Hasidic Jews outside Nachman of Breslov's grave in Uman, during an annual pilgrimage.

Who Was Rav Nachman of Breslov?

Famous for his sayings, stories and charisma, this Hasidic leader inspired a movement that is still vibrant today.

Rav Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811), a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) started the Breslov movement of Hasidic Judaism. Rav Nachman invigorated the Hasidic movement with teachings that combined elements of mysticism with Torah writings. Today, the uniquely enthusiastic and spiritual movement he started is popular and thriving throughout the globe.

The Life of Rav Nachman

Rav Nachman was born in a small town called Medzhybizh in the Ukraine. His mother was the granddaughter of the Baal Shem Tov and his father was the son of one of the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples, and a direct descendant of the Maharal of Prague. Even as a child, Nachman was a diligent student of Jewish texts and apparently a spiritual prodigy..

From the time Nachman was young, he devoted himself to a life of prayer, spirituality and asceticism. He was enthusiastic about living life with joy and happiness, as one of his best-known sayings is “It is a great mitzvah to be happy.” Nachman was also subject to intense emotional lows. Because he lived in a time where theology and psychology were only partially separable, he drew profound religious lessons from these intensely emotional experiences. He turned toward the service of God to ground himself during those moments. 

At age 13, Nachan married a girl named Sashia and moved to a town named Ossatin (Staraya Osota today) where he lived with his in-laws and started to gain a following. During the years 1798–1799, he made a dangerous pilgrimage to the Land of Israel, where he gathered the first group of followers that were to constitute the first generation of Breslov Hasidim. He visited Hasidic communities in Haifa, Tiberias and Tzfat where he was an honored guest.

After his tour in the Land of Israel, Rav Nachman returned to Europe, this time to the town of Zlatapol, also in present-day Ukraine. He gained more followers, but also made enemies, including the Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola, better known as the “Shpoler Zeide,” who was himself a significant Hasidic leader.

Two years later, Rav Nachman relocated to Breslov (also in present-day Ukraine) where he declared: “Today, we have planted the name of the Breslover Hasidim!” And indeed, this is the town with which he and his disciples would be most closely associated, and the one that gave its name to his brand of Hasidism. It is also here that Rav Nachman spent most of the rest of his life, tending to his flock of Breslovers.

In 1802, in Zlapotol, he established a Hasidic court that he led for eight years. These were prolific years, and developed many creative tales and teachings during that time that are still studied in and out of the Bratslav community today.

Rav Nachman and his wife Sashia had six daughters and two sons, of whom four daughters survived early childhood. Sashia herself died of tuberculosis in 1807, when her husband was 35 years old. Shortly thereafter, Rav Nachman became engaged to another woman and contracted tuberculosis himself.

In May of 1810, a fire destroyed Rav Nachman’s house in Breslov and he was invited to come live in Uman, a place he had previously declared “a good place to be buried.” Ill and having recently lost his wife (and, sadly, many children), and likely knowing that his days were numbered, Rav Nachman accepted the offer. A few months later, on the fourth day of Sukkot in 1810, at the mere age of 38, he succumbed to his illness and was buried in Uman. His grave continues to be a pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews. Today, over 20,000 Breslov Hasidim and other Jews travel to Uman every year on Rosh Hashanah.

Rav Nachman’s Thought and Writings

Rav Nachman encouraged his followers to strive to become tzadikim (righteous people) through fierce devotion to God. Whereas the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, had focused more on God’s imminence, Rav Nachman emphasized the struggle to feel close to God. The Breslov Hasid’s objective was to immerse himself in his pain so he could rise above it for the ultimate goal of being joyously connected to God, hence Nachman’s famous saying: “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous constantly.” This place of deep pain, which he thought of as a kind of void, was devoid of language, which is why Nachman created the niggun, the wordless melody (still popular today) — to could express what language could not. Song and dance, both big elements in the Breslov lifestyle, were an important means to rising from the void and achieving joyful cleaving (dvekut) with God.

