Who is Reb Nachman Breslover from Uman?

Nachman of Breslov (also known as Reb Nachman of Bratslav & Reb Nachman Breslover from Uman, lived a short life - from 1772 to 1810. Who is he? How did he come to found the Breslov Chasidic movement? What was his philosophy and how did it differ from Chasidim of his time? Read about his published works as well as those he self-destroyed. This is a great read.
by ANT KATZ | Jun 02, 2014

On the evening of the last day of his life, Rabbi Nachman gave his disciples the key to a chest. "As soon as I am dead," he told them, "while my body is still lying here on the floor, you are to take all the writings you find the chest and burn them. And be sure to fulfil my request."

An unusual request indeed.

Who is the Breslov Rebbe?

Nachman of Breslov (Hebrew: נחמן מברסלב‎), also known as Reb Nachman of Bratslav, Reb Nachman Breslover (Yiddish: רב נחמן ברעסלאווער), Nachman from Uman. He lived from April 4 1772 to October 16 1810 and was the founder of the Breslov Chasidic movement.

According to Wikipedia, Rebbe Nachman, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, breathed new life into the Chasidic movement by combining the esoteric secrets of Judaism (the Kabbalah) with in-depth Torah scholarship.

Breslov - Baal Shem TovRIGHT: Signature of the Baal Shem Tov

He attracted thousands of followers during his lifetime and his influence continues until today through many Chasidic movements such as the various branches of Breslov Chasidism.

Rebbe Nachman's religious philosophy revolved around closeness to G-d and speaking to G-d in normal conversation "as you would with a best friend". The concept of hitbodedut is central to his thinking.

Rebbe Nachman was born in the town of Medzhybizh, Ukraine. His mother, Feiga, was the daughter of Adil (also spelled Udel), daughter of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidic Judaism. His father Simcha was the son of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka (Gorodenka), one of the Baal Shem Tov's disciples, after whom Rebbe Nachman was named. Rebbe Nachman had two brothers, Yechiel Zvi and Yisroel Mes, and a sister, Perel.

Breslov Grave of Rebbe NachmanRebbe Nachman told his disciples that as a small child, he eschewed the pleasures of this world and set his sights on spirituality.

LEFT: The grave of Rebbe Nachman

He paid his melamed (teacher) three extra coins for every page of Talmud that he taught him, beyond the fee that his father was paying the teacher, to encourage the teacher to cover more material. From the age of six, he would go out at night to pray at the grave of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, and immerse in the mikveh afterward.

At the age of 13, he married Sashia, daughter of Rabbi Ephraim, and moved to his father-in-law's house in Ossatin (Staraya Osota today). He acquired his first disciple on his wedding day, a young man named Shimon who was several years older than he was. He continued to teach and attract new followers in the Medvedevka region in the years that followed.

In 1798-1799 he travelled to Israel, where he was received with honour by the Chasidim living in Haifa, Tiberias, and Safed. In Tiberias, his influence brought about a reconciliation between the Lithuanian and Volhynian Chasidim.

Breslev SAJR graphicShortly before Rosh Hashanah in 1800, Rebbe Nachman moved to the town of Zlatopol. The townspeople invited him to have the final word on who would lead the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services. The man chosen to lead Neilah, the final prayer service of Yom Kippur, did not meet the Rebbe's approval.

Suddenly the man was struck dumb and forced to step down, to his great embarrassment. After the fast ended, Rebbe Nachman spoke in a lighthearted way about what the man's true intentions had been, and the man was so incensed that he denounced Rebbe Nachman to Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola, known as the "Shpoler Zeide", a prominent Chasidic rabbi and early disciple of Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, who was a leading figure in the first generation of Hasidut.

Breslov History full thinThus began the Shpoler Zeide's vehement campaign against Breslov Chasidism. During this time he visited many synagogues, including the Great Synagogue in Dubno in Volhynia (now Rivne region), with the largest one in Ukraine and the graves of relatives in the same city.

