Teshuvah, “repentance,” is as old as time itself. From the time of the creation of the world, when G‑d created the possibility of sin, G‑d also gave us the ability to repent, or, better translated, "to return" to our original state of being—G‑dly creations with G‑dly aspirations. The returnee, the man or woman who has made this journey back home, is referred to as a baal(at) teshuvah, and serves as a great inspiration to each and every one of us.

Ever since the beginning of our history, many illustrious baalei teshuvah have not only rejoined the Jewish circle but have gone on to greatly contribute to Jewish life and thought. Starting with Ishmael, who grew up in Abraham's home only to leave it and then eventually return, through the famed Reish Lakish, the great sage of the Talmud who began as a wild and dangerous bandit, our history is filled with the tales of these great champions of teshuvah.

About 1500 years after Reish Lakish and his mentor (and friend and brother-in-Law) Rabbi Yochanan, we meet another fascinating duo, the great Rabbi Dr. Bernhard and the Rebbe of Lelov, Rabbi Dovid Biederman.1

The Makings of Dr. Bernhard

Polish-born Dr. Chaim Dovid Bernhard served as the official doctor of Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm the II, King of Prussia, and King Stanislaw August Poniatowski of Poland. He spent his youth studying in the great schools in Berlin, and then went on to study at the prominent University of Breslau (Wrocław) and the University of Erfurt. After serving as the official doctor of the Prussian military, he was brought to the royal palace to serve as the king's doctor.

The doctor was well-respected in the medical world. He was sought-after and corresponded with the greatest medical minds of his times, and he later went on to teach medicine at the University of Warsaw. He continued to serve as the doctor to many Polish nobles until the Polish uprising in November 1830.

Left to right: General Józef Zajączek, Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm the II, King of Prussia, and King Stanislaw August Poniatowski of Poland
Left to right: General Józef Zajączek, Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm the II, King of Prussia, and King Stanislaw August Poniatowski of Poland

But what may come as a surprise is that Dr. Chaim Dovid Bernhard had a devoutly religious upbringing in the small Polish town of Zhaloshin (Działoszyn). His life didn't play out quite the way anyone would've expected, making the arc of his life quite a fascinating one.

According to legend, Chaim Dovid was born sometime in the 1770s after his parents received a blessing from the famed Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. As the story goes, the boy's father, Yissachar Ber, spent an exorbitant sum of money (more than he could afford) to help release a fellow Jew who had been imprisoned for failing to pay the unreasonable land use fees. Reb Elimelech, who arranged the negotiation and release, promised Yissachar Ber that G‑d would bless him with a son whose radiance would shine across the whole world. A little while later, Chaim Dovid was born.

In his early teens, Chaim Dovid became ill and needed to be under medical supervision. While under the doctor’s care, his Torah study waned, and his interest and attraction to the secular world strengthened. Under the influence and urging of the doctor and his wife, who were "enlightened" Jews, young Chaim Dovid set off to Berlin, the Enlightenment capital of Europe, to study in the prestigious universities there.

It seemed as though Chaim Dovid had fallen into a fully secular lifestyle. He married Helena (Hadassah), a seamstress and tutor at the palace, and began raising a family. He moved back from Prussia to Poland, where he continued his medical work, while fraternizing with the Polish high society, making the most of the extravagant lifestyle he created for himself.

Clockwise from top left: University of Breslau, Erfurt, Berliner Schloss - the Prussian palace, and Berlin.
Clockwise from top left: University of Breslau, Erfurt, Berliner Schloss - the Prussian palace, and Berlin.

The Path to Teshuvah

But G‑d had other plans, and by Divine Providence, the doctor came across the great Rabbi Dovid Biederman, the rebbe of Lelov. Known as Reb Dovid'l, he was renowned for his great love for others and his emphasis on seeking out lofty souls, including those that had “wandered.” His protégés included Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Rabinovitch ("The Holy Jew"), Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa and Rabbi Yitzchok of Varke. While there are many legends and versions of how these two great men met, we will share the most common one.

Headstone of Rabbi Dovid Biederman of Lelov (1746-1814).
Headstone of Rabbi Dovid Biederman of Lelov (1746-1814).

Yom Kippur. The shul in Lelov is packed; young and old of all types and stripes are there, pouring out their hearts to G‑d on this spiritual day. Reb Dovid’l, their Rebbe, is leading them in prayer, his gentle yet passionate fervor uplifting them to the highest realms of devotion and connection with their Maker.

An unknown visitor arrives in Lelov. No one knows why he came; he may be passing through on his way back from visiting one of his high-profile patients, or it could be that his soul is drawing him to the Chassidic court in Lelov (Yom Kippur can do that to people). Whatever the reason, he is traveling through the Jewish neighborhood, when he hears shouts of "Doctor! Doctor!"

The visitor, Dr. Bernhard, runs to the rescue. A young woman is in labor, and things aren't going well. She is fighting with her last vestiges of strength to stay alive and save her unborn child. The doctor could not have come at a better time—he guides her through the birth, saving her and her child's life.

The young woman's father-in-law—who has arrived, frantic, at the scene—thanks the doctor profusely and invites him into his study to talk.

The father-in-law is the rebbe, Reb Dovid'l himself. They sit for a couple of hours on Yom Kippur, talking about life, purpose, Judaism and G‑d. Reb Dovid'l finishes off their conversation with the words "Chaim Dovid! Return! You cannot imagine how much pleasure this will give your Father in heaven!"2

The switch is flicked. The doctor stays on in Lelov and begins to slowly make his way back to Judaism, guided ever so carefully by Reb Dovid'l. Chaim Dovid succeeds in turning his life around, growing every day in his service of G‑d.

