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“The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)”
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36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 36, The Lamed Vav, The Thirty-Six Hidden Righteous

Today, October 13, is the release day of my debut novel, King of Shards, and for the last thirty six days I have been featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth. I hope that along the way these posts have opened your eyes to the rich mythology and beauty in this ancient tradition. It’s been fun and educational for me as well, because in my research I’ve discovered fascinating things I did not previously know. Thank you for sharing this journey of discovery with me! 

Today’s last entry is on The Lamed Vav, The Thirty-Six Hidden Righteous.

Day 36: The Lamed Vav, The Thirty-Six Hidden Righteous

Lamed Vav by Monica Erosa

Lamed Vav by Monica Erosa

In every generation there are thirty-six just men who uphold the world, the Lamed Vav Tzaddikim. Each is blessed to be able to glimpse the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. And because of their merit, the world continues to exist. If one were to die, another is immediately born to take his place. God permits the world to exist on account of their righteousness. If any one were to cease being righteous, the world would be destroyed. Because in Hebrew the letter ל lamed is thirty and the letter ו vav is six, we call these thirty six hidden saints the Lamed Vav.

Their chief traits are humility, selflessness, and anonymity. They are so anonymous, in fact, that you or I could be a Lamed Vavnik and not know it. The Lamed Vav work ordinary jobs, earning a living by the sweat of their brow as tailors, blacksmiths, shoemakers, and other humble professions. Those who live and work among the Lamed Vav never suspect they walk in the company of a saint. If, by chance, a Lamed Vavnik is exposed, he will fiercely deny it. It is also said that if a Lamed Vavnik discovers his hidden nature as one of them, he will immediately die, and another will be born to take his place.

The Lamed Vav perform small acts of kindness and righteousness that may seem insignificant in the eyes of passers by. But God watches and knows the sum of these small acts serve to uphold the world. Without such acts, the world could not exist. Therefore we call these Lamed Vav the Pillars of Existence. In times of great conflict, the Lamed Vav emerge from their hiding places to use their secret knowledge of kabbalah to avert disaster. After, the Lamed Vav return to their lives of anonymity in a new community.

 

The Myth’s Origins

This myth may originate from Genesis Chapter 18, where Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the righteous along with the wicked in Sodom. “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep away and not forgive the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?” And then after some more bargaining, Abraham gets God down to ten people. “Oh, let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once. Peradventure ten shall be found there.’ And He said: ‘I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.” So if ten righteous persons could be found in Sodom, God wouldn’t destroy it.

God destroyed the world once, in the Great Flood, to erase its wickedness. So what prevents him from doing it again? The ancient rabbis posited answers: In Genesis Rabah 35:2, it says, “The world possesses not less than thirty men as righteous as Abraham.” But later, in the Talmud, in Tractate Sanhedrin 97b, comes the following passage, “The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous men in each generation who are vouchsafed the sight of the Shekhinah’s countenance, for it is written, Blessed are all they that wait [lo] for him; the numerical value of ‘lo’ is thirty-six.” In this passage, the Hebrew word “for him” is “lo” which in Hebrew is spelled lamed vav, לו i.e. 36.

The number 36 has a mystical connotation too. In Hebrew, letters are also numbers, and the number eighteen spells out the Hebrew word for life or living, חַי, chai. So twice 18, twice life is 36. This is the most likely reason this number stuck.

Among some versions of the myth, the promised Messiah will be a Lamed Vavnik, who is also known as the Tzadik Hador, the righteous person of this generation. If the world is deemed ready, the Tzadik Hador will emerge as the Messiah.

 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Among the many gems, this is my favorite Judaic myth. It posits that anyone you meet might be the one who is responsible for upholding the world, therefore you should treat everyone with the utmost respect. But it also means that you could be one. You might be responsible for upholding the world. And therefore you should strive to be kind and humble and righteous in order that the world continues to exist.

This myth appears in many places throughout literature and pop-culture, but it’s not widely known outside of Jewish circles. Perhaps it’s most well-known usage is in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where one character is presumed be the long sought-after Tzadik Hador, the righteous person of his generation who might be the Messiah. But my favorite Lamed Vav story is the novel The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart, about an ancestral line of Lamed Vav (in his novel, the Lamed Vav inherit the role from their fathers). Its steady build climaxes in a powerfully devastating ending during the Holocaust. It’s one of the best and most moving novels I’ve ever read.

I have been so enamored by this myth that I actually wrote a book about it: King of Shards.