Move to Breslov, central-west Ukraine

In 1802, Rebbe Nachman moved to the town of Bratslav, Ukraine, also known as "Breslov". Here he declared: "Today we have planted the name of the Breslover Chasidim. This name will never disappear, because my followers will always be called after the town of Breslov."

His move to the town of Breslov brought him into contact with Nathan Sternhartz ("Reb Noson"), a 22-year-old Torah scholar in the nearby town of Nemirov, eight miles north of Breslov. Over the next eight years, Reb Noson became his foremost disciple and scribe, recording all of Rebbe Nachman's formal lessons as well as transcribing the Rebbe's magnum opus, Likutey Moharan.
After Rebbe Nachman's death, Reb Noson recorded all the informal conversations he and other disciples had had with the Rebbe, and published all of Rebbe Nachman's works as well as his own commentaries on them.

Rebbe Nachman and his wife Sashia had six daughters and two sons. Two daughters died in infancy and the two sons (Ya'akov and Shlomo Efraim) both died within a year and a half of their births. Their surviving children were Adil, Sarah, Miriam, and Chayah. Sashia died of tuberculosis on June 11 1807, the eve of Shavuot, and was buried in Zaslov just before the festival began.

Breslov Ukraine
LEFT: Modern-day followers celebrating during their annual "Rosh Hashanah kibbutz" pilgrimage to Ukraine (SEE MORE ON THIS BELOW)

The following month, Rebbe Nachman became engaged to a woman from Brody whose father was the wealthy Joshua Trachtenberg. (In recent years, a descendant of the Trachtenberg family informed Rabbi Leibel Berger, formerly of the Breslov-Uman Vaad [Committee] of America, that this second wife's name was Devorah [Deborah]. Right after the engagement, Rebbe Nachman contracted tuberculosis.

Rebbe Nachman moves to Uman

Breslov1 - Uman mapIn May 1810, a fire broke out in Bratslav, destroying Rebbe Nachman's home. A group of maskilim (Jews belonging to the secular Haskalah [Enlightenment] movement) living in Uman, Ukraine invited him to live in their town, and provided housing for him as his illness worsened.

RIGHT: Uman lies at the very heart of Ukraine

Many years before, Rebbe Nachman had passed through Uman and told his disciples: "This is a good place to be buried."

He was referring to the cemetery where more than 20 000 Jewish martyrs were buried following the Haidamak Massacre of Uman of 1768. Rebbe Nachman died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 on the fourth day of Succot 1810, and was buried in that cemetery.

Pilgrimage tradition

During the Rebbe's lifetime, thousands of Chasidim travelled to be with him for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Shavuot, when he delivered his formal lessons. On the last Rosh Hashanah of his life, Rebbe Nachman stressed to his followers the importance of being with him for that holiday in particular.

Breslov - UmanTherefore, after the Rebbe's death, Reb Noson instituted an annual pilgrimage to the Rebbe's gravesite on Rosh Hashanah.

LEFT: Rosh Hashanah kibbutz in Uman.

This annual pilgrimage, called the Rosh Hashanah kibbutz, drew thousands of Chasidim from all over Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and even Poland until 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution forced it to continue clandestinely.

Only a dozen or so Chasidim risked making the annual pilgrimage during the Communist era, as the authorities regularly raided the gathering and often arrested and imprisoned worshippers. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Chasidim who lived outside Russia began to sneak into Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman's grave during the year. After the fall of Communism in 1989, the gates were reopened entirely.


Breslov - Reuters FULLIn 2008, approximately 25 000 people from all over the world participated in this annual pilgrimage

In April 1810, Rebbe Nachman called two of his closest disciples, Rabbi Aharon of Breslov and Rabbi Naftali of Nemirov, to act as witnesses for an unprecedented vow:

"If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity, and says these ten Psalms [the Tikkun HaKlali], I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom! It makes no difference what he did until that day, but from that day on, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolish ways."

