460 (s5766-50 / 20 Elul 5766)

The Weight of a Curl

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw a young woman sitting alone, her hair modestly covered.

The Weight of a Curl

During the earnest days preceding Rosh HaShana - when Jews make their annual stocktaking while saying the penitential prayers of Selichot, and when the Heavenly Court weighs an entire year's evidence in preparation for the trial of all mankind - Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw that the Accusing Angel was preparing to press ominous charges against the whole House of Israel. Moreover, Reb Baruch of Mezhibuzh wrote him a brief letter, telling him that this year in particular he would have to stand on guard and invoke the mercy of heaven for his brethren.

Reb Levi Yitzchak began at once to seek out some special merit, an outstanding mitzvah accomplishment that would tip the scales and silence the arguments of the prosecuting angels. One morning, therefore, as soon as he had completed the Selichot prayers, he slipped out of his synagogue and made his unobtrusive way to one of the twisted alleys in the quarter where the poor folk lived. He sought, and lost his way, and searched again-until he saw a radiance that illuminated the thatched roof of a dilapidated cottage. This, then, must be the place he was seeking.

Entering through the low doorway he saw a young woman sitting alone, her hair modestly covered by a kerchief. She was reading Techinot, the Yiddish supplications that pious women would offer up to heaven when their hearts were heavy. She was alarmed at the sight of the tzaddik, for she knew it was his custom to visit the houses of sinners and to arouse in them a desire to repent. If he had now called on her, she must clearly be a sinner.

"It is true that I have sinned, my holy rebbe," she sobbed, "but I have already repented; I have already done whatever I could to cleanse myself of my sin."
"Be not sad, my daughter," said the tzaddik. "You are no sinner. Quite the contrary. In heaven they have recorded an outstanding deed, a great merit to your credit. Tell me please what has befallen you."

"My father and mother," began the young woman, "used to live in a village not far from here. They supported themselves through the dairy which they held on lease from the paritz who owned the village. When they passed away-I was then seventeen years old- I called on this squire to ask him not to cancel the lease which my parents had held for so long. But as soon as he laid eyes on me the fire of desire burned within him. He said something vulgar and even tried to touch me with his hands.

"I pushed him away and turned to flee, but he immediately changed his tone and spoke to me gently. 'Far be it for me to harm you,' he said. 'Look, I'll give you a three-year lease on the dairy at half price. Just let me kiss the braids of your beautiful hair.' And with that he seized my long braids with both his hands, and kissed them lustfully.

"When I came home I could find no peace, and all that night I did not sleep a wink. In the morning I picked up my scissors and cut off my locks. The next day I left the village and the dairy and all, and went off to settle here in Berditchev. For a few years I found work as a maid in a few wealthy households, until I married. A year has now passed since my husband died, and my heart tells me that he died because of my sinfulness."

"And where are the locks you cut off?" asked the tzaddik.

"Just one curl is all I kept as memento of my long braids," said the young woman. "And whenever my heart is sore because of my ill luck, and my poverty, and my toil, I take out that curl. As I look at it I recall the sin of my youth, and quietly accept the just retribution of heaven."

A tear fell from the eyes of the tzaddik. He gave the young woman his blessing, encouraged her, and left the cottage.

When the Day of Judgment came every worshiper is shul could sense that Reb Levi Yitzchak was toiling with all his selfless might to help the prayers of the House of Israel to ascend to the Throne of Glory, and to silence the strident voices of the prosecuting angels created by Israel's sins.

The time came to blow the shofar, and though he had already immersed himself in the morning, the tzaddik left to immerse himself once more in the purifying waters of the mikveh. He was away for longer than ever before, for while there he was concentrating with devout intensity, creating such harmonies in the spiritual worlds that only tzaddikim can effect through their holy thoughts.

He rejoined the hushed congregation, and ascended the steps of the dais in readiness for the blowing of the shofar. He stood there without uttering a word-but his Chassidim could hear the stifled sound of his groans and sighs.
Reb Levi Yitzchak suddenly raised his head, gazed aloft, and said: "Master of the Universe! If our sins are weighting Your scales towards a verdict of Guilty, please pick up the little curl of that unfortunate young woman. Put it on the other side of the balance, and I am sure that it will tip the scales in our favor!"

The hosts of heaven were thrown in turmoil; Satan's tongue was paralyzed; the gates of heaven were flung wide open to admit the prayers of Israel. The tzaddik's face shone with exultation, and that year was filled to overflowing with G-d-given blessings.


[Selected and adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from the rendition in A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll), as translated by our esteemed colleague Uri Kaploun from Sipurei Chasidim by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin.]

Biographical note:
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-25 Tishrei 1810) is one of the most popular rebbes in chassidic history. He was a close disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. He is best known for his love for every Jew and his active efforts to intercede for them against (seemingly) adverse heavenly decrees. Many of his teachings are contained in the posthumously published Kedushas Levi.


Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

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