RABBI LEVI YITZHAK
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 Berditchev, 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!”
Reb Levi Yitzkhak ben Meir of Berdichev was one of the greatest of all the chasidism during the early days of that movement. He is still revered as a great tzaddik, and his wisdom is frequently recounted by khasidisch rebbes at tisch on shabbes and yontif. He was renowned throughout eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Ukraine, in his day, and took on the misnagdim in public debates. He even had the khutzpeh to organize Jewish leaders to oppose the governments prohibition of Jewish settlements and other oppressive measures.
He emphasized the virtues of joy and dvekus (adhering to God), and prayer davening (you should excuse the expression) with devotion and fervor.
He often addressed God directly in his prayers, pleading the cause of his people. From these famous prayers came the well-known and often-recorded Kaddish of R. Levi Yitzkhak, in which he pleads with the Lord to have rakhmones on his folk Yisroel. Zalman Shneur’s poem, “Din Toyre Khodosh l’rabbi Levi Yitzkhak mi-Berdichev, is one of many in which his prayers are depicted; and Yosef Opatoshu’s story, “In Poylishe Velder,” portrays him.
Levi Yitzchak, one of Chassidism most popular tzaddikim, died in 1810.
I vaguely remember a record of cantorial and other arias which I heard in the early 1970s (which explains the vagueness of my response). It contained this piece, but I think the title on the record was “The Prayer of Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev”. I have looked at the contents of records done by Jan Peerce from the 1960s and 70s but I can’t find this title. As far as I can determine, “A din-toyre mit Got” is also known as the “Kaddish fun Rabi Levi-Yitzhak Barditshever” and has been set to music at least 3 and possibly more times. Once by Joel Engel (1868-1927) as the “Kaddisch des Rabbi Levi-Jitzchak Barditzewer” (Berlin: Juwal, 1923); by Leo Low (1878-1962) as “A din-toyre mit Got (R. Levi Yitshak Berditshever’s kadish)” (New York: Metro Music, 1927); and by Erwin Jospe “A din toire mit Got (A judgement against God” (New York: Board of Jewish Education, 1951″.
As I recall, the record also contained a rendition of “Hineni”. It might have come in a greyish color box and included a rather large book of the texts of the arias along with other notes. If anyone can identify it, I would be anxious to know as I would like to find a copy or a tape of it.
In answer to Susan Kray’s query about Levi Yitzhak , let me say there was a Levi Yitzhak from Berditchiv and he according to a prayer song he composed brought the Master of the Universe to a din toyra on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur. We are not dealing with a mythical figure but an actual person. Levi Yitzhak (c. 1740-1810) ben Meir was the son of a prominent rabbi. His father was attracted to what was then a young movement. hasidism and Levi Yitzhak became a hasid .After Levi Yitzhak was ordained a rabbi he preached and practiced hasidism much to the chagrin of the misnagdim (anti-Hasidism).
He was admired even by the misnagdim for his knowledge of talmud and halacha (Jewish law).He was utterly devoted to his people Israel and only rebuked their waywardness with loving care. He suffered the misfortunes of his fellow Jews and along with other Jewish leaders turned to the authorites to remove the prohibition on Jewish settlement in the villages. He stressed the good that is in man and always pleaded the cause of Jews.
He said that only he who” admonishes Jewish people gently, elevatestheir souls and always extols their righteousness is worthy of being their leader.Levi Yitzhak always sees the positive in what individual Jews do. While Jews chided and rebuked a baal agola (wagon driver) who while praying with his talis and tefilin was greasing the axles of his wagon . According to the legend Levi Yitzhak turns to the Holy One Blessed Be He and says: How wonderfull are your children Israel, while he is working he prays to you.(For a full picture of the historical Levi Yitzhak and the legend see Encyclopedia Judaica,volume 11 pp. 102-104
Popular tradition has preserved prayor songs attributed to Levi Yitzhak. In singing his prayers he addressed the Creator in Yiddish. He is most famous for “The Kaddish of Reb. Levi Yitzhak” According to one tradition Levi Yitzhak overwhelmed by the suffering the physical and spiritual woes of his brethern and as the defender of his people he comes before the Almighty on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur and in a sense brings the Almighty to trial
Levi Yitzhak prepares his case very carefully and tries to avoid bringing any evidence that can be refuted. He says good morning Master of the Universe I, Levi Yitzhak son of Sara come to bring you to trial in the name of your people Israel.( A dear departed friend once said , you notice Levi Yitzhak identifiies himself as son of Sara and not Meir. You know when they make a blessing for someone who is ill and wish him a quick recovery they call him son of and mention his mothers name. We want to identify the ill person as definitely as possibleI We know for certain who his mother was but… In the song Levi Yitzhak asks what does the Almighty want from them,why all this suffering why all the terrible decrees.
He mentions great nations that were and are gone. The English claim that their king is a king. The Italians claim that their kingdom is a kingdom, but I Levi Yitzhak son of Sara say the KING WHO SEATS ON THE HIGHEST THRONE IS THE KING. I will not move from this place and a miracle should occur and an end to all the suffering hould come, now ( Nothing happens no sign is given Levi Yitzhak realizes he has lost the trial but he has not lost his faith and with tears in his eyes and heart proclaims his faith Yisgadal vyiskadash shmay raba (Magnified and consecrated is His name.
It is a powerful piece and has been a favorite number for Yiddish singers, especially cantors. Some of the most famous renditions that I have heard are by Jan Peerce, Moishe Oiysher and Moishe Kousivitzky.