This vow spurred many followers to undertake the trip to Rebbe Nachman's grave, even during the Communist crackdown.

Teachings of Rebbe Nachman

In his short life, Rebbe Nachman achieved much acclaim as a teacher and spiritual leader, and is considered a seminal figure in the history of Chasidism. His contributions to Chasidic Judaism include the following:

  • He rejected the idea of hereditary Chasidic dynasties, and taught that each Chasid must "search for the tzaddik ('saintly/righteous person')" for himself - and within himself. He believed that every Jew has the potential to become a tzaddik.
  • He emphasised that a tzaddik should magnify the blessings on the community through his mitzvoth. However, the tzaddik cannot "absolve" a Chasid of his sins, and the Chasid should pray only to G-d, not to the Rebbe. The purpose of confiding in another human being is to unburden the soul as part of the process of repentance and healing. (Modern psychology supports this idea, which is the "Fifth Step" in many 12-step programmes for recovery.)
  • In his early life, he stressed the practice of fasting and self-castigation as the most effective means of repentance. In later years, however, he abandoned these severe ascetisms because he felt they may lead to depression and sadness. He told his followers not to be "fanatics". Rather, they should choose one personal mitzvah to be very strict about, and do the others with the normal amount of care.
  • He encouraged his disciples to take every opportunity to increase holiness in themselves and their daily activities. For example, by marrying and living with one's spouse according to Torah law, one elevates sexual intimacy to an act bespeaking honour and respect to the G-d-given powers of procreation. This in turn safeguards the sign of the covenant, the brit milah ("covenant of circumcision") which is considered the symbol of the everlasting pact between G-d and the Jewish people.
  • He urged everyone to seek out his own and others' good points in order to approach life in a state of continual happiness. If one cannot find any "good points" in himself, let him search his deeds. If he finds that his deeds were driven by ulterior motives or improper thoughts, let him search for the positive aspects within them. And if he cannot find any good points, he should at least be happy that he is a Jew. This "good point" is G-d's doing, not his.
  • He placed great stress on living with faith, simplicity, and joy. He encouraged his followers to clap, sing and dance during or after their prayers, bringing them to a closer relationship with G-d.
  • He emphasised the importance of intellectual learning and Torah scholarship. "You can originate Torah novellae, but do not change anything in the laws of the Shulchan Aruch!" he said. He and his disciples were thoroughly familiar with all the classic texts of Judaism, including the Talmud and its commentaries, Midrash, and Shulchan Aruch.
  • He frequently recited extemporaneous prayers. He taught that his followers should spend an hour alone each day, talking aloud to G-d in his or her own words, as if "talking to a good friend." This is in addition to the prayers in the siddur. Breslover Chasidim still follow this practice today, which is known as hitbodedut (literally, "to make oneself be in solitude"). Rebbe Nachman taught that the best place to do hitbodedut was in a field or forest, among the natural works of G-d's creation.
  • He emphasised the importance of music for spiritual development and religious practice.

Tikkun HaKlali

Another prominent feature of Rebbe Nachman's teachings is his Tikkun HaKlali ("General Rectification" or "General Remedy") for spiritual correction. This general rectification can override the spiritual harm caused by many sins, or one sin whose ramifications are many. On Shavuot 5566 (May 23 1806) Rebbe Nachman revealed that ten specific Psalms, recited in this order: Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150, constitute a special remedy for the sin of wasting seed, which defiles the sign of the covenant, and, by extension, all the other mitzvoth.

Most Breslover Chasidim try to say the Tikkun HaKlali daily.

Controversy between Chasidim and Misnagdim

Rebbe Nachman lived at a time of controversy between Chasidim and more traditional Orthodox Jews, known as Misnagdim (opponents) for their opposition to Chasidism. It was also a time of friction between Chasidim and proponents of Jewish emancipation and Haskalah. (In 1816, Joseph Perl wrote a denunciation of Chasidic mysticism and beliefs, in which he criticised many of the writings of Nachman, who had died six years earlier. Austrian imperial censors blocked publication of Perl's treatise, fearing that it would foment unrest among the empire's Jewish subjects.)