Rabbi Doctor

Reb Dovid'l brought Chaim Dovid to Lublin to meet his rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz, the great Chozeh of Lublin (“Seer of Lublin”). Reportedly, the Chozeh struck a deal with him, saying, "You, Doctor, will heal my frail and weak body, and I will help heal your soul." So in addition to kings and noblemen, Chaim Dovid’s list of high-profile patients included the great rebbes of Poland.3

Headstone of the R. Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, "Seer of Lublin" (1745-1815). Credits: Comik
Headstone of the R. Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, "Seer of Lublin" (1745-1815). Credits: Comik

Following the advice of the Chozeh, Chaim Dovid continued working as a doctor, caring for his patients and teaching medicine.

However, he was now referred to not just as “Doctor,” but as “Rabbi Doctor.” He reduced his work hours and spent the rest of his time in study and prayer. When he was called to see a patient, he would recite Psalms on their behalf on the way over and would write "with the help of G‑d" at the top of each prescription. He began to be known across Poland for his spirituality as well as his remarkable medical record.

At the request of General Józef Zajączek, he settled in Pietrekov (Piotrków). While he neither sought nor accepted the position of Rebbe, he did acquiesce to the requests of the masses and became a spiritual leader akin to the Polish rebbes of his era.4 He taught them Torah from his teachers and inspired them at the Friday night "tishes" (festive meals that featured spirited singing, Torah teaching, and storytelling).Independently wealthy, Reb Chaim Dovid gave tremendous sums of money to the poor and supported Torah study across Poland.

Rabbi Dr. Bernhardt formed deep and close relationships with all the great rebbes of Poland. The Rebbes of Lublin, Peshische, Lelov, Kotzk, Radomsk, Varke, Izhbetza, Kozhnitz, Strikov,5 Radoshitz, Gur, and Volbrash6 were all amongst his friends and confidants; they would consult with him not only on medical matters but rather on all aspects of Jewish life in Poland, specifically on those issues that would require a more broad and worldly vision.

He championed the Jewish community's rights and wellbeing. He had anti-Semitic doctors fired, he supported the Jewish community in the Holy Land and at home, and he built the famous shul in Pietrekov, even bringing in special architects and designers.

The great synogouge in Pietrekov. (Credits: Chrumps)
The great synogouge in Pietrekov. (Credits: Chrumps)

Even after his teshuvah, the wondrous Reb Chaim Dovid was not only loved by his fellow Jews, but by the gentiles as well; both the aristocrats and the peasantry had great respect and adoration for him. This painting was actually commissioned by a gentile doctor in Pietrekov who—coming from an anti-Semitic background—initially tried railing people against Reb Chaim Dovid. But after getting to know him a bit better, his erstwhile antagonist regretted what he had done, and as a show of remorse, commissioned a portrait of the great tzaddik.

The portrait of Rabbi Dr. Chaim Dovid Bernhard of Pietrekov (1770s - 1858). Credits: GFDL
The portrait of Rabbi Dr. Chaim Dovid Bernhard of Pietrekov (1770s - 1858). Credits: GFDL

His Legacy

On the twentieth of Shevat, 5618 (1858), Reb Chaim Dovid returned his soul to his maker, leaving behind a wife,7 three children, and their families. He was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Pietrekov, and an ohel (structure) was erected over his resting place a while later by a few Chassidim. The Nazis destroyed it, and it laid in ruins until 1992, when a generous Jewish family restored it.

"The Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Dovid, Professor, Dr. Bernhard ztz"l." Perhaps these words inscribed on his tombstone, coupled with a brief entry in a Polish medical directory, can summarize the amazing life that he lived and the great impression he had on so many. The entry reads:

Bernhard, David, was born in Zhialozhyn in 1782. From 1805 he trained himself in medical sciences in Breslau. He was licensed as a doctor in Erfurt. He served for a while as the doctor of the Polish legions and afterward served in the study of "Physik" in Radomsk county. He lived in many cities in Poland, but for the most time he lived in Pietrekov, where he served as the doctor of the Jewish hospital. He died on Feb. 3, 1858. Bernhard was an observant Jew and devoutly Chassidic.

The journey of Reb Chaim Dovid served in some ways as a harbinger for the teshuvah movement that we have come to know, the reconciliation of a secular background with an intense Chassidic zeal and passion. Through combining these two contrasting forces, Reb Chaim Dovid imbued his career and worldly demeanor with a powerful and spirited connection to G‑d. Not only was he not hampered by his secular past; he could reach broader audiences than his peers.


Baal Teshuva, by Yitzchok Arigor (Gur-Aryeh), Haifa, 1934.
HaAdmur Harofeh, by Aviezer Burshtein, Tel Aviv, 1970.
Chachmei Yisrael, by Dovid Halachmi, Israel, 1957.
Encyclopedia LeChassidut, by Dr. Yitzchok Alfasi and Dr. Yitzchok Refael, Jerusalem, 1986.
An entry in the Pietrekov Sefer Zikaron by Meir Shimon Gashuri, Tel Aviv, 1965.
MiPolin LeBerlin V’Chazarah, Netanel Yechieli, Mekor Rishon, 2006.