Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809) is undoubtedly one of the most fondly remembered hasidic masters. He is the hero of many hasidic 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 Sukkot 1803 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady (Rashaz, ca. 1745-1812). Rashaz wrote to his colleague and chided him: “I heard that Your Honour received two etrogim from the Land of Israel for the past festival [of Sukkot]. 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 hasidic period. The cache surfaced at the beginning of the twentieth century and was a much heralded discovery. These letters were penned by famed hasidic 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 hasidic leaders and in the academic community. Today, Lubavitch Hasidim still maintain the veracity of these documents, while most hasidic groups are silent on the matter. The academic community does not accept the authenticity of the cache.
Curiously, in the etrog letter, Rashaz refers to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak as his relative by marriage (mehutani). 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 only too well-aware of the 1807 wedding. Indeed, in correspondence between the two hasidic masters written after the wedding, the term for relatives by marriage is used.
Returning to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s milieu: One of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s disciples, Rabbi Avraham David Wahrmann of Buczacz (1771-1840) noted that he was meticulous to use a Greek Citron, namely an etrog from Corfu, and he did so without any hesitation. This is significant for at the time, the validity of “Corfu etrogim,” that is the Greek Citron, 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 Yehekiel Landau (1713-1793).
Rabbi Avraham David’s grandson, who shepherded his grandfather’s writings through the printing process, added that he perchanced upon further writings from his grandfather’s pen: “I received in the mail a letter doubting Corfu etrogim. And even if there was substance in all that he wrote there, since the greats of these lands declared them valid – the great author of Noda Bihuda [Rabbi Yehekiel 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 Cofru 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 had 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 to purposefully recite a blessing over a Corfu etrog: “For him,” referring to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, “a citron seed fell and a tree sprouted and that etrog came into his possession.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s etrog was only a “Cofru etrog” – as his disciple reported – in as much 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 hasidic master. It is part of a wider legal discussion that raged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries regarding the validity of Corfu etrogim.