Nachman of Breslov
Born at a time when the influence of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, was waning, Rebbe Nachman breathed new life into the Hasidic movement by combining the esoteric secrets of Judaism (the Kabbalah) with in-depth Torah scholarship. He attracted thousands of followers during his lifetime, and after his death, his followers continued to regard him as their Rebbe and did not appoint any successor. Rebbe Nachman's teachings continue to attract and inspire Jews the world over.
Nachman was born in the town of Mezhibuzh, Ukraine. His mother Feiga was the daughter of Adil, the daughter of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, who founded Hasidic Judaism. His father Simchah was the son of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka (Gorodenka), one of the Baal Shem Tov's disciples, after whom Rebbe Nachman was named. He had two brothers and a sister; it is not known if he or another brother was the oldest.
Nachman told his disciples that as a small child, he eschewed the pleasures of this world and set his sights on spirituality. His days were filled with Torah learning, prayer, fasting, meditating, and other spiritual devotions. He would pay 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 the Baal Shem Tov.
As was the custom in those times, he married at the age of 13 to Sashia, the 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 him. He continued to teach and attract new followers in the Medvedevka region in the coming years.
In 1798-1799 he traveled to the Land of Israel, where he was received with honor by the Hasidim living in Haifa, Tiberias, and Safed. In Tiberias, his influence brought about a reconciliation between the Lithuanian and Volhynian Hasidim. Upon his return to Ukraine, he visited the Shpola Zeide, who greeted him with great respect and affection and hosted a festive meal in his honor.
Shortly before Rosh Hashana 1800, Rebbe Nachman decided to move to the town of Zlatipolia. The townspeople received him with great honor and invited him to have the final word on who would lead the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer services. The man chosen to lead Neilah, the final prayer service of Yom Kippur, however, 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 of Yom Kippur ended, Rebbe Nachman spoke in a light-hearted way about what the man's true intentions had been, and the man was so incensed that he denounced Rebbe Nachman to the Shpola Zeide in nearby Shpola. This began the Shpola Zeide's vehement campaign against Breslov Hasidism (see below, "Controversy about his beliefs").
In 1802 Rebbe Nachman moved to the town of Breslov. Here he declared, "Today we have planted the name of the Breslover Hasidim. This name will never disappear, because my followers will always be called after the town of Breslov" (Tzaddik #115).
His move brought him into contact with Nathan Sternhartz ("Reb Noson"), a 22-year-old Torah scholar who was then living in the nearby town of Nemirov, located eight miles north of Breslov. In Rebbe Nachman, Reb Noson found a teacher and personal adviser with whom he was intimately associated for the next eight years. Reb Noson became the Rebbe's scribe, recording all his formal lessons as well as transcribing Nachman's magnum opus, Likutey Moharan. After Nachman's death, Reb Noson also recorded all the informal conversations he and other disciples had had with him, 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. All their descendants came from Adil, Sarah, and Chayah.
Sashia died of tuberculosis in 1807. At the same time as Rebbe Nachman became engaged to his second wife in the summer of 1807, he contracted tuberculosis, and predicted that this sickness would take his life.
In May 1810, a fire broke out in Breslov, destroying the Rebbe's home. A group of maskilim (enlightened Jews) living in Uman invited him to live in their town, and made accommodations for him in rented homes when his sickness worsened. 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 after the Haidemack massacre of 1768. Rebbe Nachman died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 on the fourth day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, and was buried in that cemetery.
During the Rebbe's lifetime, thousands of Hasidim traveled to be with him for the holidays of Rosh Hashana, Chanuka, and Shavuot, when he delivered his formal lessons. On the last Rosh Hashana of his life, Rebbe Nachman stressed to his followers the importance of being with him for that holiday in particular. Therefore, after the Rebbe's death, Reb Noson instituted an annual pilgrimage to the Rebbe's gravesite on Rosh Hashana.
This annual pilgrimage, called the Rosh Hashana kibbutz, drew thousands of Hasidim from all over Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and even Poland until 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution forced it to continue clandestinely. Only a dozen or so Hasidim 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, Hasidim 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. Today, more than 20,000 people from all over the world participate in this annual pilgrimage.
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 Hasidism. His contributions to Hasidic Judaism include the following:
- He rejected the idea of hereditary Hasidic dynasties, and taught that each Hasid 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 (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom, p. 29).
- He emphasized that a tzaddik should magnify the blessings on the community through his mitzvot. However, the tzaddik cannot "absolve" a Hasid of his sins, and the Hasid should pray only to God, 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 programs 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 (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #235).
- 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 honor and respect to the God-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 God 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 God'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 God.
- He emphasized 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 God in his or her own words, as if "talking to a good friend." This is in addition to the prayers in the siddur. Breslover Hasidim still follow this practice today, which is known as hitbodedut ("to make oneself be in solitude"). Rebbe Nachman taught that the best place to do this was in a field or forest, among the natural works of God's creation.
Tikkun Ha-Klali (The General Remedy)
Another prominent feature of Rebbe Nachman's teachings is his Tikkun Ha-Klali ("General Remedy") for spiritual correction. This general rectification can override the spiritual harm caused by many sins, or one sin whose ramifications are many. 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 (the brit milah) and, by extension, all the other mitzvot. Most Breslover Hasidim try to say the Tikkun Ha-Klali daily.
