Tuesday 10 March 2015


He was born in Zamość, Poland (according to Sh. Horodetski, it was in Hoszakow, Galicia).  His father, Meir, was the rabbi of a town in the area around Zamość and a great scholar; in his Kedushat levi (The sanctity of Levi [Torah commentary]), he frequently refers to his father’s interpretations of various passages in the Torah.  He spent his youth in Levertov, Lublin region, was reputed to be a child prodigy, early on received ordination, and became a preacher in Pinsk.  From messengers sent by the Maggid of Mezeritch, he apparently learned of Hassidism and quietly made his way to the rebbe, Dov Ber, in Mezeritch.  Between 1761 and 1770, he followed the path of preaching Torah.  For a short time, he was rabbi in Ryczywół (Volhynia) after his friend R. Shmelke Hurvits (Shmuel Horowitz) left that rabbinical post.  In 1771 he became the rabbi of Pinsk.  At the same time, his friend from Mezeritch, R. Arn, was rabbi in Karlin (R. Aharon Karliner), and both seemingly agreed between themselves to conquer Pinsk for Hassidism.  When the year 1772 arrived with persecutions and violent curses of the Vilna Gaon toward Hassidim and Hassidism, people in Pinsk took it out on their rabbi.  R. Aharon Karliner died in just that year, and the entire wrath of the anti-Hassidic orthodox zealots of Pinsk was vented on R. Levi-Yitskhok who was then compelled to leave Pinsk.  He left for Żelechów, Poland, became the rabbi there, and from there he began his well-known debate with the rabbi of Brisk (Brest), R. Avrom Katsenelenboygn, who later (Elul, 1781) played a public role in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw.  The debate was repeated in 1784 in written form, via letters, many of which the rabbi of Brisk wrote to Levi-Yitskhok, and Levi-Yitskhok wrote to the Brisk rabbi rather few.  In 1785 Levi-Yitskhok became rabbi and rebbe of Berditchev, Volhynia.  And, there he remained for the remainder of his life.  From there he became well-known throughout the Jewish world, and there he received his name “Levi-Yitskhok, the Berditshever.”
In his conduct he was very similar to the founder of Hassidism, the Besht (Baal Shem Tov).  Dressed in his prayer shawl and phylacteries, he would conduct his conversations with common people on matters large and small—just like the Besht, he would say: One can serve God in all kinds of ways, even in everyday chats in the market.  He loved, as did the Besht, traveling with his intimates through neighboring cities and towns, and from the lives of the people he observed he would draw his conclusions about God and men.  He would pray with fervent screams, and was known as the great defender of Jews before God.  His sermons at the Sabbath afternoon meal were later published in his text Kedushat levi (Slavuta, 1797/1798), which in 1815/1816 was published in a more complete form by a press in Berditshev.  It consisted of two parts: (1) sermons on the weekly Torah portions together with extracts of commentaries on the prophets and writings and tracts from homiletic tales; and (2) halakhic and homiletic novellae.  The work was composed in a simple style and in clear language.  The essence of the work was immense esteem and eternal love for mankind generally (man: “The measure of all value, the benchmark of all categories and degrees”), and love of the Jewish people in particular.  His book, which is considered one of the best works in all of Hassidic literature, is replete with the “song of songs of love for Israel.”  And, as he preached, so he behaved in his own life.  There is a rich literature concerning his love of ordinary Jewish people.  The jokes and tales about R. Levi-Yitskhok Berditshever have always been immensely popular among the people (a large portion of them were collected by Martin Buber).  He alone prayed in Yiddish, and he published his own prayers in Yiddish.  His “Got fun avrom” (God of Abraham), which pious Jewish women throughout the world say when they make Havdalah, has been canonized by Jews as a sacred prayer.  His “Kaddish” (Prayer for the dead) and “Du, du” (You, you) are sung as folksongs.

Sources: A. B. Gotlober, “Zikhronot yeme neuri” (Memories of my youth), Haboker or (1880), p. 385; Yevreiskaya entsiklopediya (Jewish encyclopedia), vol. 3 (St. Petersburg, 1909), pp. 204-5; Martin Buber, Die chassidischen Bücher (Hassidic books) (Hellerau, Germany, 1928), see index; Shimen Dubnov, Geshikhte fun khasidizm (History of Hassidism), vol. 2 (Vilna, 1933), pp. 31-41; Dr. Sh. Horodetski, Der khasidizm un zayne firer (Hassidism and its leaders) (Vilna, 1937), pp. 125-43; Y. Tsinberg, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (History of Jewish literature) (vol. 7, book 2 (Vilna, 1930-1937), pp. 156-68.
Yitskhok Kharlash

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