Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev

The most lovable figure in Hasidic folklore.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (d. 1810) was a rabbi and Hasidic Master. He became a disciple of Dov Baer the Maggid of Mezhirech in 1766, later becoming a foremost exponent of Hasidism in his writings and through his life.

Levi Yitzhak, the most lovable figure among the Hasidic masters, belongs to the folklore of all Jews, not only the Hasidim, in his eloquent pleadings to the Almighty to look with favor on His people.

A typical story told in this connection is that when Levi Yitzhak witnessed a Jewish coach-driver greasing the wheels of his carriage while wearing his tefillin, instead of upbraiding the man, the saint lifted his eyes heavenwards to proclaim: 'See how wonderful Jews are. Even while greasing the wheels of their carriages they wear tefillin.'

Levi Yitzhak remained a staunch upholder of the Hasidic way all his life. He was appointed Rabbi of Zelichov, where he met with strong opposition on the part of the Mitnaggedim for his Hasidic views. Eventually he was forced to relinquish his post, but met with the same fate when serving as Rabbi in Pinsk.

He finally settled in Berditchev in 1785, after which town he is known as 'the Berditchever' or 'the Berditchever Rov', since he was one of the few Hasidic masters to serve also as a town Rabbi.

There are tales, which seem to have a basis in fact, that, as a result of the opposition he met with, he suffered for a time from 'smallness of soul,' in other words, he had a nervous breakdown; but he recovered and continued to teach the Hasidic ideas and ideals.

There is also a basis in fact to the reports that he would travel with his company of followers from town to town in order to win souls for God.

A Hasidic Commentary

Levi Yitzhak's work, Kedushat Levi (Holiness of Levi) is a commentary in the Hasidic vein to the Pentateuch and other sacred books. The first part of the work was published in Slavita in 1798, the second part in Berditchev in 1816, since when it has gone into a number of editions and is acknowledged as a supreme Hasidic classic.

A typical comment in the book is on the priestly blessing. While delivering the blessing the priests hold their hands outstretched with the palm facing downwards. When a man prays for himself he is in the category of a recipient. When a man wishes to receive something he holds out his hand with the palm upward and the back of the hand downward.

But when a man prays only for the sake of the delight that the Creator will have from his prayers, that man is a giver, giving something to God, so to speak. A giver holds his hand with the palm downward and the back of his hand upward. The priests thus bless the people that they themselves should be givers, that all their worship should be directed to the tremendous aim of giving delight to the Creator.

In Hasidic panentheistic vein is Levi Yitzhak's remark on the first verse of Genesis: 'The general principle is that the Creator, blessed be He, created the all and He is the all and His influence never ceases. For He extends His influence at every moment to His creatures, and to all worlds, to all palaces, to all angels, and to all the Holy Hayyot. And this is why we say (in our prayers) that He forms light and creates darkness and not that He formed light and created darkness; "forms" in the present tense. For at every moment He creates, at every moment He bestows vitality to all living creatures and all is from Him, blessed be He, and He is perfect and He includes all.'

Levi Yitzhak stresses particularly the need for humility. But for him true humility is attained not through a man thinking how unworthy he is, since in this process he is thinking of himself. True humility consists in profound contemplation on the majesty of God before whom all creatures are as naught.

The book of Proverbs says: 'An abomination of the Lord is every lofty heart' (Proverbs 16:5) from which it follows that pride is an idol, an abomination of which the Torah says: 'Thou shalt not bring an abomination into thy house (Deuteronomy 7:26).'

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.