Emek refa’im (Valley of Giants)

Isaac Ber Levinzon


When I was still young, nineteen years of age, it entered my mind to fool the world (as was the practice of the “holy ones” in those days), and this was the scheme I adopted: I used to travel on Sabbaths, and in particular on the New Year, from one “holy man” to another, as was the custom of those who believed in “holy men” in those days. And when I returned home, I told stories of all their actions day and night—of their prayers, their dialogues, the manner in which they ate, their wealth and their greatness, and of their splendid journeys in carriages, and the like. In particular, I used to recount their wondrous deeds and their marvels and their prophecies, the like of which had never been heard of in all the earth. And lads and youngsters of about fourteen or fifteen years of age approached me to hear of the miracles and the wonders. And I said to them that these holy men had achieved this not by virtue of study of the Torah, but solely through their fear of the Almighty and through prayer, and as a result of the firm belief within their hearts.

But as for me, knowing, as I did, that in the large city of my birth I would not be able to comport myself in the glorious fashion of the Hasidic Masters, and in the rabbinic mode, first, because they knew me, from my youth, to be a total ignoramus and a perpetrator of evil deeds, and as one who hailed from a contemptible family [ . . . ], and second, because even if I had been of fine pedigree and conversant with sacred literature and the like, I would have been unable to fool the men of this city, as they had among them many students of Torah who were of fine pedigree, and that they moreover had among them numerous sages and literati, and such as were acquainted with various different branches of wisdom, as well as many intelligent businessmen who traveled around the entire globe and who were familiar with the realities of the world—and all of these types had no belief whatsoever in matters involving miracles and wondrous deeds. [ . . . ]

Accordingly, I chose to settle in a very small town, where there were neither students nor literati, neither men of wealth nor merchants, and whose inhabitants, owing to their poverty, were preoccupied with earning their livelihood, and lacked understanding even of mundane affairs; and, a fortiori, of deceit and fraud. And they believed, as had their forebears, in every vanity and falsehood—making enquiry of those divining by the clouds and of practitioners of magic, believing in the old women and their magical instruments. Hence, I said to myself: “It is here that I shall reside!”

So I rented a house close to the synagogue, and lived tightly closeted away, and recited my prayers in an exceedingly loud voice, chanting melodies and clapping my hands, and the entire town was astir at the sounds and commotion thereby generated. And from time to time I visited the lavatory, and proceeded from the lavatory to the ritual bath; and when, on occasion, I came to the synagogue, I used to make numerous pauses in my prayers, and in respect of all matters involving the precepts; and I invariably used to recount tales of miracles and wondrous deeds, and of the virtues of the “holy men” and the manner in which they comported themselves, to the point where the public perceived that my entire conduct corresponded exactly to that of the greatest personages among the holy ones, who were renowned as miracle workers. When I returned home after having traveled to a particular “holy man,” all the townsfolk gathered around me, and I related to them whatever came to my mind concerning the deeds of this “holy man,” and, one by one, the young men and those of tender years joined themselves to me and believed in me, to the point where I created a special prayer quorum for myself, and these young men formed a part of my privy council and of those who professed obedience to me, and they prayed alongside me. And with a view to creating a distinctive mark, we used to alter all the ancient customs, and adopted fresh customs, and recited our prayers in accordance with the Sephardic rite, incorporating all such usages as the “holy men” of our era have adopted; and everyone called our prayer quorum “the prayer-quorum of the Hasidim.”

Then proceeding from one stage to the next, I came to introduce the general practice of bringing together a company of people for the third meal on the Sabbath, to sing, and to say a few words of Torah; after that, by virtue of their faith in me and in my uprightness, anyone who was the victim of any mishap, whether it was a sick wife, an internal ghost, a robbery, a theft, a lost object, or one who needed to make a request to the local rulers, and the like, came to me, and brought me ransom monies. After that, I donned white garments, and recited prayers from the prayer book of the Ari [R. Isaac Luria] of blessed memory; and they would refer to me by the title “Rebbe.”

I then began traveling around the world and my initial trip was to the villages [ . . . ], and there were always two young men accompanying me, who approached every tenement-holder before I descended from my wagon, and publicized my name and the wonders I had wrought. I conducted myself in this manner for several years, until such time as I was well-known in all the villages and small towns close to the town in which I was living. When I came to a small town of this kind, the ritual slaughterer would bring me the knife for my inspection, and if he failed to do so, I would dismiss him from his post.

Subsequently, a number of young men would come to visit me, from time to time, on Sabbaths and on the New Year, as well as all those who were suffering from diseases or mishaps, and they would lodge with the householders of my town, and as a result of this, they obtained an abundance of benefits and financial support. A report circulated about in the small towns nearby that the Almighty had blessed the residents of the town in the merit of my dwelling among them. And the men of my town, when traveling, on occasion, on business affairs to towns both near and far, would praise my name and recount great miracles and wondrous deeds attributed to me, proclaiming that I could heal all the sick people throughout the world, and make poor people wealthy, free prisoners, cure the blind, and so forth.

Then people came to me from all over the world, and I became great. In addition, the residents of my own city became great and were exceedingly successful, and I accumulated money like the sands of the sea, and my name was very great throughout the world. [ . . . ]

Woe is unto me that I fooled the entire world, and was the cause of many and horrific evils both to private individuals and to the community of Israel as a whole! There is no end to the deceit and falsehood which I practiced during the course of my life.

Translated by
David E.


Isaac Baer Levinsohn, “`Emeḳ refa’im” (Manuscript, Galicia, 1833), National Library of Israel, Ms. Heb. 2557=8, https://www.nli.org.il/en/manuscripts/NNL_ALEPH990000416610205171/NLI#$FL32743933. First published as: Isaac Baer Levinsohn, Divre tsadikim em `Emeḳ refa’im (Odessa: Bi-defus L. Nietzsche pen A. Tsedarboim, 1867), https://www.nli.org.il/en/books/NNL_ALEPH001976938/NLI. Translation based on forthcoming critical edition of Emek Refa’im, David Assaf & Jonatan Meir, eds.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 6.

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