It is a well-known adage that there are lamed-vav tzaddikim – thirty-six righteous individuals – in whose merit the world continues to exist. What is the source for this idea?
On today’s daf Abaye teaches that there are thirty-six righteous individuals in every generation who merit to receive the presence of God. His source is the passage in Sefer Yeshayahu (30:18) where it says ashrei kol ḥokhei lo – that those who wait for Him are happy. The word lo – for him – is written with the letters lamed-vav and has a numeric value in Gematria of 36.
The Gemara challenges this teaching, saying that there are clearly many more than 36, for based on a passage in Sefer Yeḥezkel (48:35) Rava taught that the line of righteous people waiting before God is 18,000 parasangs long. The Gemara answers that not everyone will merit the same vision of God. The smaller number refers to people who will see God be’ispaklarya ha-me’irah – by means of a luminous crystal (i.e. they perceive him clearly) while the rest will only see him be’ispaklarya she-einah me’irah – by means of a crystal that is not luminous.
Even this explanation does not suffice for the Gemara, which quotes Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai who laments that he has seen the bnei aliya – those righteous individuals who merit the highest levels of relationship with God – and there are few of them. According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai’s statement it is possible that there are only one thousand, or, perhaps, one hundred or even just two – his son and himself. The Gemara concludes that there are few that can enter God’s presence without permission, but that there are more who are deserving of this closeness with God, albeit only with permission.
Some explain that the number thirty-six has other significance, as well. Given that the members of the Sanhedrin number seventy individuals, this number of righteous individuals makes up a majority of the Sanhedrin, or, alternatively, half of the Sanhedrin with the addition of the High Priest. At least half of the Sanhedrin must always be in the world in order to guarantee its continued existence.