During his lifetime, Rebbe Nachman also encountered opposition from within the Chasidic movement itself, from people who questioned his new approach to Hasidut. One of these was Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola, known as the "Shpoler Zeide" (Grandfather/Sage of Shpola) (1725 – 1812), who, according to Breslov tradition, had supported Rebbe Nachman in his early years but began to oppose him after he moved to Zlatipola, near Shpola, in 1802.

The Shpoler Zeide saw Rebbe Nachman's teachings as deviating from classical Judaism and from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Some postulate that the Zeide felt threatened because Rebbe Nachman was moving in on his territory and taking disciples away from him. Still others claim that Rebbe Nachman was a threat to other rebbes because he opposed the institutional dynasties that were already beginning to form in the Chasidic world. (Rebbe Nachman himself did not found a dynasty; his two sons died in infancy and he appointed no successor.)

According to Breslov tradition, a number of prominent figures of Hasidut supported Rebbe Nachman against the Shpoler Zeide's opposition, including Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Rabbi Gedalia of Linitz, Rabbi Zev Wolf of Charni-Ostrov [disambiguation needed], and Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk. Breslov traditions further relate that at one point, a number of Chasidic rabbis gathered in Berditchev to place the Shpoler Zeide in cherem (a rabbinic form of excommunication) for showing contempt to a true Torah scholar. Their effort was nixed, however, when someone convinced Rabbi Levi Yitzchok that it would give the city Barditcev a bad name.

Did R Nachman believe he was Moshiach?

SECULAR ACADEMIC VIEW: The Encyclopaedia Judaica and other secular academic sources claim that Rebbe Nachman saw himself as the Messiah. One proof that secular academics offer is that the messianic personality is expected to rectify errant souls. Rebbe Nachman did speak to his disciples about the principle of tikkun (rectification of souls), and even stated that he was capable of rectifying souls. However, this power was also claimed by rebbes of other Chasidic sects.
The principle of tikkun is also found throughout the teachings of (Rabbi Isaac Luria), who preceded Rebbe Nachman by several hundred years. Some secular academics postulate that Rebbe Nachman was influenced by the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank, false messiahs of the 17th and 18th centuries respectively, but that he was not actually a Sabbatean or Frankist.
As proof, they note that Rebbe Nachman's thinking on tikkun olam, the Kabbalistic healing of the universe, bears similarities to the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi. However in his writings, Rebbe Nachman refers to Sabbetai Zevi as SHaTZ (an acronym for his Hebrew name, SHabbetai TZvi) and concludes the reference with the expression yimach shemo (may his name be obliterated). The latter expression is generally reserved for the worst enemies of the Jewish people.

BRESLOV VIEW: Rebbe Nachman never claimed that he was the Messiah. He taught the general Chasidic concept of the tzaddik ha-dor (tzadik of the generation or era), which is the idea that in every generation, a special, saintly person is born who could potentially become the Jewish Messiah if conditions were right in the world. Otherwise, this tzaddik lives and dies the same as any other holy man.
Toward the end of his life, he said: "My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach" - indicating that the Messiah had not yet arrived. Breslover Chasidim do not believe Rebbe Nachman was the Messiah, but they do believe that the light of his teachings continues to illuminate the paths of Jews from many disparate backgrounds.
Chayey Moharan #266 states that Rabbi Nachman said: "All the benefits Messiah can do for Israel, I can do; the only difference is Messiah will decree and it will happen, but I… (and he stopped and did not say more). In an alternate version, Rebbe Nachman says “…I cannot finish yet."

The Sabbateans

It should be noted that the Sabbateans based their teachings on the same Zohar and Lurianic kabbalah that are considered part of classical Judaism by Chasidism. Where the Sabbateans diverged from accepted teaching was in believing that Sabbatai Zevi was "the Messiah" and that the Halacha (Jewish law) was no longer binding. Rebbe Nachman did not do the same. He did not claim he was the Messiah, and when asked: "What do we do as Breslover Chasidim?" he replied: "Whatever it says in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)."

