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Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev

(ca. 1740–1809), rabbi, Hasidic leader, and Jewish folk hero. Levi Yitsḥak ben Me’ir of Barditshev (Rus., Berdichev; mod. Ukr. Berdychiv) was a major figure within the circle of disciples around Dov Ber, the Magid of Mezritsh, and played a central role in the dissemination and defense of Hasidism in the third generation of the movement’s leadership.

Born into a Galician rabbinic family in Hoshakov, Levi Yitsḥak was first brought to the Magid of Mezritsh by Shmelke Horovitz, then rabbi in Ryczywół and later rabbi of Nikolsburg (Cz., Mikulov). For a brief period he succeeded Shmelke in Ryczywół, but after a short time was appointed rabbi of Żelechów (Yid., Zelekhev) in central Poland, the first Hasidic rabbi to serve in that region. The Misnagdim, both local and otherwise, singled him out for attack, however (David of Makeve [Maków], the famous anti-Hasidic polemicist, had a hand in denouncing him), and Levi Yitsḥak was forced to leave this position. From there he went to Pinsk (around 1775), but his loyalty to Hasidism caused him trouble there as well. In 1781, he engaged in debate with Avraham Katzenellenbogen, the misnagdic rabbi of Brest Litovsk. While both sides claimed victory in this debate, the leadership of the Pinsk community, which had participated in public bans against Hasidism, was unconvinced, and Levi Yitsḥak was dismissed from the rabbinate there as well.

In 1785, Levi Yitsḥak was appointed rabbi of Berdichev, an area in which Hasidism was considered less controversial. There he remained for the rest of his life, causing the name of this large, mostly Jewish town and important commercial center to be forever associated with Hasidism. Despite his important position in Berdichev, it does not appear that Levi Yitsḥak established a “court” or a large following of disciples, as others did in his time.

Levi Yitsḥak was the author of Kedushat Levi, one of the best-known Hasidic works. He published the first portion of it, a discussion of the miracles of Hanukkah and Purim, in Slavuta in 1798. The larger and better-known second section, consisting of homilies on the weekly Torah portions, was published in Berdichev in 1811, shortly after his death. Also published during his lifetime was Sefer ha-zekhirot (1794), a brief commentary on six matters to be recalled each day. A later work, Shemu‘ah tovah (1938), also contains important teachings.

The task of Hasidism’s dissemination, as Levi Yitsḥak understood it, is evident from the text of Kedushat Levi, along with the reasons for its rapid success. Elaborating on themes already articulated by Ya‘akov Yosef of Polnoye and Levi Yitsḥak’s own teacher, Dov Ber, Levi Yitsḥak writes frequently of the need for the tsadik to reveal himself and serve as a public figure. He sees dedication to a life of mystical solitude as a selfish pursuit, perhaps ensuring that the tsadik reaches the heavens but avoiding the more important task of bringing blessing into this world. Levi Yitsḥak was a great believer in the power and responsibility of the tsadik to affect the will of heaven, especially in pleading the case of God’s beloved folk. The holy man is thus truly an intermediary, serving as a gentle admonisher of the people toward more intense religious devotion and calling upon God, sometimes in less than gentle ways, to improve their worldly lot.

It is especially in the latter role that Levi Yitsḥak is a favorite of Jewish folklore. Tales abound in which he triumphantly insists that God forgive the sins of the Jewish people and treat Jews as His beloved children. While such themes do appear in Kedushat Levi (as they do in other early Hasidic writings), it is likely that they were expanded in the later folk tradition—which is probably also the source of the famous introduction to the Kaddish attributed to Levi Yitsḥak, not to be found in his authenticated writings. While some tales of Levi Yitsḥak appear scattered throughout chapbooks printed in the late nineteenth century, it was only in the early twentieth century that works specifically devoted to him were published, including the semihistorical Tif’eret bet Levi, by Matityahu Yeḥezkel Gutman (1909), and two collections of tales in Yiddish, both of which appeared in 1911.

The portion of Kedushat Levi published during Levi Yitsḥak’s lifetime focuses on miracles, a frequent theme throughout his writings. While insisting on the possibility of the supernatural, in his own time and not only as recounted in the Torah, Levi Yitsḥak is also interested in uncovering the miraculous within the course of seemingly natural events, leading toward a breakdown of the distinction between natural and supernatural events. Here he picks up an intellectual thread that runs from Naḥmanides to Maharal of Prague, and serves as a conduit of this way of thinking into later Polish Hasidism.

Another key theme in Levi Yitsḥak’s writings is the importance of fulfilling divine commandments as a way of serving God. In his view, such action allows blessing to enter the material world. Within Dov Ber’s circle were those who sought a purer life of mystical self-negation, leading them to question the need for such physical embodiments of devotion. Levi Yitsḥak joined other members of the circle, including Shneur Zalman of Liady and Ze’ev Volf of Zhitomir, in insisting that seeking the spiritual point of ayin (nothingness) as per their master’s call not result in an abandonment of external religious practice. At the same time, he emphasized the joyous manner in which the commandments, tokens of God’s love for Israel, were to be performed, and he seems to have eschewed asceticism.

As rabbi of one of the largest Jewish towns in Ukraine, Levi Yitsḥak was involved in various documented historical events, and his name appears in Russian governmental sources. Full archival research may yet uncover more source material useful in constructing a full critical biography of this important figure.

Two of Levi Yitsḥak’s children left slim volumes of Hasidic teachings. Me’ir, who predeceased his father, was author of Keter Torah (1803), and Yisra’el of Pikev wrote Likute Maharin, also known as Toldot Yitsḥak ben Levi (1811). While no dynasty was established by the Barditshever’s offspring, his influence was widely felt throughout later Hasidism, and Kedushat Levi and numerous tales of Levi Yitsḥak are often quoted. In modern times, he has been the subject of various poetic and dramatic evocations.

Suggested Reading

Samuel H. Dresner, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev: Portrait of a Hasidic Master, updated ed. (New York, 1986); Yisra’el Halperin, “R. Levi Yitsḥak mi-Berdits´ev ve-gezerot ha-malkhut be-yamav,” in Yehudim ve-yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eropah, pp. 340–347 (Jerusalem, 1969); Hayim Liberman, Ohel Raḥel, vol. 1 (New York, 1980), pp. 66–68; Mordekhai Nadav, Pinkas Patuaḥ: Meḥkarim be-toldot yehude Polin ve-Lita’ (Tel Aviv, 2003), pp. 79–82; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Drama of Berdichev: Levi Yitshak and His Town,” Polin 17 (2004): 83–95; Yoḥanan Twersky, Haye R. Levi Yitsḥak mi-Berdits´ev (Jerusalem, 1960).