Levi Isaac ben Meir of Berdichev

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LEVI ISAAC BEN MEIR OF BERDICHEV

LEVI ISAAC BEN MEIR OF BERDICHEV (c. 1740–1810), ḥasidic ḥaddik and rabbi; one of the most famous personalities in the third generation of the ḥasidic movement. Levi Isaac was born into a distinguished rabbinic family and his father was rabbi in Hoshakov (Galicia). After marrying the daughter of a rich contractor he moved to his father-in-law's home in *Lubartow (Poland), where he studied with Joseph *Teomim. At that time he met Samuel Shmelke *Horowitz of Nikolsburg, then rabbi in Richwal (Ryczwol), who acquainted him with the Hasidism of *Israel b. Eliezer Ba'al Shem Tov. In 1766 Levi Isaac went to study under *Dov Baer the Maggid of Mezhirech, becoming one of the intimate circle of his pupils. When Shmelke left Richwal Levi Isaac replaced him, though only for a short period. He next served as rabbi in Żelechów, where he first emerged as a ḥasidic ẓaddik; to his contemporaries he became known as the "rabbi in Żelechów." A testimony dating from 1774 reports that he took a strong and even aggressive stand against the local Mitnaggedim, but the latter finally triumphed and Levi Isaac had to leave Żelechów. An account of this controversy appears in the Iggeret ha-Kodesh by Eliezer the son of *Elimelech of Lyzhansk, published at the end of the latter's No'am Elimelekh, 1788. In 1775 he was elected rabbi of Pinsk but there, too, he was dismissed through pressure from the Mitnaggedim and with the concurrence of *Elijah b. Solomon Zalman of Vilna. Moving to Berdichev in 1785, he served as rabbi there until his death. In Berdichev Levi Isaac won great renown as rabbi, ḥasidic leader, and scholar; even the Mitnaggedim admitted that he was a noted Torah scholar (Zemir Ariẓim (Warsaw, 1798), 3) but complained of his lack of knowledge of the Kabbalah. He made many amendments in communal takkanot and took part in public affairs. In 1801(?) he convened a meeting of leaders (in which the ẓaddik Baruch b. Jehiel of Medzibezh and the maskil writer Menahem Mendel Levin participated) to discuss the government's prohibition on Jewish settlement in the villages and other oppressive measures; in 1807 Levi Isaac's name headed a list of Jewish contributors to the Russian war effort against the anticipated French invasion. During a serious illness in 1793, "he was grieved and his spiritual forces declined" (Oẓar ha-Ḥayyimve-Heikhal ha-Berakhah, introduction to the Book of Numbers). In this crisis he was helped by Israel b. Shabbetai the Maggid of *Kozienice.

The founder of Ḥasidism in central Poland, Levi Isaac consolidated the movement in Lithuania and furthered it in the Ukraine. When he was still in Poland (Żelechów) the mit-nagged writer, *David of Makow, described him as "rabbi of all that sect" (see M.L. Wilensky, in: paajr, 25 (1956), 151), an indication of his widespread popularity. While he was rabbi in Pinsk he engaged in a debate with the fanatic Mitnagged Abraham *Katzenellenbogen, a rabbi of Brest-Litovsk. At Praga near Warsaw before the month of Elul 1781, they discussed basic precepts of Ḥasidism, both parties later claiming victory. On the fifth of Tammuz 1784, Abraham Katzenellenbogen circulated an epistle summarizing his arguments against Ḥasidism, but Levi Isaac's reply is not extant.