Published works of Rebbe Nachman

Rebbe Nachman's Torah lessons and stories were published and disseminated mainly after his death by his disciple, Reb Noson:

  • Likutey Moharan ("Collected Teachings of Our Teacher, Rabbi Nachman") (vol. i., Ostrog, 1808; vol. ii., Moghilev, 1811; vol. iii., Ostrog, 1815) - Chasidic interpretations of the Tanakh, Midrashim, etc. This work has been completely translated into English and annotated in fifteen volumes by Rabbis Chaim Kramer and Moshe Mykoff of the Breslov Research Institute.
  • Breslov - the seven beggarsSefer HaMidot (The Aleph-Bet Book) (Moghilev, 1821) - a collection of practical advice gleaned from Torah sources, presented as epigrams or maxims and arranged alphabetically by topic.
  • Tikkun HaKlali ("General Remedy") - Rebbe Nachman's order of ten Psalms to be recited for various problems, plus commentary by Reb Noson. Published as a separate book in 1821.
  • Sippurei Ma'asiyot (Tales of Rabbi Nachman or Rabbi Nachman's Stories) (n.p., 1816) - 13 story tales in Hebrew and Yiddish that are filled with deep mystical secrets. The longest of these tales is The Seven Beggars, which contains many kabbalistic themes and hidden allusions. Several fragmentary stories are also included in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's translation of the complete tales, Rabbi Nachman's Stories.

Another mysterious document that Rebbe Nachman dictated to Reb Noson is the Megillat Setarim ("Hidden Scroll"), which was written in a cryptic combination of Hebrew initials and brief phrases. Prof Zvi Mark has researched and attempted to decipher this document, based on disclosures from prominent members of the Breslov community. His findings have been published in Hebrew and in English translation, along with facsimiles of discrepant manuscript copies.

Auto-destructed works of Rebbe Nachman

Rebbe Nachman also wrote Sefer HaGanuz ("The Hidden Book") and the Sefer HaNisraf ("The Burned Book"), neither of which are extant. Rebbe Nachman told his disciples that these volumes contained deep mystical insights which few would be able to comprehend.
While he dictated the Sefer HaNisraf to Reb Noson, the latter said that he did not understand it at all; later he said: "What I do remember is that it spoke about the greatness of the mitzvah of hospitality and preparing the bed for a guest". Rebbe Nachman never showed the Sefer HaGanuz to anyone. In 1808 Rebbe Nachman burned all the copies of the Sefer HaGanuz and the Sefer Ha-nisraf.

Rebbe Nachman first ordered two manuscripts of a book Ha Nisraf to be destroyed in a bargain for his life during a phase of his tuberculosis which preceded his death by two years. He believed that the illness was a "punishment from the upper-world, for writing a book".

Two years later, from his deathbed, he ordered a chest full of his writings, presumably containing Sefer HaGanuz, to be burnt.

"On the evening of the last day of his life, Rabbi Nachman gave his disciples the key to a chest: "As soon as I am dead," he told them, "while my body is still lying here on the floor, you are to take all the writings you find the chest and burn them. And be sure to fulfil my request."

Quotes of Rebbe Nachman

  • "It is a great mitzvah to be happy always"
  • "If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix"
  • "Worldly desires are like sunbeams in a dark room. They seem solid until you try to grasp one"
  • "It is very good to pour out your heart to G-d as you would to a true, good friend"
  • "You are never given an obstacle you cannot overcome"
  • "The essence of wisdom is to realise how far from wisdom you are"
  • "All the sages of Israel are in my estimation like a garlic peel"
  • "Wherever I go, I’m always going to Israel"
  • "All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all"
  • "There is no such thing as despair at all”

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  1. 1 seforim 10 Jan


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