“Rabbi Eizik Homiler was a man of many talents. He was both a great intellectual and a sincere servant of G‑d. He was an expert Talmudist as well as a mystic. And his genius extended from Chassidic philosophy to secular disciplines.”1

Reb Shmuel Gronem Esterman, legendary Chassidic mentor

Who was this chassid-of-all-trades?

Rabbi Yitzchok Eizik haLevi Epstein, better known as Reb Eizik Homiler (“from Homil,” or Gomel), was born sometime around the year 1770. He descended from a family of scholars, his father, Rabbi Mordechai, among them. As a young teenager, he studied the Talmud and its commentaries vigorously in the study hall of his grandfather, Rabbi Dovid Epstein.

The Talmudist Turned Chassid

Reb Eizik eventually became a household name in his hometown. Scholars enjoyed his lectures on Talmudic subjects, while the simpler townsfolk hung onto every word of the stories he would tell about the sages.2

The Alter Rebbe himself eventually heard about this bright young man and sent one of his Chassidim to introduce Reb Eizik to the Chassidic way of life. His interest piqued, Reb Eizik decided to travel to the city of Liozna, where Chabad was headquartered at the time. He stayed there for some time, absorbing the Chassidic teachings and way of life.

Upon his return home, Reb Eizik arranged a minyan (prayer group), where the participants would study and meditate before praying in the manner of chassidim.

When Reb Eizik’s father, who was still opposed to the Chassidic movement, found out, he banned his son from participating in the minyan. Out of respect for his father, Reb Eizik complied. After a while, Rabbi Mordechai realized that his son’s newfound Chassidic associations had only enhanced his devotion to Torah, and he permitted his son to rejoin the prayer group.3

After three years immersed in study, prayer, and meditation, Reb Eizik felt he was finally ready to enter into a private audience with the Alter Rebbe. As soon as he handed the Alter Rebbe the note he had written asking for guidance in his Divine service, he fainted. Although already a great Torah scholar, having dedicated the past three years of his life to growing immensely in the Chassidic path, he was still shaken by this first private encounter with the Alter Rebbe and in utter awe of his greatness.

Reb Eizik took the notoriously difficult entry exam for the Alter Rebbe’s exclusive academy, completing the Talmudic section with success. However, the Alter Rebbe insisted he spend five more months studying works of Jewish philosophy before joining.4

In Liozna, Reb Eizik was playfully dubbed Der Zibbeleh (“the sevenlet”) because he completed the study of the entire Talmud seven times.

As Chassidim strive to be humble, the fact that he was known by his vast accomplishments in Torah study pained him, and he once bemoaned this fact to the Alter Rebbe. The Alter Rebbe explained that Reb Eizik’s soul was that of the highest spiritual world of Atzilut, however his body was not yet a proper vessel for such a lofty soul. He was therefore subject to rebuke and harassment in order to refine him.5

The Alter Rebbe blessed Reb Eizik with success in Torah study, a deep connection to G‑d, broad intellectual capabilities, wealth, and offered even to elevate him to the highest level of serving G‑d—a tzaddik—which Reb Eizik refused, explaining he wanted to work on himself as a beinoni (one who still battles with his evil inclination), rather than becoming a tzaddik with no effort.6

Toward the end of his life, Reb Eizik reflected that if there was anything that could merit him the World to Come, it would be the mitzvah of shimush talmidei chachamim — serving Torah scholars. “One summer, the Alter Rebbe was engrossed in studying manuscripts by the window, and a paper fluttered away in the breeze. I hurried to retrieve it and handed it back to the Alter Rebbe,” he recalled. As someone chuckled at what seemed like a lighthearted act of humility, Reb Eizik, with a serious demeanor, remarked, “Why are you laughing? From a halachic perspective, that is considered shimush talmidei chachamim!”7

The Man Who Almost Became a Rebbe

After the Alter Rebbe’s passing in 1812, Reb Eizik immediately became a close chassid of his son and successor the Mitteler Rebbe, Rabbi Dov Ber. Their relationship had started years earlier, during the Alter Rebbe’s lifetime, when Reb Eizik often turned to him for clarity in Chassidic and philosophical concepts.

When the Mitteler Rebbe passed away in 1827, the elder chassidim, who greatly respected and revered Reb Eizik, asked him to become the next Rebbe of Chabad, since Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the Mitteler Rebbe’s son-in-law, had refused the position. Reb Eizik was not only a brilliant scholar, but also wrote and delivered his own Chassidic teachings (an extremely uncommon thing, usually only done by rebbes) and gave guidance to young and old alike. He was the perfect candidate in the eyes of the chassidim.

He agreed, dressed in the then-traditional white garments of a Rebbe, and was about to step into the wagon that would take him to the place where he’d officially accept the mantle of leadership. When he placed his foot on the step of the wagon, however, a vivid memory pierced his mind: The Alter Rebbe once handed Reb Eizik a piece of kugel (casserole) and said endearingly, “Eizeleh, Eizeleh, just eat kugel and don’t desire to become a rebbe.” He later reflected that, “the moment he placed his foot on the wagon, his mind and heart became a thousandfold more refined.”8

With the Tzemach Tzedek

He turned back and eventually led the chassidim in petitioning Rabbi Menachem Mendel to accept the position. After much effort, the Tzemach Tzedek, as he became known, acquiesced.

