Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1809) is one of the most beloved of chassidic leaders. Hundreds of stories, plays and poems highlight his fiery service of G‑d, his love for the Jewish people, and his characteristic role of advocating before the heavenly court on behalf of the Jewish nation.
Birth and Upbringing
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the twenty-sixth generation in a dynasty of great rabbis, was born to Rabbi Meir of Husakov and his wife Sara Sasha. According to tradition, on the day of Levi Yitzchak’s birth, the Baal Shem Tov held a joyous gathering, informing his followers that the soul of a “defender of the Jewish people” had entered the world.
On the day of his birth, the Baal Shem Tov informed his followers that a “defender of the Jewish people” has been bornLevi Yitzchak studied with his father until marriage, when he moved to Levertov, his wife's hometown.
When R. Levi Yitzchak first came to Levertov, he went to study under the holy Rabbi Shmelke Horowitz, the rabbi of the nearby town of Ritchvol. At Rabbi Shmelke’s urging, R. Levi Yitzchak eventually traveled to the Maggid of Mezeritch, who had assumed the leadership of the Chassidic movement after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov in 1760. R. Levi Yitzchak soon became an ardent follower of the Maggid and part of his elite inner circle of disciples.
Life as a Rabbi
After Rabbi Shmelke was appointed to the rabbinate of the larger city of Nikolsburg (after which he became known), R. Levi Yitzchak took his place as rabbi of Ritchvol. But his life was made difficult by the local opponents of Chassidism. Eventually, the young rabbi felt that his life was in danger, and escaped the city on foot on Hoshana Rabbah (the last day of Sukkot), with only a lulav and etrog in hand.
He was appointed rabbi of Zelichov, but the same story repeated itself there. R. Levi Yitzchak left Zelichov and was appointed rabbi of the prominent city of Pinsk. However, in Pinsk too R. Levi Yitzchak and his family found no tranquility.
In 1785 R. Levi Yitzchak arrived in Berditchev, where he led the community for nearly twenty-five years, until his death. In Berditchev, R. Levi Yitzchak finally found freedom from strife, and aside for serving as the city’s rabbi, he also established there his famed chassidic court, where thousands of his followers throughout Eastern Europe would flock to his synagogue for inspiration and guidance.
Though a prominent Jewish center, Berditchev was highly influenced by the “Enlightenment” movement, and famous for its anti-religious sentiment. In the local theater, R. Levi Yitzchak was often satirized as an anti-hero—the ridiculous, outdated rabbi. One wealthy man traveled to Berditchev to see the show, and he enjoyed the ridicule so much that he decided to visit the real rabbi, just for laughs. But once there, he was struck by R. Levi Yitzchak’s extraordinary persona, and returned to Jewish observance, becoming a devoted follower of R. Levi Yitzchak.
To this very day, Jews from around the world flock to pray at the resting place of the “Lover of Israel” Despite the challenge of living in a city that was largely unwelcoming, R. Levi Yitzchak was determined to remain, to counter the anti-religious climate, and to advocate for his people. At the time, such a cause—specifically choosing to live amongst self-proclaimed secularized Jews—was unheard of, and R. Levi Yitzchak was entirely unique in his outlook.
R. Levi Yitzchak passed away on 25 Tishrei 5570 (1809), and he is interred in the city of Berditchev. Until this very day, Jews from around the world flock to Berditchev to pray at the resting place of the “Lover of Israel,” asking him to intercede on their behalf on high, just as was his custom and passion during his earthly lifetime.
Though R. Levi Yitzchak had children, none of them replaced him as rabbi after his death. The townspeople held him in such high esteem that they never again sought a rabbi to fill his place, instead relying for guidance on a dayan, a rabbinical arbiter.
When R. Levi Yitzchak passed away, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that whoever has eyes can see that the “light of the universe” was extinguished.
Defender of His People
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is remembered for his compassion and gentleness, and for his legendary love for every Jew, no matter his spiritual or material state. He once said, “If after I pass away I have the option of being alone in paradise, or to go to purgatory but there to be in the company of other Jews, I would certainly choose the latter. As long as I’m together with other Jews!”
He was always judging others in a positive light. It is related that one Shabbat, R. Levi Yitzchak met a Jew smoking in the street. The rabbi asked the young man if he’d forgotten that such an act is forbidden on Shabbat. The young man replied that no, he hadn’t forgotten. R. Levi Yitzchak asked if there was some circumstance causing him to sin. The young man replied that no, he was knowingly and voluntarily sinning. R. Levi Yitzchak looked up to the sky and said, “L‑rd of the Universe, see the holiness of your people! They’d rather declare themselves sinners than utter a lie!”
He would appeal to G‑d as if he were a lawyer, by addressing Him directly and often disputatiouslyR. Levi Yitzchak would appeal to G‑d—to whom he’d always refer as der derbaremdiger, “the merciful One”—as if he were a lawyer, by addressing Him directly and often disputatiously. One classic example: “L‑rd of the Universe, You must forgive Israel for their sins. If You do this, good. But if not, I’ll tell the world that the tefillin You wear are invalid. Why? The verse of King David enclosed within Your tefillin reads, ‘Who is like your people Israel, a unique nation on earth?’ So, if You don’t forgive Israel, this verse is untrue, and the tefillin are invalid.”
