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Thoughts on Saints and Tzaddikim


This week, on our secular calendar, we marked St. Valentine’s Day.  While Valentine was apparently a priest or bishop who defended persecuted Christians in the 3rd century and was himself martyred by the Romans on February 14, and that date is marked now by various Christian churches as devoted to his memory. Most of us have dropped the title of “Saint” from this holiday and speak only of Valentine’s Day.  This is one of several days associated with Christian saints on our secular calendar that has lost any religious significance for most people.  Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, is a day for sending cards, candy, flowers, and gifts to those we love.  Hallmark says it is the second most profitable holiday for them, right after Christmas and ahead of Mother’s Day.  Many people take their significant others out to dinner or otherwise celebrate the occasion.  It is no longer a strictly Christian observance, in spite of its patron saint.


We Americans also celebrate March 17th as St. Patrick’s Day, when we all are expected to wear green, decorate with shamrocks, and to feel a little Irish.  It seems to most of us that Patrick is more of an Irish national hero than some saintly figure that one venerates.  Rather than go to church, it might be considered more a time to check out a local Irish pub, have corned beef and cabbage and some Irish beer, look for leprechauns under the table (or at the end of a rainbow), and sing “Danny Boy” “Too-rah Loorah Loorah” or “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”.


To a large degree we have also secularized the patron saint associated with Christmas Day.  Saint Nicholas’ feast day actually occurs earlier in the month, but we are used to seeing that “jolly old elf” in his red suit and long white beard next to his reindeer-drawn sleigh filled with gifts for all the good little boys and girls.  We know him better as Santa Claus and, even if we of the Jewish community may spend Christmas Eve at the Chinese restaurant, we cannot help but absorb some of the spirit and joy of that season and begin to believe in Santa Claus.  I could also add All Hallows’ Eve, i.e. Halloween, to the list, the eve of All Saints Day which now is purely a time for costumes and collecting candy and other treats. It was only when I was a student in Israel that I learned that New Year’s Eve, the 31st of December, was St. Sylvester’s Day the anniversary of the death of a 4th century Pope who is connected with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity.  Rather than speak of the secular new year as Rosh Hashanah, some folks in Israel hold Sylvester parties to ring in the new year.


There is a rather complicated procedure that the Catholic Church has for determining sainthood.  Sometimes centuries go by before the completion of the process of canonization of a saint.  There is a detailed investigation into the life of the candidate. A devil’s advocate is appointed to test out the righteousness of the would-be saint.  Various miracles are ascribed to his or her merit.  Often someone prays in their name for healing or some other need and if the prayer is answered, that may be counted as one of the required miracle attributed to the candidate.  Pope John Paul II was unusual in achieving sainthood in only 9 years after his death. Most saints have gone through a much longer, drawn-out process to achieve their status.


Do we Jews have any saints among us?  I would say that the term we might use in place of “Saint” is “Tzaddik,” a righteous person. Noah was saved from the flood because he was an Ish Tzaddik, a righteous man. When God informs Abraham of His plans to destroy the wicked city of Sodom, Abraham voices concern that Tzaddikim, the righteous, might perish along with the wicked and he negotiates with God.  Ultimately, they conclude that if there were at least ten tzaddikim in the city, God would not destroy it.  This may lead us to believe that there is special power in the tzaddik to bring salvation to a city if not to the world.  In Proverbs we’re told that the Tzaddik is the yesod olam, the foundation of the world.  Some believe that in every generation there is some great tzaddik for whom the world endures. Some tzaddikim may undergo great testing as was the case with Abraham and with Job.  People often ask about the suffering of the tzaddik while the rasha, the wicked, prosper.


Throughout the Bible and rabbinic tradition, the Tzaddik is contrasted with the Rasha, the wicked person.  Even tzaddikim have flaws and we’re told that no person is completely a Tzaddik and never sins.  Attaining great knowledge of Torah is no guarantee that one may become a tzaddik; one must act on its teachings.  Beginning in the Talmud there developed a concept of a specific number of Tzaddikim in the world by whose merit the world exists.  In one place we’re told that there are 30 righteous in the Land of Israel and 15 more outside of Israel.  More commonly, people have picked up on the statement of the sage Abaye that there are 36 righteous people who keep the world going in any generation, lamed-vav tzaddikim.  The notion developed that these or at least some of these righteous people are hidden tzaddikim; no one would suspect that they are part of the 36.  Sometimes they themselves may be unaware of their status.  They go about their lives without realizing that the merit of their deeds supports the ongoing life of the world.