In King of Shards, Daniel Fisher is abducted from his wedding by none other than Ashmedai, king of the demons, and is ushered down to the hell world known as Gehinnom (Gehenna). There he learns he is a Lamed Vavnik and that a group of demons have discovered the names of the hidden Lamed Vav and are killing them. The demons hope that by killing the Lamed Vav, the earth will be destroyed, and the abundance and peace that has long been denied them will be theirs at last. In order to stay alive and protect the other Lamed Vav, Daniel must team up with Ashmedai, the demon king, who has be dethroned and cast out of Sheol. Together, saint and demon, must race across the fragment universe of Gehinnom while chased by a fearsome demon army in order to get back to earth and save the Lamed Vav. The only problem is that Ashmedai may not be the most trustworthy of partners. He is a demon after all.

King of Shards incorporates many of the myths discussed here in this blog series, such as The Lamed Vav, Gehenna, SheolThe Shattered Vessels, The Ziz, and many more. And while I reference Jewish mythology often, I never let myself be constrained by it. So while King of Shards is based on Jewish myth, much of the mythology in the book is my own. Often I elaborated and expanded upon extant myths in the same way as Jews have been doing for thousands of years. What I hope I have created is work of adventure fantasy fiction that anyone might enjoy. But you folks who’ve stuck with me for these last thirty six days might get to enjoy the book just a little bit more. 

Thank you so much for sharing this journey of discovery with me! 

King of Shards is out today, and you can get a copy in print, ebook, and audio book. 

 

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 34, The Evil Eye

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on The Evil Eye.

Day 34: The Evil Eye

A Hamsa or Hand of Miriam talisman to ward off the Evil Eye

A Hamsa or Hand of Miriam talisman to ward off the Evil Eye

If one encounters good fortune in this life, if your blessings are abundant, one should not boast of them, for this attracts the jealous stare — the Ayin Hara, the Evil Eye — from others. If too many people become jealous, the Heavenly Court notices and reconsiders its judgment upon the boaster. Does this individual deserve such blessings that have been bestowed upon them? Thus, the boasting of one’s blessings one may bring about a reversal of good fortune.

There are some folks who simply cannot bear the good fortune of others– so great is their jealousy — and they alone have the power of the Evil Eye. They able to alter Heaven’s judgment upon the good fortune of another simply through their evil stare. 

There are many ways to ward off the negative effects of the Evil Eye. If one speaks of good fortune, we finish the sentence with Keynahora, or “no evil eye.” A chai necklace with the letters spelling the number 18 and the word “life” wards off evil. One should not have two weddings in one day, for too many blessings attract the Evil Eye.

However, if the Evil Eye has been provoked there are magical ways to shake off its negative influence. One may use mirrors, red and blue objects, to direct the Evil Eye’s glimpse away from you. One may chant a sacred verse while jumping our shouting (or both) to scare the Evil Eye away. Placing a precious stone between the eyes, placing a spot of dirt or ash between the forehead of a child, spitting three times onto the fingers, throwing salt into the corners of the room, and piercing a lemon with iron nails are all known ways to ward off the Evil Eye. 

If one is a direct descendant of Joseph, the Evil Eye has no power over them, for as it is said in the Talmud, “If a man on going into a town is afraid of the Evil Eye, let him take the thumb of his right hand in his left hand and the thumb of his left hand in his right hand, and say: I, so-and-so, am of the seed of Joseph over which the evil eye has no power.” If that fails, one may also pay a person who specializes in Evil Eye removal a nominal fee to remove the its baleful curse.

The Myth’s Origins

The Evil Eye is mentioned nowhere in the five books of the Torah, but appears several times in the Talmud and in various kabbalistic texts. The Talmud Tractate Berakoth 20a and 55b speaks much of the Evil Eye, the Ayin Hara. Its root cause is always jealousy; it is considered sinful to boast of one’s successes and blessings, and doing so brings about the jealousy of others, their covetous stares, the “Evil Eye.”

In Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers, a Mishnaic text, Chapter 2 says, “Go and see which is the worst trait, the one that a person should most distance himself from. Said Rabbi Eliezer: An evil eye. Said Rabbi Joshua: An evil friend. Said Rabbi Yossei: An evil neighbor…” One should, the rabbis implore, cultivate a “good eye,” toward our fellow humans: we should have gratitude for their successes, and not wish them misfortune.  

The Evil Eye is not unique to Judaism, of course. The ancient Greeks spoke of it often, and today many cultures and religions, believe in its power. In fact there are many talismans uses to ward off its ill effects. There is the hamsa symbol, sometimes known as Hand of Miriam or Hand of God charm, which has been gaining popularity in the West again in charms, necklaces, and other hanging objects. There are also nazars, discs of concentric blue and white circles representing an evil eye that are hung at the entrances to stores and workplaces used to ward off the Evil Eye.

