The Tisch: Hassidic master and rosh yeshiva

When we think of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809), we think of a beloved hassidic master who authored the Kedushat Levi.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
When we think of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809), we think of a beloved hassidic master who authored the Kedushat Levi, a seminal work in hassidic thought.
If we are familiar with the popular perception of this master, we might think of his willingness to demand that the Almighty not mistreat the Jewish people. We might be aware of the Yiddish songs attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak – from playful ditties to heartfelt renditions that bespeak the vicissitudes and the longings of the Jewish people. Even those who are familiar with this great master might be surprised to learn that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak also ran a yeshiva, an academy dedicated to Torah study.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s son, Rabbi Meir of Husakow (1760-1805), reported the following: “This is known to the whole world, that my father and master – may he live – had a few thousand disciples.
And he taught them novellae of Talmud, the commentary of Rashi, and Tosafot, and the legal decisors. And their hearts were also enthused to God’s service, when they heard his holy Torah” – that is, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s holy Torah – “with straight instruction for His service.”
This report appears in the introduction to Rabbi Meir’s work, Keter Torah, which was printed in 1803, during the lifetime of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. Even if there is an exaggeration in the number of students (“a few thousand”), the existence of the yeshiva can hardly be doubted. Where was this academy? Rabbi Meir does not provide a hint.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak served in the rabbinate in four Eastern European cities: Ryczywol,Zelechow, Pinsk and Berdyczow. There is scant evidence about his time in his first rabbinic post.
In his second appointment in Zelechow, he ran a yeshiva. This we know from Rabbi Yitzhak of Neshkiz (1789/90-1868), who married Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s granddaughter Gittel. During Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s final four years, Rabbi Yitzhak and Gittel lived in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s home as a young married couple.
Rabbi Yitzhak reported the following tale about one of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s senior students, Rabbi Aharon of Zhitomir (d. 1816): “The holy rabbi Reb Arele of Zhitomir was originally one of the students of the Gaon [Rabbi Eliyahu] of Vilna. But it” – presumably referring to the Torah – “was not entering his heart. And he heard that in Zelechow, there was the Berditchever with his yeshiva – for at that time he still lived in Zelechow – and Reb Arele also came to his yeshiva.”
It would appear that in his third position in Pinsk, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak did not head a yeshiva.
This is apparent from an 1852 letter that describes how the rosh yeshiva (head of the academy) of Pinsk was on good terms with the chief rabbi of the city – Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. Moreover, Rabbi Meir of Husakow apparently married the daughter of this rosh yeshiva.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak is most famously associated with his final rabbinic post in Berdyczow, and here, too, he taught Talmud and Jewish law. Rabbi Avraham David Wahrmann of Buczacz (1771-1840) – the disciple to make the most significant contribution to Jewish law through his legal commentaries on the Shulhan Aruch – describes his journey to Berdyczow: “I once traveled from my home with the intent to return immediately. And through a revelation of the holy Kedushat Levi, I traveled to the community of Berdyczow in order to stay there for a quarter of a year until I returned home.”
Rabbi Avraham David relates this episode in the context of the discussion of a husband’s legal obligations to his wife, explaining why legally he was permitted to stay in Berdyczow and leave his wife behind: “I already had children, with the help of God, and my worthy wife, may she live, sent me goods for my journey to the community of Berdyczow. And I gathered that had I asked her [permission for the journey], she would not have minded. And I further gathered, that she did not even mind in her heart.”
Having explained the legal justification for his sojourn in Berdyczow, Rabbi Avraham David explains the purpose of traveling to this city: “And it was the intention of my travel to study the holy Torah from the aforementioned rabbi of blessed memory [Rabbi Levi Yitzhak], in the manner of serving the supremely wise person in the generation, journeying through the holy Pardes [that is, the various levels of understanding the Torah].”
In the case of Rabbi Avraham David, it was not just for Talmud and Law that the scholar traveled to Berdyczow; he hoped also to learn other disciplines from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. This was important for Rabbi Avraham David to mention, for the purpose of a trip that involves leaving a spouse may be key in determining its legality: “There is room to say that the journey [to Berdyczow] was also for the purpose of helping earn a livelihood; for instance, to learn magical charms and remedies, that the aforementioned Rabbi [Levi Yitzhak] employed.”
Digressing from the legal discussion of leaving a spouse, Rabbi Avraham David rates the success of his Berdyczow expedition: “Alas, afterwards I was confused and I only studied from him the words of the holy Torah that he said; I remember them, with the help of God. Some of them I wrote down and some of them I recall.”
Thus the famous hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev – in addition to leaving an indelible mark on hassidism – also headed an institution dedicated to plumbing the depths of the Talmud and commentators, and to studying the intricacies of Jewish law.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow in Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law.