Weekly Chasidic Story #790 (s5773-19 / 2 Shevat 5773)

Second-Hand Tefilin

“Rebbe, I am willing to sell you all the pairs of tefilin you see here, except for this pair.”

Connections (2): Weekly Reading–contains two of the four Torah sections inscribed in tefilin (see 7th aliya); Seasonal–213th yahrzeit of the Rebbe Zushya


It was the custom in Berditchev that the tefilin of deceased townsmen would become the property of the local burial society, whose director would sell them for the benefit of the Chevrah Kaddisha.

One day this functionary received a visit from the chief rabbi of the town, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who asked to be shown all the tefilin on hand, for he wished to buy a pair for himself. The Rebbe soon chose a particular pair. The director, a clever fellow, reasoned that the tzadik would not have come along to simply buy himself a nondescript secondhand pair of tefilin: there must be more to this purchase than met the eye. So he said: “Rebbe, I am willing to sell you all the pairs of tefilin you see here – except for this pair. This pair I am not willing to part with.…”

But Rabbi Levi Yitzchak made it clear that it was only this pair that interested him, and he earnestly begged to be able to buy it.

So finally the director said: “Very well, I will agree to sell them to you – but only on condition that you tell me what is so special about them that makes you seek this particular pair.”

“Very well,” said the tzadik. “As you no doubt know, for many years the brothers Elimelech of Lyzhinsk andZushya of Hanipoli wandered about among the townships and villages, with the aim of firing their fellow Jews with a desire for repentance. Whenever they arrived at some place for the night, one of them would address the other as if he were a sinner turning to his rebbe, weeping over his imagined sins and requesting a suitable penance. And while so doing – within earshot of their host-he would list all the transgressions of which the host was in fact guilty. Overhearing his seeming confession of another, the host would recall that he too, as it were, had sinned in a like manner, and this recollection would cause him to repent.

“Arriving one night at the house of a Jew who lived in a certain village, Reb Zushya began to tearfully beg his brother to prescribe a penance for his negligence. Throughout his life, he had never had his tefilin checked to see whether the verses inscribed on the parchment scrolls inside them were still in valid condition. And now he had at last given histefilin to a scribe for checking, and had found that there were no scrolls inside them whatever! If so, then he had lived all his life in an illusion, and clearly fell into the unfavorable category of ‘a head that has never worn tefilin.’

“At this point Reb Elimelech took over, and explained to his brother what a serious state of affairs this was. And as their host overheard this dialogue, he recalled that he ‘too’ had never given his tefilin to a scribe for checking. He ran off to fetch them, and when they were opened he found that they were utterly empty! Alarmed by his discovery, he sobbed out his story to the two visitors, and begged them to direct him as to how to repent.

“Reb Elimelech now turned to Reb Zushya and said: ‘Please write out a set of scrolls for the tefilin of our host. And as you do so, make it your solemn intention to draw down into their words the kind of light from Above that will be of the intensity appropriate to a man who had never fulfilled the mitzvah of tefilin in his life.’

“Reb Zushya took out parchment, quill and ink, and devoutly inscribed the passages required. Then he rolled up the tiny scrolls, placed them inside the black leather boxed of the tefilin, and returned them to their owner.

“But the divine light that those tefilin now irradiated was of an intensity that this man was unable to bear. Soon after this incident he moved here to Berditchev, and a short while later, died in our city.

“And these,” concluded Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, “are the selfsame tefilin which thus found their way into the hands of our local burial society.”

[Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition in A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll), as translated the esteemed Uri Kaploun from Sipurei Chasidim by Rabbi S. Y. Zevin.]

Connections (2): Weekly Reading–contains two of the four Torah sections inscribed in tefilin (see 7th aliya); Seasonal–213th yahrzeit of the Rebbe Zushya.

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak (Deberamdiger) of Berditchev (1740-25 Tishrei 1809) is one of the most popular rebbes in chasidic 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, Kedushat Levi.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk (1717 – 21 Adar 1787), was a leading disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch, successor to the Baal Shem Tov, and the leading Rebbe of the subsequent generation in Poland-Galitzia. Most of the great Chassidic dynasties stem from his disciples. His book, Noam Elimelech, is one of the most popular of all Chassidic works.

Rabbi Zusha of Anapoli (?- 2 Shvat 1800), was a major disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. The seemingly unsophisticated but clearly inspired “Reb Zusha” is one of the best known and most beloved Chassidic personalities. He and his famous brother, R. Elimelech, spent many years wandering in exile, for esoteric reasons.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.