In Ashkenazic culture it’s very common for one to say, “Kaynahora!” (no evil eye!) after mentioning positive news as a way to ward off evil influences. It serves as a kind of “knock on wood,” as protection against evil. Also, when asking or speaking of one’s age, we add the phrase, “Biz hundert un tsvantzik!” (until 120 years!) so as to ward off the negative effects of stating any good blessings. It was until recently very common for grandparents of Ashkenazic culture to call their grandchildren, “Meuske,” (ugly) as a kind of coded blessing. One would not want to attract the Evil Eye by calling them beautiful! It was a way to praise them covertly.

The myth persists today among many people, and for a nominal fee one can visit a woman who will remove the effects of the Evil Eye.

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Life is unpredictable. We walk out our front door (or sometimes before we even step outside) and a series of unfortunate events occur. A picture falls off the wall and the glass shatters. Cleaning up the glass, we cut our finger. On our way to the doctor we get into a fender bender. The cut gets infected. Maybe our child gets a rare disease, we lose our job just as we purchase a new home, or just as we reach a successful milestone in our life a loved one passes away. It is human nature to try to ascribe meaning to unconnected events, and so, rather than these happenings being random, we ascribe to them a malevolent force: the Evil Eye.

Like the Evil Inclination, the Evil Eye temps us at every turn. Not only are we subject to its effects from others, but we have the power to inflict it. It seems to me that what the rabbis describe in the Talmud and the superstitions around the Evil Eye encompass is a psychological state of uncertainty. Jealousy, both in us and of toward us from others, leads to resentment; resentment may lead to ill will. Therefore, boasting can lead to malevolent behavior toward you from others. And because this earthly world is not all there is in Judaism, boasting can lead to ill effects from Heaven as well. 

If we believe that we are subject to evil forces, our lives will corroborate that belief. And if we believe we are protected from evil, our life will reflect that. What I’m talking about is a psychological sense of feeling protected or unprotected. What these talismans and phrases do is offer us the semblance of control. Oftentimes in this crazy world, we feel terribly vulnerable. A hamsa charm or Evil Eye talisman guarding our workplace or a Kaynahora! declared after good news makes us feel as if we are in control. But the difficult truth to accept is that, though we can take a thousand precautions, are not the masters of our fate.

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Feast at the End of Days

 


36 Days of Judaic Myth: Day 31, Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

To celebrate the October 13th release of my forthcoming debut novel, King of Shards, I will be featuring one new blog entry a day about a different Judaic myth for 36 days. Today’s entry is on Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

Day 31: Dybbuks, the Possessing Spirits

Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

Dybbuk by Ephraim Moshe Lilien

When a person dies, their soul flies free from the body. It crosses the land, sea, and sky. Sometimes the soul settles in a fish and is eaten by a person. If a blessing is said over the fish, the soul ascends to rest beside God in the Garden of Eden. If the soul settles on land it grows into a fruit, and if these fruits are blessed by a person before being eaten, so too is the soul blessed as it flies up to the Garden of Eden. If the soul ends up in the belly of an animal, again a blessing must be made over the flesh of the animal if the soul is to ascend back to God. Sometimes, souls do not find their way back to God. They get lost on the way to the Garden of Eden. Perhaps blessings were not made over the food they inhabited before it was eaten. Or, if the person was wicked in life, then she is not permitted into the Garden and becomes a wandering spirit. Sometimes these wandering spirits find their way into the body of a living person. We call these possessing spirits dybbuks.

A tale is told of a widow living in the city of Safed in the 16th century who was possessed by a dybbuk. She went to see Rabbi Isaac Luria and ask for his help. To his astonishment, the woman spoke with the voice of a man, and this voice addressed the Rabbi by name, as if they were old friends. The dybbuk said he once had been a student of Rabbi Arsin, which the Rabbi Arsin confirmed. The dybbuk said that as a human being he had slept with another man’s wife and fathered a child with her. While out at sea a storm hit and he drowned. His body was recovered and buried in a Jewish cemetery. But before the earth was dry, the angel Dumah came and used his fiery rod to crack open the grave and take him down to the gates of Gehenna. Yet even there, the soul was not permitted access, for so great was his sin in life. He was punished to wander the earth, continually tormented by three demons.

His soul had taken possession of two more bodies before this unfortunate widow: a rabbi, who escaped the dybbuk by invoking impure spirits, and a dog, who was so upset by the spirit inside of it that it ran and ran until its heart gave out.

Rabbi Arsin tried to perform an exorcism of this dybbuk, but his incantations would not work. So he called in the great Rabbi Hayim Vital. As soon as Rabbi Vital entered the room, the widow turned her back on him.

“Why do you turn your back?” Rabbi Vital asked.

“I cannot bear to look,” said the widow in the voice of a man. “For your countenance is too great.”

Rabbi Vital nodded, because he was a holy man and filled with the light of God. “You are a lost spirit,” the rabbi said. “How long are you cursed to wander?”

