I was trying to explain to a friend who the Lamed-vovniks are, and came across this quote that explained it perfectly:
To understand this metamorphosis, one must be aware of the ancient Jewish tradition of the Lamed-Vov, a tradition that certain Talmudists trace back to the source of the centuries, to the mysterious time of the prophet Isaiah.
Rivers of blood have flowed, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.
Thousands of popular stories take note of them. Their presence is attested to everywhere. A very old text of the Haggadah tells us that the most pitiable are the Lamed-Vov who remain unknown to themselves. For those the spectacle of the world is an unspeakable hell.
In the seventh century, Andalusian Jews venerated a rock shaped like a teardrop, which they believed to be the soul, petrified by suffering, of an 'unknown' Lamed-Vovnik. Other Lamed-Vov, like Hecuba shrieking at the death of her sons, are said to have been transformed into dogs.
When an unknown Just rises to Heaven, a Hasidic story goes, he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise. And it is known that some remain forever inconsolable at human woe, so that God Himself cannot warm them. So from time to time the Creator, blessed be His Name, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute.
-- from The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart
John Brick, on Monday, October 13, 2003 at 1:52 PM:
There is now another word for the phenomena known as the Lamed-vov, those who absorb the suffering and pain of the world can also be called a "waste lock".
Susan Hoivik, on Sunday, April 24, 2005 at 8:11 PM:
The Argentinian writer-extraordinaire, Juan Luis Borges, describes them hauntingly in his El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios. In Spanish he writes the name Lamed Wufniks (or was it Wulfniks? sorry, I live in Nepal now)
In rough English translation from memory:
"There are in the world, and have always been, 37 righteous men whose mision is to justify the world to God. They are very poor, and do not know one another. If one of them reaches the realisation that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he dies immediately and is replaced by someone else, perhaps in another part of the world. They constitute the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, the Lord would annihilate the human race. They are our saviours and they know it not.
Susan Hoivik, on Sunday, April 24, 2005 at 8:13 PM:
I was trying to write about Borges' description in El Libro de los Seres Imaginarios, but the computer keeps asking for a template....?
dan schimmel, on Monday, June 20, 2005 at 6:16 PM:
just reading this site for first time.
Susan, doi have any way to reach you by email?