Less than a week after the tzaddik Rabbi Levi Yitzchak moved to Berditchev in 1785 to serve as chief rabbi there, three men knocked on his door to ask him to decide a question of Jewish law between them. It would be his very first case as a rabbinical judge in his new position.
A wealthy merchant from the nearby town of Chmielnik had brought several barrels filled with honey to sell at the big fair in Berditchev. Unfortunately, just then the price of honey dropped sharply. Not wanting to suffer a loss on his investment, he asked an acquaintance to store the honey for him until the price rose again.
The two were old friends, and the local man was happy to oblige. Knowing each other to be completely honest, they didn’t write down anything of their arrangement or call in witnesses.
Time went by. The price of honey remained low, so the barrels remained in their Berditchev cellar, untouched and unnoticed.
More time went by. The man on whose property the honey was stored contracted a fatal disease and passed away. Everything happened so quickly that he never had a chance to explain to his family anything about the state of his affairs.
More time passed. The price of honey finally began to slowly climb. When the increase became significant, the owner of the barrels showed up at his deceased friend’s house and claimed his honey from the sons who had inherited and taken over their father’s business. They, however, having heard nothing about it from their father, refused to honor the Chmielniker merchant’s claim. After some discussion, they decided to proceed to the beit din (rabbinical court) to present the case before the new rabbi.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak listened to the litigants carefully, even though the law in such a case was clear. Of course he would have to rule against the out-of-town merchant. Even if there had been witnesses or a signed document, Torah law stipulates that no claims against “orphans” (i.e., heirs who are disadvantaged by the fact that they have no way of knowing what transpired between the deceased and their litigant) can be collected without first swearing an oath as to the validity of one’s claim; and here there were neither document nor witnesses.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak hesitated to pronounce his verdict and finalize the case. Two nagging thoughts disturbed him. Why, in his first days in his new position, did the Almighty arrange for his inaugural judgment to be something so straightforward and clear-cut, with no room left to budge and no right to attempt any sort of compromise? Could it be a hint from heaven that his practice to always pursue accommodation and compromise was not correct? That only adhering strictly to the letter of the law can be considered the way of truth?
The other thought that made him uncomfortable was: Why did the Supernal Judge arrange it so that his very first ruling in this town would be considered bizarre by the entire populace? After all, the merchant from Chmielnik was well known to everyone in town as a scrupulously honest man, as someone who was already wealthy and as such immune to monetary pressures, and as far from theft as east is from west. Furthermore, everyone knew that the merchant and the deceased were old friends who trusted each other implicitly, never resorting to documents or witnesses in their transactions. Surely, the entire town would be paying attention to the first ruling handed down by their new rabbi. Everyone was sure to wonder: Why should the law of the Torah be so opposite to common sense? “Why me, and why now?” thought Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to himself.
He couldn’t bring himself to issue the verdict just yet. The contradiction between the natural sense of what was right and the law of the Torah was too great. Even though the claimant and defendants anxiously awaited his word, he asked them to excuse him for a few more minutes. Turning aside to a corner of the room, he poured forth in silent prayer his frustration, beseeching G‑d to enlighten him with understanding.
Suddenly, the owner of the honey jumped off his seat as if struck by a bolt of lightning, and exclaimed: “I remember! I remember!” So struck was he by his recollection, and so convinced of its importance and relevance, he didn’t hesitate to interrupt the rabbi, who was standing in the corner, absorbed in his personal prayer.
“Honored Rabbi, please forgive me,” he called out excitedly. “While waiting here I had the most amazing realization! An old memory, which I haven’t thought about in many years, just flashed through my mind. Rescued from oblivion! I’m talking about something that happened fifty years ago, when I was just a young lad.
“Our father died suddenly, leaving us a large inheritance in cash and possessions. Included in this was a storage room filled with casks of wine and oil.
“One day, the father of these two young men—may his rest be peaceful—came to our home in Chmielnik. He claimed that the wine and oil were his—that he had stored it with our father for safekeeping. My brothers and I were still quite young then, and had never been involved in any of our father’s business affairs. We had no idea what we were supposed to do, but we were reluctant to give up the merchandise just like that.
“We all went to the rabbi of the town and presented our case. He ruled in our favor, explaining that nothing can be taken from the inheritance of orphans without absolute proof and an oath. The wine and oil remained in our possession. After a while, we sold the entire lot for a good price.
“What I just realized is that the money we received for that wine and oil is exactly equal to the value of my honey, which is now in the possession of the sons of my departed friend!”
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s face shone with inner happiness. With his apt comparison of the two parallel events fifty years apart, the merchant had conceded his own present case. For the same reason that, as an orphan, he was entitled to keep the wine and oil that long time ago, he had to relinquish his claim on these orphans for his honey today.
Now, all was clear to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: divine providence had presented him this case, so early in his new tenure, to teach him an important lesson. Not always is what seems obvious and true to human eyes necessarily the truth, or even fair. Absolute truth resides only with the laws of the Torah. G‑d’s ledger is always open, and all accounts are forever being reckoned and balanced. Some may take fifty years for resolution, others more, others less. What is guaranteed is that the Master of the Universe constantly oversees to be sure that justice is done.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1810) is one of the more popular rebbes in chassidic history. He was a close disciple of the second leader of the chassidic movement, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. He is best known for his love for every Jew and his perpetual intercession before heaven on their behalf. Many of his teachings are contained in the posthumously published Kedushat Levi.
Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Levi Bistritzky