When the Tzemach Tzedek accepted the role of Rebbe with the traditional delivery of a Chassidic discourse, the city of Lubavitch rejoiced. Reb Eizik and other prominent chassidim split up the surrounding regions amongst themselves, to travel around for the year and spread the word, encouraging everyone to visit and connect to the new Rebbe.9

The Tzemach Tzedek spoke extremely highly of Reb Eizik, telling his children, “I once spoke with Reb Eizik about lofty, mystical concepts late into the night. After the lengthy conversation, I decided to finally go to sleep, but first, I went to check what my grandfather’s ‘soldier’ was doing. I saw him standing, studying Talmud, with the excitement and vigor of a young student who hadn’t learned in a while.”10

At the conclusion of Reb Eizik’s last visit to Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek himself personally escorted him out, even though it was between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning. At first, they blessed each other, but then their farewell extended into an intimate moment, heads resting on each other's shoulders for nearly half an hour ... Reb Eizik, who was already in his 80s, then said, “Be healthy, because we likely won’t meet again before the coming of Moshiach.”

As the wagon rolled away, the Tzemach Tzedek lifted his hands into the air and said, “Go in peace, go in peace.”

Shortly thereafter, Reb Eizik passed away.11

Rabbi of Homil

Although the city of Homil was home to both chassidim and mitnagdim (those opposed to the Chassidic movement), over time, the city was populated primarily by chassidim.

In 1805, Reb Eizik endeavored, upon the instruction of the Alter Rebbe, to become rabbi of the city of Homil.12 After preparing a lengthy Talmudic dissertation, which thoroughly impressed the sages there, he was immediately appointed as rabbi.

Chassidim and mitnagdim alike embraced his halachic rulings, and the Tzemach Tzedek frequently sought his counsel on matters of halachah. Reb Eizik’s genius was known throughout the Talmudic strongholds of Vilna, Vitebsk, and Minsk.

Although he was a great scholar, he made sure to treat everyone who came to him with the utmost respect and patience.

On one occasion, a simple wagon driver presented himself before Reb Eizik with a halachic question. The Torah prohibits one who is of priestly lineage (a Kohen) to take a divorced woman in marriage. The wagon driver wanted to know if he was permitted to “take” a divorced woman in his wagon to the city of Paritch.

Although this was a basic, if not ridiculous question, Reb Eizik turned to the bookshelf and pulled out the Meirat Einayim—a 16th-century Halachic work, and perused it. After 15 minutes had passed, he turned around to face the wagon driver and gave his “ruling.” “To Paritch? Yes, you can take this woman to Paritch.”

Reb Eizik, who valued every moment, nevertheless took 15 minutes to make this simple man feel noticed and important.13

During his journey home after his last visit to Lubavitch, Reb Eizik stopped in the city of Mohilev, where the mitnagdic sages of the city warmly welcomed him, organizing a feast in his honor. Amidst the celebrations, he faced a barrage of questions spanning various areas of the Torah. He responded to each with clarity and profound insight, greatly impressing those present.14

Once while some students of his excitedly recounted a teaching of Reb Eizik’s, he humbly remarked, “I suppose when I was young I was able to learn.”15

He remained the Rabbi of Homil until his passing, a remarkable tenure that spanned over 50 years.

Teachings and Righteousness

As noted earlier, Reb Eizik authored several books of Chassidic discourses, a practice rarely undertaken by chassidim. The best known are “Maamar Shnei HaMeorot” and “Chonoh Ariel,” followed by “Maamar HaShiflut VehaSimchah” and “Maamar Yetziat Mitzrayim.” In addition, we have a number of his halachic responsa.

In addition to his profound expertise in Chassidic philosophy and Talmud, Reb Eizik was renowned for his dedicated approach to prayer, devoting numerous hours each day to meditation and supplication. He fasted often, once even undertaking a challenging 40-day fast. However, to humble himself, he would take a sip of water right before sunset each day, to ensure that his fasts were not entirely “complete.”16


As he lay on his deathbed on the 26th of the month of Iyar, 1857, his students gathered around to pay their last respects to the teacher and mentor they had so revered. Suddenly, a man walked in, unaware of the situation, with a halachic question regarding eggs found in a hen that was ritually slaughtered for consumption. A student escorted the man to a nearby room to work out the query, but Reb Eizik had already heard the question. He exclaimed, “The answer is in Maimonides’ book of Kedushah (sanctity)!” Immediately, his body stilled and his soul departed his body with the word “sanctity” on his lips.17

The entire city attended his funeral and mourned his passing, lamenting the loss of their great leader. For years to follow, chassidim made the pilgrimage to his gravesite every year on his yahrzeit (anniversary of passing).18

Reb Eizik and his wife, Elka, had one son, Reb Yaakov Yosef.

His legacy is a bright thread in the tapestry of Chassidic tradition. He left us with hundreds of pages of Chassidic teachings, countless sayings, and beautiful stories with lessons to be learned for generations.