Major Hasidic courts, 1815–1929. (Based on a map prepared for the exhibition "Time of the Hasidism." by Elżbieta Długosz, The Historical Museum of Kraków—Old Synagogue)

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Bratslav Hasidism

A controversial Hasidic school, focused on the personality and teachings of Naḥman ben Simḥah (1772–1810), and named after the Podolian town of Bratslav, where he resided from 1802 until the last few months of his life.

The Bratslav circle never numbered more than a few hundred, mostly poor Hasidim scattered in a handful of small communities within the provinces of Podolia, Volhynia, and Kiev. By comparison with some nineteenth-century Hasidic schools, its sphere of influence and political clout were always extremely limited. Yet it constructed a distinctive identity that attracted as much admiration as scorn, enabling Bratslav to maintain high visibility in the Hasidic world and beyond.

Naḥman began to operate as a rebbe in 1790. In 1798, he embarked on a year-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a journey that became a transformative experience, establishing his sense of himself as a unique personality and supreme spiritual leader, not only to his own generation but to all generations of the past as well. This messianically charged self-perception was liable to be construed as sheer arrogance and soon resulted in clashes with other rebbes. The bitter disputes that followed, most notably with Aryeh Leib of Shpole (1725–1812), led to the incorporation into Bratslav doctrine of the notion that being subject to perpetual controversy (maḥloket) was a defining characteristic of the true tsadik. This belief enabled Bratslav to embrace rather than recoil from its controversial status, and to withstand the hostility it continued to arouse long after its founder’s death.

Naḥman’s messianic mission was another defining, albeit esoteric, characteristic of the Bratslav doctrine. His hope of inaugurating imminent redemption was dashed with the death in 1806 of his infant son, on whom Naḥman’s messianic ambitions had become pinned; but this did not extinguish the expectation that he would accomplish his messianic task in the future, probably after his death.

Naḥman died in the autumn of 1810, leaving no heir to succeed him. There is every indication that his small circle would have dispersed if not for the efforts to rehabilitate it on the part of his scribe and chief interpreter, Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780–1844). Natan attracted new recruits to the Bratslav path and revived some of its flagging traditions, above all the annual gathering at the rebbe’s court on the Jewish New Year, which he transformed into the major Bratslav institution that is the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Naḥman’s tomb in Uman. Sternhartz disseminated, expounded, and published Naḥman’s teachings authoritatively, but without ever allowing himself to be perceived as a rebbe in his own right.

Following Natan’s death, a number of his disciples became prominent figures in the Bratslav camp, but none of them ever achieved Natan’s predominance, and none ever claimed or was accorded the status of Naḥman’s successor as rebbe. This resulted in a unique cult of the dead Naḥman, who is expected to return as Messiah, and who continues to function to the present day as Bratslav’s only tsadik. It also gave rise to the derogatory nickname “dead Hasidim,” by which the Bratslav circle became known among its various opponents. Other Hasidic groups continued to persecute Bratslav Hasidim in the course of the nineteenth century. One wave of violent hostilities, directed at Natan and his followers almost as soon as he embarked on his Bratslav restoration enterprise, was orchestrated by the Podolian tsadik Mosheh Tsevi of Savran (1775–1837) and reached its climax in the middle 1830s. Another series of hostilities erupted during the 1860s, led locally by several tsadikim who belonged to the powerful Chernobil dynasty.

Bratslav writings, particularly the collection of Naḥman’s symbolic tales, also attracted the derision of some East European maskilim, notably Yosef Perl (1773–1839), who satirized them. By contrast, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the literature of Bratslav and its intense spirituality were celebrated by Westernized “neo-Hasidic” thinkers, including Martin Buber and Hillel Zeitlin.

The movement survived religious suppression under Soviet rule, establishing a vital outpost in interwar Poland, where a center in Lublin replaced Uman as the site of the annual gathering for several hundred Bratslav Hasidim. After World War II, Bratslav Hasidism reemerged in Israel and the New World. In the absence of a living rebbe, however, the movement remains small and fragmented, led by a number of charismatic individuals who do not always see eye to eye. Since the final decades of the twentieth century, some of its factions have come to enjoy unprecedented popularity among secular Jews, who have been drawn to the Bratslav orbit by messianically driven proselytizing efforts and by a dynamic publication program, which is making widely accessible even the most esoteric strands of Bratslav’s older literature.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, “‘‘Adayin lo’ nishkat ha-riv ḥinam’: Ha-Ma’avak neged ḥasidut Braslav bi-shenot ha-shishim shel ha-me’ah ha-yod-tet,” Tsiyon 59.4 (1994): 465–506, also in his Ne’ehạz ba-sevakh: Pirke mashber u-mevukhah be-toledot ha-ḥasidut; pp. 179–234 (Jerusalem, 2006); David Assaf, Breslav. Bibliyografyah mu’eret (Jerusalem, 2000), with an electronic supplement, Hosafot ve-tikunim, 2000–2006 (July 2006) [ ;dassaf/index-heb .html]; Mendel Piekarz, Ḥasidut Braslav, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1995), pp. 199–218.