because they have more money than I do.

The legend that there are at least thirty-six non-psychopaths comforts me. The world needs a moral compass, even a made up one.

I used to think that stories of the Lamed Vavniks were a retreat into fantasy, when really we ought to be taking action. But I don’t think that way anymore.

The essence of the Lamed Vavniks is that they are ordinary, and they point us to ordinary things.

Here is my favorite story about ordinariness in the face of the world going to hell. It concerns the power outage in the aftermath of the pre-dawn Northridge earthquake of 1994.

In the darkened city, the full night sky suddenly became visible. According to the astronomer Terrence Dickinson, concerned people who had gone outside and looked up later telephoned radio stations and observatories to ask if the strange, silvery ribbon that appeared in the sky had anything to do with the quake.

Apparently, they had never seen the Milky Way.



Mr. Rogers speaks to Congress



The Last of the Just – A famous and difficult (in every sense) novel about a Lamed Vavnik. If you liked the Book of Job, this is for you.

Image Credits: Under the Milky Way  photo by Jurvetson (flickr)

Chagall’s The Fiddler and The Village are in the public domain in the United States.



Do you suspect someone of being a Lamed Vavnik? Tell. Tell.  Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf August 6, 2012 at 9:01 am

And now, at last, I know the origin of the importance of ’36’ in certain practices…

As for the Lamed Vavniks, I sense I was in the presence of one yesterday, at a memorial service for her father, a true gentleman, a scholar, a philanthropist, a modest and congenial man, a splendid parent if I judge by the extraordinary woman who is his daughter whom I have known for years to be so pure of heart as to be a true innocent in the best possible way.

We may call them ordinary people of good heart. We may call them Lamed Vavniks. We may call them angels.


Wolf Pascoe August 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

A rose by any other name . . .


Jim Parkevich August 6, 2012 at 8:15 pm

Hi Wolf,
Each time I read your posts, I am struck by your insightful power that teaches each of us to be our own “lamed vavnik” When we guide our children with adult conviction, thoughtfulness, compassion and love, we all raise our children to have strong moral conviction, thoughtfulness and compassion for all others. And to be loving, caring individuals to support self, family, friends and community.Though at this time, I am at a loss, as to how, to drown out the “earth quake” of vitriol, hate and anger that engulfs us near total. It is a job that becomes ever more important each day for those of us who still cherish the wisdom of the “old tailor” Thanks……..


Wolf Pascoe August 7, 2012 at 1:54 am

” I am at a loss, as to how, to drown out the “earth quake” of vitriol, hate and anger . . . ”

I too am at a loss.

I think the Lamed Vavniks have room in their hearts for everyone, which I suppose is what makes them Lamed Vavniks.


Kyle Bradford August 7, 2012 at 11:04 am

Any individual whose purpose in life if the fulfillment of their own ambition can’t be other than psychotic. Yet our culture idolizes that very person.

There is a universal moral compass, we just refuse to acknowledge it. But that’s a sensitive topic better left for another time.


Wolf Pascoe August 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

“Any individual whose purpose in life if the fulfillment of their own ambition . . .”

Reminds me of my favorite proverb: “Mans plans, God laughs.”


The Exception August 7, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I am writing to you from the heart of DC itself – and the story of the tailor is more than refreshing. it is the simple acts that are from the heart and are based on what we have over what we believe will impress… the people who give in such a manner are inspiring.


Wolf Pascoe August 8, 2012 at 11:29 am

The tailor for President!


Barbara Shallue August 8, 2012 at 11:14 am

I always learn so much from your blog. I have never heard of the Lamed Vavniks, but I believe in them. And I know my father-in-law is one.


Wolf Pascoe August 8, 2012 at 11:27 am

Just act normal.


Clyde Dormthropper August 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm
Wolf Pascoe August 12, 2012 at 9:57 am

My pleasure, Mr. D.


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