5771 Kvarim Trip -- Berditchev Cemetery

by Chossid August. 10, 2011 6371 views

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1809) is one of the most beloved of chassidic leaders. Hundreds of stories, plays and poems highlight his fiery service of G‑d, his love for the Jewish people, and his characteristic role of advocating before the Heavenly court on behalf of the Jewish nation.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, the 26th generation in a dynasty of great rabbis, was born to Rabbi Meir of Huskov and his wife Sara Sasha. According to tradition, on the day of Levi Yitzchak's birth, the Baal Shem Tov held a joyous gathering, informing his followers that the soul of a “defender of the Jewish people” has entered the world.

Levi Yitzchak studied with his father until marriage, when he moved to Levertov, his wife's hometown.

Eventually he traveled to the Maggid of Mezeritch, who had assumed the leadership of the chassidic movement after the passing of the Baal Shem Tov. R. Levi Yitzchak soon became an ardent follower of the Maggid and part of his elite inner circle of disciples.

After several other posts, in 1785, R. Levi Yitzchak arrived in Berditchev, where he led the community for nearly twenty-five years until his death. In Berditchev, R. Levi Yitzchak finally found freedom from strife, and aside for serving as the city's rabbi, he also established there his famed chassidic court, where thousands of his followers throughout Eastern Europe would flock to his synagogue for inspiration and guidance.

Though a prominent Jewish center, Berditchev was highly influenced by the “enlightenment” movement, and was famous for its anti-religious sentiment. In the local theater, R. Levi Yitzchak was often satirized as an anti-hero: the ridiculous, outdated rabbi. One wealthy man traveled to Berditchev to see the show, and he enjoyed the ridicule so much that he decided to visit the real rabbi, just for laughs. But once there, he was struck by R. Levi Yitzchak's extraordinary persona and returned to Jewish observance, becoming a devoted follower of R. Levi Yitzchak.

To this very day, Jews from around the world flock to pray at the resting place of the “Lover of Israel” Despite the challenge of living in a city that was largely unwelcoming, R. Levi Yitzchak was determined to remain, to counter the anti-religious climate, and to advocate for his people. At the time, such a cause – specifically choosing to live amongst self-proclaimed secularized Jews – was unheard of, and R. Levi Yitzchak was entirely unique in his outlook.

R. Levi Yitzchak passed away on the 25th of Tishrei, 5570 (1809), and is interred in the Berditchev cemetery. Until this very day, Jews from around the world flock to Berditchev to pray at the resting place of the “Lover of Israel,” asking him to intercede on their behalf On High, just as was his custom and passion during his earthly lifetime.

Though R. Levi Yitzchak had children, they did not replace him as rabbi after his death. The townspeople held him in such high esteem that they never again sought a rabbi to fill his place, instead relying for guidance on a dayan, a rabbinical arbiter.

When R. Levi Yitzchak passed away, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that whoever has eyes to see, can see that the “light of the universe” was extinguished.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is remembered for his compassion and gentleness, and for his legendary love for every Jew, no matter his spiritual or material state. He once said, “If after I pass away I have the option of being alone in paradise, or to go to purgatory but there to be in the company of other Jews, I would certainly choose the latter. As long as I'm together with other Jews!”

He was always judging others in a positive light. It is related that one Shabbos, R. Levi Yitzchak met a Jew smoking in the street. The rabbi asked the young man if he'd forgotten that such an act is forbidden on Shabbat. The young man replied that no, he hadn't forgotten. R. Levi Yitzchak asked if there was some circumstance causing him to sin. The young man replied that no, he was knowingly and voluntarily sinning. R. Levi Yitzchak looked up to the sky and said, “Lord of the Universe, see the holiness of your people! They'd rather declare themselves sinners than utter a lie!”

He would appeal to G‑d as if he was a lawyer, by addressing Him directly, and often disputatiously. R. Levi Yitzchak would appeal to G‑d – whom he'd always refer to as Der Barimidiger, “The Merciful One.” One classic example: “Lord of the Universe, You must forgive Israel for their sins. If You do this, good. But if not, I'll tell the world that the tefillin You wear are invalid. Why? The verse of King David enclosed within Your tefillin reads, ‘Who is like your people Israel, a unique nation on earth?’ So, if You don't forgive Israel, this verse is untrue, and the tefillin are invalid.”