Jewish folklore is filled with stories of these secret tzaddikim.  While some of them may be great scholars of Torah who keep their knowledge to themselves, often their righteousness has more to do with their performance of acts of lovingkindness for others than their scholarship.  Again, such acts are performed in secret, unknown to most people in the community. 


The Hasidic tradition adopted the term “Tzaddik” to refer to their leaders, their Rebbes, or as they are known in Israel as Admorim, from the acronym of honor, Adoneinu, Moreinu v’Rabbeinu, our Lord, Teacher and Rabbi.  These Hasidic Tzaddikim are thought to have a special connection with the Almighty and their prayers may be more effective than those of their followers.  Thus, we hear of people going to their rebbe with prayer requests, often written on little notes, kvitlach, handed to the rebbe.  Even after death, some go to the graves of the righteous and pray that by virtue of their righteousness, our prayers may be answered.  In a sense we all do the same when we begin the Amidah by recalling our patriarchs and matriarchs and praying that God may answer us because of the merit of our ancestors. A number of Tzaddikim begin their careers, as described in Hasidic stories, as hidden tzaddikim.  No one suspects that they are such righteous people because they study or act behind the scenes or out in the woods, away from the community until they feel ready to reveal their true nature.  Such stories are told of the founder of Hasidism, Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov and of others.


In his now classic work of fiction, The Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart, imagines a chain of descendants from the time of the Crusades up to the twentieth century and the Holocaust in which there is a Lamed-Vavnik, one of the 36 righteous or “Just” as he translates it, in each generation.  However, in his version, it is not sufficient that the tzaddik be a source of inspiration or one whose prayers are particularly effective, but it seems that he believes that, like many of the Christian saints, the Tzaddik is expected to end his life in martyrdom, defending his beliefs in Judaism and the Jewish people.


While there are many people who put their faith in the power of the prayers of the righteous or who pray at the tombs of various sages and rebbes, others see such actions as a kind of idolatry, depending on the prayers of others rather than offering one’s own heartfelt prayers to God.  While we might call upon the merit of our righteous ancestors, we require no intermediary to pray for us. Each of us is capable of offering our own prayers, even if we feel incompetent to read the prayerbook or formulate appropriate petitions.  We believe that God pays attention to the broken-hearted, listens to the prayers of those who may think they cannot offer a prayer on their own.  So, while we urge people to become righteous, to draw inspiration from the examples of tzaddikim, we do not call on Jewish “saints” to carry our prayers to heaven and certainly we don’t pray to them.


More impressive for us today than the scholars of Torah who are seen, perhaps, as paragons of virtue, is knowing about people who actually live righteous lives, rather than die as martyrs for their faith or devote themselves to Torah study. A wonderful volume that appeared a number of years ago, recounted many stories about Rabbi Aryeh Levin, A Tzaddik in Our Time. Simcha Raz collected these anecdotes about this rabbi, known as the Tzaddik of Jerusalem, who devoted countless hours to visiting prisoners in jail, patients in the hospital for lepers, and providing the needs of many poor individuals in Jerusalem. His kindness extended to all, regardless of their personal religious observance.  To all, he offered hope and support by his caring visits.  His wisdom and his acts of kindness serve as an inspiration for us all. Such people are true tzaddikim, real saints.


While clearly there are those in the Christian tradition who continue to venerate various saints on their official days and find inspiration from their stories, we too remember our righteous on their yahrzeit days and can draw our own lessons from their lives. I can’t think of any Jewish Tzaddik associated with candy hearts, corned beef and cabbage, or candy canes, but maybe a nice lokshen kugel or a slice of kishke may call them to mind. We recall the righteous as we offer the prayer, Zecher tzaddik livracha, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing.


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