Rabi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev ztz”l
Rabi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was one of the greatest tzaddikim and rebbes in Poland. He was also known as the ‘Defender of Yisrael’ due to his unrelenting efforts in judging his fellow Jews favourably.
Rabi Levi Yitzchok was an immense talmid chacham, and even among misnagdim he was known to be ‘filled with Torah’ – which was an incredibly unusual phenomenon during this period of intense antagonism between chassidim and misnagdim. Rabi Levi Yitzchok served as Av Beis Din in Ritshval and in Zlitchov, but was eventually forced to leave due to the opposition of the misnagdim there. In the year 5535, when he was thirty-five years of age, he was appointed as Av Beis Din in Pinsk, which was then a large town full of great scholars – however, again owing to opposition from its misnagdim, he was forced to leave this position as well.
In the year 5545 at the age of forty-five, Rabi Levi Yitzchok moved to the town of Berditchev where he was to serve as Av Beis Din for the next twenty-five years, until his petirah on the 25th of Tishrei in the year 5570. Due to the immense admiration they had for their rav, the people of Berditchev did not bestow the title of ‘rav’ on any of the Berditchever Rov’s successors – all the gedolei haTorah who served after his petirah as the Torah leaders of the town were referred to only as ‘Dayan and Moreh Hora’ah’. In the merit of Rabi Levi Yitzchok, Berditchev became a great centre of chassidus, and thousands of Jews including great scholars flocked there to the holy man who led the town, to benefit from his Torah and to observe and marvel at his level of avodas HaShem.
One fundamental aspect of the Torah derech of Rabi Levi Yitzchok was his emphasis on ahavas Yisrael, and indeed he was renowned for his defence of the meritoriousness of the Jewish people. He would constantly stress that no person had the right to say anything bad of another Jew – rather one was obligated to judge him favourably. One famous episode illustrating this relates how Rabi Levi Yitzchok once noticed a Jewish wagon driver one morning, obviously in a hurry to begin his work day. The driver, wishing to save himself time, was standing draped in his tallis and crowned with his tefillin, with lips murmuring the words of the prayer – whilst his hands were engaged in greasing the wheels of his wagon in order to be ready to travel as soon as possible. All those who witnessed this bizarre scene saw it as an affront to the sanctity of prayer and a chillul HaShem – all, except Rabi Levi Yitzchok, who lifted up his eyes Heavenward and cried out; “Ribbono shel Olam, observe this Jew who even in the midst of his work to provide himself with a livelihood sets aside time to daven to You…”
Another tale is told of one erev Pesach, after midday, when Rabi Levi Yitzchok sent out his shammash to bring him urgently a piece of bread, or any other item of chametz that he might find in a Jewish home. The shammash was astonished at the request, but fulfilled the task to the best of his ability, knocking at all the doors of the Jewish homes in town – but not finding any chametz, he returned empty-handed to the rav. Then, Rabi Levi Yitzchok instructed him to embark on another quest, this time after Turkish tobacco, which had been banned by the authorities for trading in, on pain of harsh penalties. Within the hour the shammash returned to the Berditchever Rav with the requested tobacco, having found it the possession of Jews and gentiles alike – whereupon Rabi Levi Yitzchok, who had anticipated this result, lifted up his hands towards the Heavens and cried out; “See – Your holy statutes, decreed thousands of years ago, are still observed fully by the Jews Your children – even though they cannot discern the reward for their fulfillment or the punishment for disobedience – they simply believe in You. And on the other hand, the laws of the land, for which the punishments for disobedience are known and observed, are trampled upon without fear. See now, Ribbono shel Olam, the tremendous bond that exists between Your children and You, and bestow great goodness and bounty upon them…”
On Rosh Hashanah that fell on Shabbos, Rabi Levi Yitzchok would say that of course all Jews would be written into the ‘Sefer shel Tzaddikim Gamurim’, since it was forbidden to write on Shabbos and therefore no Jew could be written into the ‘Sefer shel Resho’im’ – to write a Jew into the book of the righteous, however, was a matter of pikuach nefesh, which overrides the restrictions of the Shabbos day…
Rabi Yisrael of Pikov, the son of Rabi Levi Yitzchok, was once asked whether his father also interceded for the good of the gentiles. He answered by means of a story, the events of which had transpired with his father: Once, an exceptionally generous non-Jew arrived in Berditchev and, noticing the extreme poverty of the Jews there, he made the announcement that whoever found himself lacking bread, milk or potatoes should come to him, and would receive whatever he needed. And so it was that on that day, the gentile donated to the value of four thousand rubles to the Jews who came to him. When the Yamim Nora’im arrived, the Berditchever Rov realised that there was a Heavenly accusation being made against the Jews, on the basis of the large amount of tzedokah that the gentile had distributed to them.
Therefore, before making his way to the amud to begin to daven before the tzibbur, Rabi Levi Yitzchok went to converse with several Jewish merchants who were familiar with the generous gentile, and began to question them as to the gentile's habits, his preferences, his daily routine. For an entire hour Rabi Levi Yitzchok engaged these merchants in conversation, until one of them happened to mention that not long ago the goy had purchased an expensive dog as a playmate for him, who would accompany him on all his journeys. Rabi Levi Yitzchok showed great interest in this matter of the dog, and asked how much money the goy had spent in its purchase – and was told that the dog had cost a sum of five thousand rubles. Only then did Rabi Levi Yitzchok finally take leave of the merchants, and, turning to the amud, he cried out; “See now that the good deeds of the gentiles are in fact sins… This gentile engaged just once in a mitzvah of tzedokah when he concerned himself with the welfare of the Jews. But how much money did he in fact spend? Less than the amount he gave to purchase a dog… The amount he gave to the Jews out of his concern for them was less than the amount he was prepared to give to purchase a pet for himself…”
The family name of the Berditchever Rav was Derbaremdiger’ which is the Yiddish term for ‘merciful’. It is related that when government officials were making their rounds of the Jewish houses, in order to record their choices of family name to adopt, Rabi Levi Yitzchok was in a state of dveikus, and was crying out ‘Derbaremdiger, Derbaremdiger’, in reference to HaShem Yisborach – and so the officials duly recorded that this was his choice of name.
Rabi Levi Yitzchok was noted for his fiery and joyful service of his Creator. He would make frequent journeys among the towns and villages wherever Jews resided, in order to bring them closer to chassidus and service of HaShem. His sefer ‘Kedushas Levi’ has been reprinted numerous times and is a fundamental text of chassidus. It is told that during chodesh Ellul, this sefer was always found on the table of Rabi Yisrael Meir haKohen of Radin, the ‘Chofetz Chaim’, who would explain that in that month the Jews were in need of the merits and services of this great defender of the Jewish people. On one occasion, two bochurim arrived in Radin, seeking admittance into the yeshivah there – however, they were refused, since there was no more space left. Before they left town, the two went to visit the Chofetz Chaim to request a brochah from him, and in the course of their conversation, it emerged that the bochurim were grandsons of the Kedushas Levi. Hearing this, the Chofetz Chaim summoned the head of the yeshivah, and asked that the bochurim be admitted into the yeshivah, as it would be to the merit of the yeshivah to have two grandsons of the Kedushas Levi learning there on the Yomim Nora’im – the merit of the one who always sought the merits of Klal Yisrael would surely stand by them.
During the Napoleonic wars, Rabi Levi Yitzchok supported the Russian side; since he feared that the banner of equality for all that was held aloft by the French would lead to the spiritual decline of the Jews, even as it provided for their material benefit.
Rabi Levi Yitzchok was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Berditchev, and the site of his kever is a place of prayer for Jews up until this very day.