On another occasion he addressed G‑d: “Master of the Universe, You have placed all the earthly temptations before our eyes, while the spiritual benefits and rewards for following Your will are relegated to the books we study. That is quite unfair! Reverse the situation. Serenade our senses with an appreciation for spirituality, and consign all material benefits and pleasures to the library shelves. See, then, how few people will sin!”

Despite his personal travails, he never petitioned G‑d for his personal needs, nor even his spiritual needs. His only wish was that G‑d should shower blessings upon his fellow Jews.

A famous (and highly characteristic) anecdote is that R. Levi Yitzchak spotted a Jew greasing the wheels of his buggy while wearing his prayer shawl and tefillin, in the middle of prayer. Instead of rebuking the Jew, R. Levi Yitzchak turned to G‑d and cried out, “G‑d, look at how holy Your nation is. They even grease the wheels of their buggies with tallis and tefillin on!”

The Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, explained that in honor of R. Levi Yitzchak's role as advocate, a new hall of merit called “The Hall of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak son of Sara Sasha” was opened in the Heavens, and any Jew who needs Divine intervention, and recites Psalms wholeheartedly in the merit of R. Levi Yitzchak will surely be helped.

While studying under his master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak became acquainted with Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, a fellow disciple of the Maggid five years his junior, who would later go on to found the Chabad stream of chassidism. The two holy men immediately forged a warm relationship, one based on a deep mutual respect and love.

Years later, R. Schneur Zalman published his foundational work on chassidic thought, the Tanya. When R. Levi Yitzchak was presented with a copy of the newly published work, his euphoric reaction was: “It's incredible that he's managed to fit such a great G‑d into such a small book!”

Eventually, the two became related through marriage—R. Levi Yitzchak's grandson married R. Schneur Zalman's granddaughter, the daughter of Rabbi DovBer, the Mittler Rebbe.

In 1806, R. Levi Yitzchak's beloved son, Rabbi Meir, passed away. Rabbi Schneur Zalman sent him a moving consolation letter wherein he expounds upon the tremendous spiritual lights that descend upon the world at the time of the passing of a righteous person. This letter was later included in the collection of letters which comprise Part Four of the Tanya.

When R. Schneur Zalman was arrested in 1798 by the Czarist government, he immediately dispatched a messenger to R. Levi Yitzchak, asking that he pray on his behalf. When R. Schneur Zalman was released, he immediately penned a letter to him informing him of the miraculous news.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, of blessed memory, was a lover of Israel, an advocate on behalf of each and every Jew, who tips the heavenly scales in favor of each of us.

May the legacy and merit of the holy Rabbi Levi Yitzchak cause G‑d to bestow abundant blessings upon all of Israel.

Seventeenth in a series. The previous one was posted on August 8th.

We enter the town of Berditchev

Grisha is waiting for us. He knows a lot of history concerning Berditchev and Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, and eagerly shares it with visitors.

Entrance to the cemetery

The small building houses the graves of Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev and several others.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1809) is one of the most beloved of chassidic leaders. He is known for his tremendous love for the Jewish people, and his characteristic role of advocating before the Heavenly court on behalf of them. Therefore his grave site is till this day a place where people (including the local non-Jewish population) come to pray for heavenly mercy.

In this enormous cemetery, two more graves of well known rabbis have recently been found. This is one.

And this is the other. A Rabbi Shmeryl of Berditchev. He seems to have been a Breslever.

There seems to be no end to this huge cemetery, taken over by large weeds.

In the background, a train is passing. In bad times, as Jews were being deported, they would try to pray at the Berditchever's grave. If impossible, they called out to him in supplication in passing.

Kind of appropriate for a cemetery…

These weeds are much taller than I am.

They turn the place into a jungle.

The heads are probably a foot or so across.

This wet dandelion is better viewed enlarged

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There are 5 comments , add yours!
Alicja 8 years, 9 months ago

[i]Wonderful set!!. So sad and calm. Berditchev it's very sad and tragical history. Thanks for this photos.[/i]

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
Finbarr 8 years, 9 months ago

very interesting history!!

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
Dave 8 years, 9 months ago

Thanks again, Leah, for sharing this heritage.
I like your edits on #3.

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
Mallusatish Reddy 8 years, 9 months ago

Wonderful shot and great History of a Nobel Person~!~

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
Moira 8 years, 9 months ago

Very sad sett but I like the portraits of the old man and lady.

8 years, 9 months ago Edited
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