In his teachings Levi Isaac stressed the element of joy in Hasidism, the principle of devekut ("adhesion") to God, and the necessity for fervent prayer to the point of hitpashetut hagashmiyyut ("abstraction from corporeality"). When a man prays fervently "with all his heart and his soul then his spirit delights because it is elevated from the material world and only the spirit remains" (Kedushat Levi, Va-Yeẓe). It is necessary that "every Jew should worship the Creator with devotion and fervor" (Kedushat Levi, Va-Yera). One of the best loved of ẓaddikim, Levi Isaac occasionally traveled with great acclaim throughout the land. Accompanied by his minyan, he introduced the people to the joy of fulfilling the commandments, winning them over to Ḥasidism. Before the Holocaust, visitors to the bet midrash in the "Iron Gate" in Warsaw were shown a column in front of which Levi Isaac used to pray when he visited the city. The MitnaggedIsrael *Loebl also reports on his visits to Warsaw and his fervent prayers: "And here I will tell you the story of R. Levi the rabbi of Berdichev, when he was in Łazienki, the king's pleasure gardens. He boasted that he had never prayed a Minḥah like the one he uttered there" (Sefer ha-Vikku'aḥ (Warsaw, 1798), 19).

Levi Isaac shared the distress of his people and worked to improve their living conditions. In singing his prayers he addressed the Creator in Yiddish; popular tradition has preserved some of these ("The Kaddish of R. Levi Isaac" etc.; see *Kaddish). He stressed the good that is in man and always pleaded the cause of Jews: "No one has a right to say anything evil about the Jewish people, but only to intercede for them" (Kedushat Levi, Ḥukkat). He distinguished between two types of preacher: he who admonishes "with good words," who shows man "his merit and the source of his soul," bringing out his superior qualities and indicating opportunities for him to rise; and he who admonishes "with severe words," awes and subdues. Only he who "admonishes Jewish people gently, elevates their souls and always extols their righteousness is worthy of being their leader" (ibid.). Levi Isaac's book of sermons, Kedushat Levi, was published during his lifetime (Slavuta, 1798; Zolkiew, 1806) and was supplemented by his sons from manuscripts (Berdichev, 1811).

Although he did not found a dynasty, Levi Isaac had many pupils and left an indelible mark on Ḥasidism. He was a popular hero in Jewish poetry and fiction both in Hebrew and in Yiddish; the following plays are especially noteworthy: Ya'akov Cohen's Ha-Ḥe'akah ha-Shelishit (his complete works, vol. 4, 1945); the first play in Sheloshah Ketarim by Zevi Cahn (1954); Y. Sela, Ha-Sanegor ha-Gadol (1958). Important poems are Z. Shneur's "Din Torah Ḥadash le-Rabbi Levi Yiẓḥak mi-Berdichev" (Shirim (1960), 111–4), Uri Zevi *Greenberg's "Be-Keẓ ha-Derakhim Omed Rabbi Levi Yiẓḥzhak mi-Berdichev ve-Doresh Teshuvat Ram" (in: Reḥovot ha-Nahar, 1951), and S. *Meltzer's ballad "Din Torah" (in: Or Zaru'a, 1959). He was also depicted in Joseph *Opatoshu's well-known story, "In Poylishe Velder" (1921).

bibliography:

Dubnow, Ḥasidut, 151–7, 193–201, 479–81; idem, Chassidiana (Heb.) – supplement to He-Avar, 2 (1918); Horodezky, Ḥasidut, 2 (19513), 71–96; S. Gutmann, Tiferet Beit Levi (1909); A.Z. Aescoly, Introduction à l'étude des hérésies religieuses parmi les juifs. La Kabbale. Le Hassidisme (1928); C. Lieberman, in: Sefer ha-Yovel…Alexander Marx (1943), 15–17; M. Buber, Tales of the Hasidimthe Early Masters (1947), 203–34; M.E. Gutman, Mi-Gedolei ha-Ḥasidut (19532); I. Halpern, in: Tarbiz, 28 (1959), 90–98 (Yehudim ve-Yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eiropah (1969), 340–7); J. Twersky, Ḥayyei R. Levi Yiẓḥak mi-Berdichev (1960); L. Jung (ed.), Men of the Spirit (1964), 403–13.

[Avraham Rubinstein]