Less than a week after the tzaddik Rabbi Levi Yitzchak moved to
Berdichev 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 Hemelnick had brought several
barrels filled with honey to sell at the big fair in Berdichev. 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 Berdichev 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, 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 Hemelnicker merchant's claim.
After some discussion, they decided to proceed to the bet-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
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 to budge left or 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
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
Hemelnick 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
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
"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
"One day, the father of these two young men -- may his rest be peaceful --
came to our home in Hemelnick. 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 Mezritch. 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
Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Levi Bistritzky