The Tisch: Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and the Greek citron

In collective memory, he is remembered for his willingness to confront the Almighty and charge God with mistreatment of the Jewish people.

Men inspect etrogim ahead of Succot in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Men inspect etrogim ahead of Succot in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809) is undoubtedly one of the most fondly remembered hassidic masters. He is the hero of many hassidic tales, and in collective memory he is remembered for his willingness to confront the Almighty and charge God with mistreatment of the Jewish people. It is unsurprising that such a beloved master has drawn – and indeed continues to draw – our attention and love. Nonetheless, the obsession with his etrog is unexpected.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s etrog appears in a letter ostensibly written soon after Succot 1803 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (the Rashaz, ca. 1745-1812). In the letter, the Rashaz chides his colleague: “I heard that Your Honor received two etrogim from the Land of Israel for the past festival [of Succot]. I was very surprised that he” – respectfully referring to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak – “did not send me one, as has been his holy custom. Please respond immediately.
And I remain his friend, his relative by marriage, who seeks his peace with great love and strong mercy.”
This letter is part of a cache of letters dating from the early hassidic period. The cache surfaced at the beginning of the 20th century and was a much heralded discovery. These letters were penned by famed hassidic masters, and filled black holes in the history of the fledging movement.
Priceless! That is, unless... they were a forgery.
The authenticity of this collection, commonly known as the Kherson Geniza, became the subject of debate among hassidic leaders and in the academic community. Today, Lubavitch Hassidim still maintain the veracity of these documents, while most hassidic groups are silent on the matter. The academic community does not accept the authenticity of the cache.
Curiously, in the etrog letter, the Rashaz refers to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak as his relative by marriage (mehutani). The Rashaz’s granddaughter Sarah did in fact marry Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s grandson Eliezer, making the masters relatives by marriage (mehutanim). Alas, this wedding took place four years after the date on the letter! Perhaps the date is wrong? Perhaps the term “mehutan” could be used for close friends, even if they were not related by marriage? Perhaps the word was a later addition, inserted by an over-zealous copyist who was well aware of the 1807 wedding? Indeed, in correspondence between the two hassidic masters after the wedding, they use the term for relatives by marriage.
Returning to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s milieu: One of his disciples, Rabbi Avraham David Wahrmann of Buczacz (1771-1840), noted that he himself was meticulous to use a Greek citron, namely an etrog from Corfu, and that he did so without any hesitation. This is significant, for at the time, the validity of Corfu etrogim for the Four Species ritual was vigorously debated. Rabbi Avraham David explained that he followed great predecessors in this course, in particular the respected chief rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Yehezkiel Landau (1713-1793).
Rabbi Avraham David’s grandson, who shepherded his grandfather’s writings through the printing process, added that he had chanced upon further writings from his grandfather’s pen. Rabbi Avraham David wrote that “I received in the mail a letter doubting Corfu etrogim. And even if there was substance in all that [the sender of the letter] wrote there, since the greats of these lands declared them valid – the great author of Noda B’yehuda [Landau] and the great author of Kedushat Levi [Rabbi Levi Yitzhak], and many other greats of these lands... therefore there is no concern for reciting the blessing since [the use of Corfu etrogim] has become common practice in their locale.”
Rabbi Avraham David was clear: His teacher, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, had used a Corfu etrog.
One might think that the clear testimony of a disciple would put an end to speculation.
Indeed, it difficult to argue with such evidence.
One could question, however, what exactly Rabbi Avraham David meant in his testimony.
The fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneersohn (Rashab, 1860-1920) cited his father and predecessor, Rabbi Shmuel Schneersohn (Maharash, 1834-1882) as once saying that he would wrap Corfu etrogim up in machine-made prayer shawls and throw them into the fire. Then he commented, regarding Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s practice of reciting a blessing purposefully over a Corfu etrog: “For him [Rabbi Levi Yitzhak] a citron seed fell and a tree sprouted and that etrog came into his possession.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s etrog, then, was only a “Corfu etrog” – as his disciple reported – inasmuch as it came from Corfu. But it was a different species, not the questionable Greek citron. The seed “fell” – presumably from Heaven.
The interest in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s etrog is not merely an obsession with every jot and tittle of a hassidic master. It is part of a wider legal discussion that raged in the 18th and 19th centuries regarding the validity of Corfu etrogim. 
The writer is on the faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Tel-Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.