Hasidim in town to visit the grave of Rabbi Naḥman, Uman, Ukraine, 1995. Photograph © Gueorgui Pinkhassov. (Magnum Photos)

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Naḥman of Bratslav

(1772–1811), founder of a unique school of Hasidic thought and practice; single master of the Bratslav (or “Breslov,” as pronounced by its members) Hasidic sect, which continues to flourish down to the present day. Naḥman ben Simḥah was the great-grandchild of Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem Tov (ca. 1700–1760), the first central figure of Hasidism, through the maternal line. His paternal grandfather was Naḥman of Horodenka (d. 1772), also a well-known figure in early Hasidic circles. As the offspring of such lineage, Naḥman, who grew up in the years when the new movement was just adopting a hereditary dynastic model, was expected to become a Hasidic leader. Naḥman at first refused, showing considerable disdain for the popular Hasidism of his uncle, Barukh of Mezhbizh (ca. 1750–1811), and others.

It was only after his return from a dangerous and highly transformative pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1798–1799 that Naḥman began to gather around himself a small band of followers who constituted the first generation of what were to become Bratslav disciples. In doing so, he openly challenged the authority and even the spiritual legitimacy of other rebbes. Both in Naḥman’s lifetime and after his death, he and his teachings were considered highly controversial. In the first years of his leadership, he engaged in open conflict with the popular Hasidic leader Aryeh Leib, the “Shpoler Zeyde” (1725–1812).

While this controversy had to do with Naḥman’s views on Hasidism’s decline in his day, it also reflected a competition for disciples and for the loyalty of certain towns in the area of southeastern Podolia. This was especially true in the brief period between 1800 and 1802 when Naḥman lived in Zlotopolye, not far from Shpola.

In 1802, Naḥman settled in the Podolian town of Bratslav and lived there until a year before his death. Bratslav was considered a unique and highly elite religious community; it may be seen as an early attempt at internal reform or regeneration within Hasidism. Naḥman claimed that he was training his Hasidim to become true tsadikim, not merely loyal followers. The relationship of master and disciples was extraordinarily close, a reality that evoked admiration and envy in some circles but disdain and suspicion in others. In the earliest years, Naḥman demanded of would-be disciples that they confess all their sins to him. Later this was replaced by such unique religious practices as daily hitbodedut—literally meaning lone meditation, but here referring to verbal “conversations” with God, in which the disciple was to pour out his soul in longing and contrition.

The spiritual life of Bratslav is one marked by an awareness of the distance from God felt by the honest seeker, who is deeply attuned to his own shortcomings and failures. In contrast to the joyous service called for by the Ba‘al Shem Tov, Naḥman experienced and modeled for his followers a life of painful struggle to come into the divine presence. Terms such as meni‘ot (obstacles on the spiritual path) and ga‘agu‘im (longings), seldom discussed elsewhere in Hasidism, are key to the Bratslav vocabulary. Naḥman understands the seeming absence of God from much of human life as constituting a divine challenge to personal growth, demanding a stretching of the soul to reach toward God—but also as resulting from man’s sinfulness, and especially from the pollution of the human imagination by wicked (often sexual) thoughts.

In striving to help redeem the fantasy life of his disciples (and himself) from domination by evil, Naḥman in 1806 began to tell fantastic stories, derived from East European folkloric motifs but interwoven with intimations of kabbalistic symbols and suffused with an air of mythic reality. The most important of these stories were published after his death as Sipure ma‘asiyot (1815), in a Hebrew and Yiddish bilingual edition. Historians of modern Jewish literature in both languages have regarded them as important literary compositions, and the tales are still studied and revered within the Bratslav community, which has produced several volumes of commentary on them. Through Martin Buber’s adaptive translation (1906), it is likely that they influenced Franz Kafka and other modern writers.

Naḥman’s other major work is Likute Moharan, a collection of his teachings, part of which appeared in print in his lifetime (1808); its publication was completed in the year following his death. Although taking the familiar form of Hasidic homilies, Naḥman’s teachings are marked by several unique characteristics. The associative links between ideas are much looser than in other Hasidic works, creating a series of wide-ranging discourses in which intellectual argument is replaced by freewheeling imaginative construction. There is often a lyrical quality to Naḥman’s writing and a passionate form of expression that lends the work a unique place in the Hasidic corpus.

In Naḥman’s last year he moved to Uman, where he died of tuberculosis and is buried. His grave has always been a site of pilgrimage for Bratslav Hasidim. Today it is the most highly developed Jewish pilgrimage site in Eastern Europe.

The Bratslav sect continued to flourish after Naḥman’s death under the leadership of his disciple Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780–1844). Neither Natan nor any of the Bratslav leaders who followed him claimed the mantle of rebbe, however. Naḥman has remained the sole rebbe of the Bratslav community throughout its history. Because of this, the Bratslavers were pejoratively referred to in Eastern Europe, especially by the Hasidim of other rebbes, as “di toyte” (dead) Hasidim.

Although the published Bratslav writings are marked by signs of internal censorship, they give a clear impression that at least some of Naḥman’s followers saw his death as more of a temporary occultation and hoped for his return. There are various hints, both within Naḥman’s own writings and in later Bratslav literature, that Naḥman’s soul is to be linked with that of the messiah. The long-hidden secret writings of Bratslav are being published by Zvi Mark; their appearance will certainly affect scholarly understanding of Naḥman and his legacy.

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, Breslavbibliyografyah mu‘eret: R. Naḥman mi-Breslav, toldotav u-morashto ha-sifrutit (Jerusalem, 2000); Arthur Green, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Naḥman of Bratslav (Woodstock, Vt., 1992); Zvi Mark, Mistikah ve-shiga‘on bi-yetsirat R. Naḥman mi-Breslav (Tel Aviv, 2003); Zvi Mark, Megilat setarim: He-Ḥazon ha-meshiḥi ha-sodi shel R. Naḥman mi-Braslav (Ramat Gan, Isr., 2006); Mendel Piekarz, Ḥasidut Braslav, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1995); Joseph G. Weiss, Meḥkarim be-ḥasidut Braslav (Jerusalem, 1974).