“I shall wander this earth until my illegitimate son has died.”

“How did you enter this woman’s house?” the rabbi said. “It is protected by a mezuzah.”

“The mezuzah,” the spirit said, referring to the bound-up prayer scroll attached to the door, “is empty.”

The rabbi gasped, and when he had a man check the mezuzah on the woman’s door, he found his words to be true: there was no prayer parchment wrapped inside.

“And how did you enter this woman’s body?” the rabbi said. “For she is of the House of David.”

“She doubts that the Red Sea truly parted.”

Rabbi Vital was learned in the ways of the Torah and was able to speak to the woman even though the spirit was possessing her. He asked the widow if she believed in the Red Sea miracle, and she replied that she did. He had her repeat this three times, then he commanded the dybbuk, using a secret kabbalistic formula, to depart the woman’s body. The woman shrieked as the spirit fled from her pinky toe of her left foot. A new mezuzah was put up that very night.

The Myth’s Origins

The word dybbuk means to adhere or to cling, and entered common usage in the 17th century through German- and Polish-speaking Jews. Tales of dybbuks and possessing spirits are rife in medieval literature. Early tales of demonic possession in Jewish folklore can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities 8:2.5, “God also enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day.” And Talmud Me’ilah 17b speaks of an exorcism. 

But in the latter medieval texts, the possessing spirit is not a demon but that of a corrupted soul who could not enter paradise. This concept went hand in hand with the concept of gilgul, or the transmigration of souls, and it was understood that these lost spirits sought refuge in human bodies. One of the tests of true faith among Jews was the belief in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. And those who didn’t believe in this miracle were seen as leaving themselves open to unclean spirits.

Also, the mezuzah, literally “doorpost,” is a small prayer written on parchment, wrapped in a tiny ornamental box, and affixed to the doors of one’s home, as prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:9. It was believed, in much the same way that the lamb’s blood painted on the door posts spared the ancient Hebrews the wrath of the Angel of Death during the Exodus, that affixing a mezuzah to one’s door protected that home from malicious spirits. An empty mezuzah was one such way these evil spirits tricked people into letting them into their home.

Rabbi Isaac Luria and his many disciples wrote down many stories about dybbuks, and they documented how one might exorcise them. Those who were learned in kabbalah and knew how to apply the Holy Name, these baalai shem, or masters of the name, were able to exorcise these unclean spirits and send them down to Gehenna, where they belonged. 

One of the most famous instances of this myth is S. Ansky’s 1916 play “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds.” S. Ansky became deeply interested in Judaic myth and folklore and feared it might be lost as the culture interacted more and more with the rapidly modernizing world. Between the years of 1911 and 1914, he dove deep into Eastern European and Russian regions, the so called “Pale of Settlement,” to document the traditions of the local Jews, asking them more than 2000 detailed questions. His assistant Samuel Schreier-Shrira stated that S. Ansky was particularly impressed by the stories of a Mirapol hasidic rebbe known as Samuel of Kaminka-Miropol and his reputation as an exorcist of dybbuk spirits. Before that, the concept of dybbuks was not widely known outside of Jewish circles. 

Some Thoughts on the Myth 

Tales of possession by evil forces are rife in the world’s many faiths. What’s common about the tales of Jewish dybbuks are the same basic premises: a spirit possesses a body and causes chaos until a rabbi intervenes. Then the dybbuk tells its tale to the rabbi, before the rabbi “exorcises” the spirit, and the person is freed from its evil influence. The possessed is often someone of wavering or no faith, though not always.

What might be occurring here is a religious explanation for mental illness and its periodic psychoses. Whether by placebo or through a talk therapy — the “dybbuk”telling his or her story — the “evil spirit” is freed from the body. The disturbing mental energy is thus discharged, and the person goes on living his or her life. Imagine a person with schizophrenia living within a hasidic world. How often would they need to be exorcised? And would talking about their needs and their story discharge the turbulent mental energy enough to quell the psychotic episode? Did these exorcisms form an early version of psychotherapy? Or did these religious machinations only make things worse? If someone with mental illness was seen as “evil,” this would no doubt adversely affect his or her relationship with the community. They might be shunned and feared.

Also, here we see another example of of a paranoid world-view. Only by obeying God’s laws and protecting one’s home with magic mezuzah can one protect herself from evil spirits. Doubt the Red Sea miracle? Then you leave yourself open to possession. Don’t want to put a mezuzah on your home? Then evil spirits will enter it.

I feel bad for the mentally ill person who was both a believer in God and the Red Sea miracle and had a proper mezuzah on her door, only to be told she was “possessed” by evil. While these tales might make great fictional story fodder, in real life such myths probably accounted for much suffering among people.

 

Tomorrow’s Myth: The Fear of Death