"you were jewish once, weren't you, joshua? did you ever hear the story of the 36 tzaddikim?....They say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints---36 unselfish men and women. because of them the world continues to exist. they are the secret kings and queens of this world." -death, "fables and reflections"

in jewish tradition, tzaddikim are people who have done more good than bad... almost like the egyptian soul-weighing idea, where those with more "merits" than "debits" are redeemed. tzaddikim are called "the righteous men" by the hasidic movement, which adopted the idea of the tzaddik in the 18th and 19th centuries.

the tzaddik appears to be biblical in origin. noah was the first known tzaddik in jewish tradition; in genesis 6:9, for example, he was called a "righteous and whole-hearted.... man who walked with god." jewish folklore added the idea of the "hidden tzaddik": nobody knows for sure who is a tzaddik and who isn't, since there are no visible defining characteristics. a tzaddik doesn't even have to be a very nice person; all he or she has to do is "one great deed of kindness."

maimonides, a twelfth century jewish sage, once said the following concerning the tzaddikim: "at any moment, our next action may determine our own fate, as well as that of our city, nation, even the universe." the tzaddik is meant to be humble, yet is also expected to have the audacity and strength to stand up to god for the sake of humanity. death mentioned that there were 36 tzaddikim, but this is just one opinion from one legend. although all the writings can agree that "no tzaddik ever departs from the world until a similar tzaddik is brought into being," the possible number ranges from 36 to 18,000.