Levi Yitzhak was born in 1740 into a distinguished rabbinical family, his father a rabbi in Hoshakov, Galicia. Levi Yitzhak married into a wealthy family and had settled down to a life of scholarship, when he made the acquaintance of the chasid Schmelke of Nickolsburg, who won him over to the camp of the Chasidim.
Levi Yitzhak then became a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, sitting as a member of his inner circle. Around this time differences between the Hasidim and their Orthodox opponents, the Mitnagdim, were becoming acute, and during the first thirteen years of his career as a Hasidic leader, Levi Yitzhak was driven from one pulpit to the next under attack by the Mitnagdim. In one case he had his house broken into, had his belongings stolen, was evicted, and was fired from his job in breach of contract: Fortunately, his next post, in Berdichev, went much better for him, and he served there without opposition for the last twenty-five years of his life.
Next to the Besht, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak is one of the most beloved of Hasidic leaders, and the one who appears most frequently in fictional treatments of Chasidism: dozens of plays, stories, and poems exist that feature Levi Yitzhak as their hero. His most characteristic posture in popular memory is that of attorney at the heavenly bar-disputer, bargainer, and pleader with God in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, and Job.
Levi Yitzhak’s rabbinical learning was considerable, although his opponents criticized his lack of kabbalistic knowledge. At times his style of conversation with God strikes one as talmudically disputateous. One of the classic examples of such a conversation went as follows: “Lord of the world, you must forgive Israel their sins. If you do this–good. But if not I’ll tell all the world that the tefillin you wear are invalid. What’s the verse enclosed in your tefilln? A verse of David. your anointed king: ‘Who is like your people Israel, a unique nation on earth?’ If you don’t forgive Israel…(this) verse is untrue, and the tefillin are invalid.”
Levi Yitzhak, in any case. did not need kabbalistic learning to attain the states of religious ecstasy for which he was also famous. Key words in the prayer services caused him to fly into such a frenzy of devotional fervor that often he would collapse into a catatonic state for hours. One visitor to his synagogue is alleged to have been driven into thirty days of uncontrollable laughter by watching Levi Yitzhak’s bodily contortions in prayer. Levi Yitzhak is rumored to have put his hand through glass, held his fingers in a candle flame, danced atop a desk (and almost on a megillah scroll), fallen into a well, and upset a seder table, all without knowing what he was doing, during various acts of prayer.
Levi Yitzchak is also remembered for his compassion and gentleness, and for his willingness always to judge a person according to the scale of merit. Finding a young Jew standing and smoking in the street one Sabbath, Levi Yitzhak first asked him if he had forgotten that such an act was forbidden. The young man replied that he hadn’t forgotten. Levi Yitzhak then asked if there was some mitigating circumstance that caused him to sin. The young man replied that he was sinning knowingly and voluntarily. The maddik then looked up to heaven and said, “Lord of the Universe, see the holiness of your people; they’d rather declare themselves sinners than utter a falsehood!”
Though gentle in his criticism. he never hesitated to rebuke those who fell away in their devotion. One time. he surprised two congregants who had been talking for hours, by suddenly welcoming them to shul (synagogue). When they asked why just then he chose to welcome them. he replied “You’ve been far away. no? You in a marketplace. and you on a ship with a cargo of grain; when it grew quiet here, you came back. Welcome back.” Another time, he congratulated an influential evildoer on the street, saying, “Sir. I envy you! When you turn to God, each of your flaws will become a ray of light… I envy your flood of radiance!” Another time. he shouted to a busy marketplace from a rooftop. “You people are forgetting to fear God!”
He once espoused what today would be a feminist cause. Discovering that the women who kneaded the dough in the bakeries and matzah factories worked at terrible drudgery from early morning to late at night: he addressed a rebuke on the subject to his congregation: “The enemies of Israel accuse us of baking unleavened bread with the blood of Christians. But no, we bake them with the blood of Jews!”
Levi Yitzchak, one of Chassidism most popular tzaddikim, died in 1810.