There is an ancient tradition, mentioned in Islamic, Jewish and Persian writings, that the world is prevented from being submerged in its follies and wickedness by the presence in each generation of a small number of just men who, through their conduct and good deeds, ensure the safety and survival of the people. They operate inconspicuously: scarcely recognized by others or even themselves.

The legend is widespread in Jewish folklore, but accounts vary as to the quality or number of these 'Zaddikim'. Some are hidden, or take action to avoid being noticed; others are known and subject to public attention. Proverbs X praises the just man as the foundation of the world; early Talmudic writings give the number as thirty (from an interpretation of Genesis XVIII: 18 whereby God promised Abraham that the world would never lack so many such as he; and the Babylonian section refers to forty-five. The number was rounded-off to three dozen by a Babylonian teacher in the fourth century from a numerical interpretation in Isiah XXX: 18 of the word for 'Him'.

It is thought, however, that the idea of thirty-six is not specifically Semitic, being taken from an Egyptian/Hellenistic notion of 36 celestial decans, each of which rules ten days of the year, and personifies them into watchmen of the Universe. Later, each sign of the Zodiac was given three faces and each decan bore the name of one of the Biblical characters from Adam to Ezra. This idea was eventually taken into Kabbalistic literature.

In Eastern Europe, for good reasons, Jewish people firmly believed that the thirty-six were always present to support them and confound their oppressors. They were given the name 'Lamedvavniks' after the numerals in the Hebrew counting system. Lamed, the twelfth letter in the alphabet, equivalent to our 'L', has the value thirty and Vav, six.

Whatever the details and origin of the legend - and this one follows the general pattern - it is a nice story with a ring of truth. The world is maintained by quite small numbers of ordinary people who, by their presence, with no special claim to merit or distinction, go about their affairs in times of upheaval to provide oases of sanity and continuity. Those who claim to be in control of events strut about in the limelight and manipulate the levers of power without considering that these are not necessarily connected to anything behind the panel and any that are connected may do considerable damage before being reversed...

Could we modestly claim to be some of the three dozen?