There was a custom in the town of Berditchev that whenever a man passed away, his tefilin were given to the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society. The tefilin would be sold, and the money used to support the Society’s activities.
One day a simple Jew passed away in Berditchev, an average fellow with nothing extraordinary about him at all. The Burial Society arranged for the funeral and the man was interred. In fact, no one would have paid too much attention to his demise if not for the highly unusual visit paid by the tzadik, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, to the Society’s office after the funeral.
Indeed, the tzadik’s request surprised everyone when he asked if he could see all of the tefilin in their possession. Tefilin, it should be noted, are nothing to be taken lightly. A tzadik of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s stature would never don “ordinary” tefilin; no doubt he would order a pair from only the most G-d-fearing scribe, and make sure they were written with every possible stringency. The secretary of the Burial Society was taken aback, but said nothing.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began to inspect the tefilin until he had looked at several dozen pairs. His face was filled with concentration. Suddenly, he gave a deep sigh of contentment as he found what he was looking for. Yes, he said with great satisfaction, holding aloft a particular pair. These were the ones he wished to purchase, and he would wear them every day.
The secretary of the Buriel Society could no longer contain himself. “But Rebbe!” he said, “those tefilin belonged to a simple Jew. What is so special about them? Why would you even want to buy them?”
The tzadik explained:
“Surely you’ve heard of the famous tzadikim Reb Zushe and Reb Elimelech. The two brothers would often disguise themselves as ordinary wayfarers, and arouse their brethren to return to G-d. They had a standard method of operation: Wherever they lodged they would conduct an ostensibly private conversation that was sure to be overheard by their host.
“What did they talk about? One brother would confess all the sins he had on his conscience, and the other would explain how he could repent and do teshuva. The host, who would be listening, would be immediately ‘reminded’ that he too had done the exact same transgressions, and his heart would be opened. Filled with longing to correct his misdeeds, he would then approach the brothers and ask them for spiritual guidance.
“It happened once that the brothers stayed in the home of a local villager. That evening, Reb Zushe suddenly began to weep. ‘Dear brother,’ he began, ‘do you know what I’ve been thinking? It just occurred to me that I have never had my tefilin checked by a scribe. Not even once since my Bar Mitzva! What if my tefilin have become defective? What if they were never kosher to begin with? Maybe I have never fulfilled the mitzva correctly in my entire life! Just think of it, a Jew putting on tefilin every day, but not actually performing the mitzva because his tefilin are faulty.’
“The villager, who had been listening in the next room, thought his heart might stop beating from the shock. Why, he too had never had his tefilin checked since his Bar Mitzva! ‘Oh my goodness!’ he thought, as the dreadful possibility that his tefilin were defective dawned on him. With fear and trepidation he waited to hear the other guest’s reaction.
“Reb Elimelech chastised his brother and began to explain the necessity of having kosher tefilin. ‘You mustn’t wait another second!’ he advised him. ‘Open your tefilin now and see what’s inside.’ At that, the villager walked into the room and bashfully admitted to being in the same predicament. He handed his tefilin over to Reb Elimelech.
“Without hesitating, the tzadik opened the compartments of the tefilin and the villager gasped. The small black boxes were completely empty of any parchment. The poor Jew clutched his head. ‘Master of the Universe!’ he cried. ‘In my entire life I have never once fulfilled the mitzva of tefilin!’
“Filled with contrition to the depths of his soul, the villager begged his guests for guidance. The two holy brothers, recognizing his sincere remorse, decided to help him correct the spiritual flaw his actions had caused. Reb Zushe immediately inscribed new parchments for him to place in his tefilin, and of course, being a great tzadik, wrote them with the loftiest spiritual intentions in mind. These tefilin possessed such sanctity that the villager was able to make up for his years of omission by donning them every day.
“The simple Jew who just recently passed away,” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak concluded, “was none other than that villager, and these wonderful tefilin are the ones that Reb Zushe personally inscribed. So now you know why I wanted them so badly…”