On another occasion he addressed G‑d: “Master of the Universe, You have placed all the earthly temptations before our eyes, while the spiritual benefits and rewards for following Your will are relegated to the books we study. That is quite unfair! Reverse the situation. Serenade our senses with an appreciation for spirituality, and consign all material benefits and pleasures to the library shelves. See, then, how few people will sin!”
Despite his personal travails, he never petitioned G‑d for his personal needs, not even his spiritual needs. His only wish was that G‑d should shower blessings upon his fellow Jews.
A famous (and highly characteristic) anecdote is of when R. Levi Yitzchak spotted a Jew greasing the wheels of his buggy while wearing tallit and tefillin, in middle of prayer. Instead of rebuking the Jew, R. Levi Yitzchak turned to G‑d and cried out, “G‑d, look at how holy Your nation is. They even grease the wheels of their buggies with tallit and tefillin on . . .”
The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Chabad Rebbe, explained that in honor of R. Levi Yitzchak’s role as advocate, a new hall of merit called “The Hall of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak son of Sara Sasha” was opened in the heavens, and any Jew who needs divine intervention and who recites Psalms wholeheartedly in the merit of R. Levi Yitzchak will surely be helped.
The Seer of Lublin (known as the Chozeh), a younger contemporary of R. Levi Yitzchak, once remarked that he thanks and blesses the Almighty daily for bringing down the soul of R. Levi Yitzchak into the world.
Passion for G‑d
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was known for his tremendous excitement to serve G‑d, and his intense ardor often caused him to act without consideration for his surroundings. Certain portions of prayer would send him into a state of profound ecstasy; it was a normal occurrence to see him jumping on the table during prayer.
His intense ardor often caused him to act without consideration for his surroundingsOn the first night of Sukkot, R. Levi Yitzchak would stay awake, waiting for the first moment of sunlight, when he’d be allowed to recite the blessing on the lulav and etrog. The story is told that once the etrog was lying in a glass-doored cabinet. In his great excitement to perform the mitzvah, he failed to notice the “obstruction”; he simply put his hand through the glass and, with incredible fervor, recited the appropriate blessing and fulfilled the mitzvah. Only after his excitement had somewhat abated did he notice his bloodied hand . . .
Similarly, at the end of the holidays of Sukkot and Passover (during which tefillin aren’t worn), he wouldn’t sleep all night, waiting for the first opportunity to put on tefillin after the long interruption.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
While studying under his master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak became acquainted with Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a fellow disciple of the Maggid five years his junior, who would later go on to found the Chabad stream of Chassidism. The two holy men immediately forged a warm relationship, one based on a deep mutual respect and love.
Years later, R. Schneur Zalman published his foundational work on chassidic thought, the Tanya. When R. Levi Yitzchak was presented with a copy of the newly published work, his euphoric reaction was: “It’s incredible that he’s managed to fit such a great G‑d into such a small book!”
Eventually, the two became related through marriage: R. Levi Yitzchak’s grandson married R. Schneur Zalman’s granddaughter, the daughter of Rabbi DovBer, the second Chabad Rebbe. This wedding, which took place in the city of Zhlobin (the approximate halfway point between Liadi and Berditchev), is known in chassidic annals as the “Great Wedding,” and many stories are recounted regarding this wedding that brought together these two chassidic giants.
In 1806 R. Levi Yitzchak’s beloved son Rabbi Meir passed away. Rabbi Schneur Zalman sent him a moving consolation letter wherein he expounds upon the tremendous spiritual lights that descend upon the world at the time of the passing of a tzaddik (righteous individual). This letter was later included in the collection of letters which comprise Part Four of the Tanya.
“It is known and common knowledge in all the worlds that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was a lover of Israel . . .”When R. Schneur Zalman was arrested in 1798 by the Czarist government, he immediately dispatched a messenger to R. Levi Yitzchak, asking that he pray on his behalf. When R. Schneur Zalman was released, he immediately penned a letter to R. Levi Yitzchak informing him of the miraculous news (part of this letter is published in Hayom Yom, entry for 19 Kislev).
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5743 (1982), the Rebbe delivered a maamar (chassidic discourse). According to chassidic tradition, every word uttered by a Rebbe in the course of a maamar is part of a stream of consciousness dictated verbatim from Above.
During the course of this dissertation, the Rebbe quoted a parable from R. Levi Yitzchak that explains the significance of the mitzvah of sounding the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah. He then continued:
“This is a parable attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. And it is known and common knowledge in all the worlds that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, of blessed memory, was a lover of Israel, an advocate on behalf of each and every Jew, and one who tips the [heavenly] scales in favor of each and every Jew . . .”
May the legacy and merit of the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzchak cause G‑d to bestow abundant blessings upon all of Israel, Amen.