Rav Nachman championed the idea of hitbodedut, literally meaning “seclusion,” a practice of regularly speaking privately and directly with God. He encouraged unabashed spontaneous and uninhibited prayer. He also emphasized simplicity in many forms of worship, in praying, practicing charity and kindness, having faith and trust and keeping yourself happy with cheerful songs and tunes (he himself may well have suffered from some from what we would recognize today as mental illness and was known to have periods of great darkness). He encouraged his followers to clap and sing during or after prayers to inspire a joyous personal relationship with God. 

Nachman also taught that each generation harbored a tzaddik ha-Dor (“the righteous one of the generation”). This special person has the potential to become the Jewish Messiah — if the conditions of the world were ready for him. Otherwise, this person would live and die as any other holy man. 

Believing each person contained a divine spark, Rav Nachman emphasized the value of teshuva, repentance, literally the return to oneself and to God. He suggested a set series of ten psalms which, strung together, he called tikkun haklali, meaning “General Restoration” or “General Remedy” for spiritual correction. It was said that reading these 10 specific holy psalms would override the spiritual harm caused by sin. Today, many Breslover Hasidim have a practice of reciting tikkun haklali daily. 

Rav Natan, one of Nachman’s closest disciples, took it upon himself to record all his formal lessons and transcribe them. He also recorded informal conversations Rav Nachman had with his disciples and included them in the book Nachman is best known for, the Likutey Moharon.

Rav Nachman is also known for his stories. His frustration with the traditional homiletical and exegetical forms of Jewish teachings may have influenced the way he wrote his famous fantastical tales. The tales featured kings, queens and princesses, and many of them revolved around themes of exile and return. Some of his most famous stories are “The Lost Princess,” “The Turkey Prince,” and “The Seven Beggars.”

Rav Nachman also authored two other books, Sefer Ha-Ganuz (“The Hidden Book”) and the Sefer Ha-Nisraf (“The Burned Book”), neither of which survives. Apparently, Rav Nachman never showed Sefer Ha-ganuz to anyone and instructed his disciple Rav Natan (who took dictation on the book but claims that he did not understand it) to burn these along with other writings upon his death. 

Rav Nachman’s Legacy

During his lifetime, Rav Nachman opposed both the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement and the Mitnagdim, who strongly objected to all Hasidic movements as dangerous. Though they were initially a small band, ultimately the Breslov movement, inspired by his personality and his teachings, became large and strong. Because Rav Nachman had no sons who lived to adulthood, and appointed no successor, it is the only Hasidic movement that does not have a living rebbe.

Rav Nachman has provided a space of comfort and joy in religious worship for Breslov Hasidim and other spiritually seeking Jews today. Though there are some Breslov Hasidim communities in America, the largest community exists in the Meah Sharim neighborhood of Jerusalem, Israel. In many places in Jerusalem, you can buy the typical white knitted yarmulkeh that Breslovers wear, along with leather necklaces that have mini tikkun haklali scrolls within them and copies of the Likkutei Moharon. Breslov followers are known for their vibrancy and enthusiasm; many of them engage in meditation, joyous song, and dance, along with learning Rav Nachman’s texts. The mystery and depth of Rav Nachman’s teachings continue to attract new people to the movement today. 

Rav Nachman’s teachings, along with those of other Hasidic masters, have contributed to a growing new theology today called “Neo-Hasidut” — a contemporary Jewish spiritual renewal movement driven by disenchantment with the secular world and spiritual hunger. As opposed to traditional Hasidism that ascribes its beliefs to one particular rebbe, Neo-Hasidism finds inspiration in a wide variety of Hasidic sources and teachers and generally traditional Hasidic attitudes toward gender, secular thought and non-Jews are rejected or reinterpreted. In this movement, Rav Nachman’s radical spiritual teachings are reaching ever wider audiences of Jews.

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