- "If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity, and says these ten Psalms [the Tikkun Ha-Klali], I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom!" (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #141). "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" (Tzaddik #229).
This vow spurred many followers to undertake the trip to Rebbe Nachman's grave, even during the Communist crackdown.
Controversy over his beliefs
During his lifetime, Rebbe Nachman encountered opposition from people who questioned his new approach to Hasidut. One of these was Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola, known as the Shpola Zeide (Grandfather/Sage of Shpola) (1725–1812), who had supported Rebbe Nachman in his early years but began to oppose him after he moved to Zlatipola, near Shpola, in 1802.
The Shpola 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 Hasidic world. (Rebbe Nachman himself did not found a dynasty; his two sons died in infancy and he appointed no successor.) Still others opposed him because he associated with non-religious Jews and accepted all types at his table.
The Shpola Zeide persecuted and attempted to excommunicate Rebbe Nachman's adherents, but was opposed by Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, Rabbi Baruch of Medzeboz (a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and uncle of Rebbe Nachman), Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Rabbi Zev Wolf of Charni-Ostrov, Rabbi Abraham Kalisker, and other prominent Rebbes who supported Rebbe Nachman. At one point a group of leading rabbis met at a wedding in Berditchev and decided to excommunicate the Shpola Zeide for showing contempt towards a Torah scholar. When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak heard of their plans, he urged them not to do it in his city. The matter was dropped.
Did he believe he was the Messiah?
Rebbe Nachman taught the concept of the Tzaddik Ha-Dor ("Tzaddik of the Generation"), which, in Hasidic thought, 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. Rebbe Nachman never claimed that he was the Messiah. Toward the end of his life he said, "My light will burn until the coming of the Messiah"—indicating that the Messiah had not arrived yet. Breslover Hasidim today 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.
Secular academic view
The Encyclopedia Judaica and other secular academic sources claim that Rebbe Nachman did see himself as the Messiah. One proof that secular academics offer is that the messianic personality is expected to rectify errant souls. While Rebbe Nachman did speak to his disciples about the principle of tikkun (rectification of souls), and even suggested that he was capable of rectifying souls, this power was also claimed by Rebbes of other Hasidic sects. The principle of tikkun is also found throughout the teachings of (Rabbi Isaac Luria), who preceded Rebbe Nachman by several hundred years.
A manuscript of Rebbe Nachman's that was kept a closely guarded secret by Breslover Hassidim but recently translated and deciphered demolishes this view. In this manuscript, Rebbe Nachman describes his vision of the Messiah. In contrast with much of Jewish tradition, Rebbe Nachman does not describe a military or religious figure, or a figure remotely like himself. Instead, he describes a child prodigy who obtains universal acclaim from "his genius for healing illness through new kinds of medicines he will synthesize from various compounds, and from his profound originality in the field of music."
Some secular academics postulate that Rebbe Nachman was influenced by some of the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank, false messiahs of the seventeenth and eighteenth 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.
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 Hasidism. Where the Sabbateans diverged from accepted teaching was in believing that Sabbatai Zevi was "the Messiah" and that the Halakha (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 Hasidim?" he replied, "Whatever it says in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)." To this day, Breslovers are considered to be Orthodox Jews, and they are considered part of Haredi Judaism.
Rebbe Nachman's Torah lessons and stories were published and disseminated mainly after his death by his disciple, Reb Noson. They are as follows:
- Likutey Moharan ("Collected Teachings of Rebbe Nachman") (vol. i., Ostrog, 1808; vol. ii., Moghilev, 1811; vol. iii., Ostrog, 1815)—Hasidic interpretations of the Tanakh, Midrashim, etc.
- Sefer HaMiddot (The Aleph-Bet Book) (Moghilev, 1821)—Treatises on morals, arranged alphabetically as a primer.
- Tikkun Ha-klali ("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'asiyyot (Rabbi Nachman's Stories) (n.p., 1816)—13 seemingly simple "tales" in Hebrew and Yiddish that are filled with deep mystical secrets. The best-known 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, Rabbi Nachman's Stories. Kaplan regarded himself as a disciple of Rebbe Nachman.
Rebbe Nachman also wrote two other books, the Sefer Ha-ganuz ("The Hidden Book") and the Sefer Ha-nisraf ("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. He never showed the Sefer Ha-ganuz to anyone, and instructed Reb Noson to burn the latter's copy of Sefer Ha-nisraf in 1808. No one knows what was written in either manuscript.
- "It is a great mitzvah to be happy always."
- "If you believe that it is possible to break, believe it is also possible to fix."
- "All the world is just a narrow bridge -- but the main thing is not to fear!" (This saying has been set to music in Hebrew as the song Kol Ha-Olam Kulo
- Greenbaum, Avraham (1987). Tzaddik: A Portrait of Rabbi Nachman." Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute. ISBN 0-930213-17-3
- Kaplan, Aryeh (1973). Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom. Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute.
- Kramer, Chaim (1989). Crossing the Narrow Bridge. Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute. ISBN 0-930-213-40-8
- Kramer, Chaim (1992). Through Fire and Water: The Life of Reb Noson of Breslov. Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute. ISBN 0930213440.