Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Portrait of the Tzaddik

     Rebbe Nachman was born on the first of Nissan of the year 5532 (1772 C.E.) in the town of Mezhibuzh to Reb Simcha the son of Rabbi Nachman Horodenker, who was a leading disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, and Feiga the daughter of Odel, who was the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov. Rebbe Nachman was born in the very house where his legendary great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had lived. Rebbe Nachman’s mother, Feiga, was known far and wide as “Feiga the prophetess,” for she was accustomed to see her grandfather the Baal Shem Tov and her other holy ancestors in visions that came to her while awake and sleeping.
     From his earliest youth, Rebbe Nachman was filled with a desire for holiness and purity that even visitors to his home could perceive. The Rebbe said that as a child of three years old he had already realized that this world is nothing to speak of and he despised it’s vanities. By the age of six, he would go out at night from his home to pray at the grave of his holy great-grandfather and would then go to the outdoor mikveh to immerse before the morning light. At this tender age, Rebbe Nachman had already resolved to remove himself from the pleasures and lusts of this world and used every means at his disposal to achieve his goals. He devoted himself to his studies with a passion that is rare among children, using his pocket money to pay his tutor for teaching him extra pages of the Talmud. The Rebbe said that as a child he had found his studies very difficult, and he used to beg and plead with G-d to have mercy on him and open his mind to his learning. 
    The path of humble prayer and openness before G-d bore fruit for Rebbe Nachman even then, for he completed writing the first section of his book, Sefer HaMiddos, by the age of seven. Sefer HaMiddos is a collection of aphorisms on a wide variety of topics, culled from Tanach and the Talmud and re-phrased in a style that reveals Rebbe Nachman’s deep understanding of the subject matter. This work was very precious to the Rebbe. Once, when he saw one of his students holding it, he took it lovingly from his student’s hands. He kissed it and said, “My good friend, this beloved friend made me into a Jew.”
    Despite the fact that Rebbe Nachman struggled to serve G-d every moment with all his power, he did so without revealing his real goals and desires to anyone. He would spend hours in secluded prayer in the fields and mountains, hiding his brilliance and holiness from those around him. 
    At the age of thirteen, he was married and went to live with his in-laws in Ossatin, a town in the Western Ukraine. Rebbe Nachman described that period as one of much asceticism and a great deal of fasting, and one year he fasted from Shabbos to Shabbos eighteen times. After the death of his mother-in-law, and his father-in-law’s subsequent remarriage, he moved out and accepted a position in Medvedevka, several miles away from Ossatin. Since he was widely known as a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the young Rebbe Nachman attracted a sizable following and was soon recognized as a unique leader in his own right.
    Rebbe Nochum Chernobyler, one of the great Chassidic leaders of the time, attested to the fact that even as a youth, Rebbe Nachman’s face radiated his intense fear of heaven. Reb Nosson maintains that heavenly awe was only one of the holy attributes that Rebbe Nachman radiated in a tangible way: “He had every kind of charm in the world, and he was full of awe and love and an incredible holiness throughout every limb of his body. He was completely removed from all negative traits and desires, in such a way that the human mind simply cannot fathom. There was no one in the entire world to compare with him. He was absolutely unique, in a way that cannot be adequately expressed or understood.” Rebbe Nachman attributed his accomplishments mainly to his dedication to praying before Hashem in his mother tongue, Yiddish, using his own words to pour out his heart in longing for closeness to G-d. He expended tremendous energy in his prayers, often secluding himself in prayer for days at a time.
    In the spring of 5558 (1798 C.E.), Rebbe Nachman traveled to Eretz Yisrael with only a single follower. He traveled in the thick of the Napoleonic wars in the East, making his trip even more fraught with danger than it normally would have been. They landed at Haifa on the day before Rosh Hashanah of 5559, and after taking four steps in the Holy Land, Rebbe Nachman announced that he had accomplished his goal, and was ready to return home. He ended up staying in Israel for nearly six months, and he praised the qualities of the land very highly and encouraged everyone to make their own pilgrimage. He would say, “My place is only in Eretz Yisrael, and wherever I go I’m going to Eretz Yisrael. It’s just that, in the meanwhile, I’m stopping in Breslov.”
    In the fall of 5560 (1800 C.E.), Rebbe Nachman moved from Medvedevka to Zlatipolia. One of Rebbe Nachman’s students told about an incident that happened while he lived there. One morning, Rebbe Nachman and this student set out early towards the outskirts of the city and walked until they came to a cave. They entered, and Rebbe Nachman immediately sat down on the ground and took out a copy of the Sha’arei Tzion prayer book from his pocket. He began to recite the prayers, and cried a great deal. In that way, he moved from page to page, weeping and praying without stop. The student just stood and watched this for what seemed a very long time. After Rebbe Nachman finished, he told his student to go outside of the cave and calculate the time according to the sun. He did and was shocked to find that it was almost sunset. It was a long day during the summertime—apparently they had been there for almost fourteen hours! Later on in life, Rebbe Nachman looked back on the days before his fame spread as his time in paradise, when he had all the time in the world to go out to the fields to pray and talk to G-d.
    In Elul of 5562 (1802 C.E), Rebbe Nachman moved to Breslov, finding an allusion in the town’s name to the future redemption. The verse says, “And I will remove the heart of stone from within you, and I will give you a heart of flesh.” The words, “A heart of flesh” (“lev basar”) have the same Hebrew letters as the word “Breslov.” Rebbe Nachman also said that his followers would always be known as “Breslov Chassidim,” despite the fact that he lived in many different places during his lifetime. This move marked a turning point in Rebbe Nachman’s life, since it was in Breslov that he attracted his prime disciple and publisher of his works, Reb Nosson of Nemirov. Rebbe Nachman himself attested, “If not for my Nosson, no memory of my teachings would have survived.” He also said, “If I had come to Breslov for no other reason than to draw Reb Nosson close to me, it would have been sufficient!”
    From the very beginning of their relationship, Rebbe Nachman encouraged Reb Nosson to make a practice of copying down all of his teachings. Reb Nosson went further and even recorded Rebbe Nachman’s informal discourses, since he realized that all the Rebbe’s holy words required much study. Early in 5565 (1805 C.E.), Rebbe Nachman instructed Reb Nosson to begin arranging his lessons in order, compiling them into the book that would be entitled “Likutei Moharan,” “The anthology of our Master, Rebbe Nachman.” Rebbe Nachman saw the publication of his magnum opus as a sign of the impending redemption and said, “Now that my book has gone out into the world, I very much want people to learn it until they are fluent in its contents, for it is full of ethical instruction and inspiration to serve G-d that is great beyond reckoning.”
    A year after Reb Nosson began compiling the lessons of Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman lost his infant son, Shlomo Ephraim, on whom he had pinned many hopes for the future.  He then set out on a long and mysterious journey in the winter of 5567 (1807 C.E.). It was during this journey that Rebbe Nachman’s first wife, Sasha, died, following which he contracted tuberculosis, which would later take his own life. Likutei Moharan was printed for the first time in late summer of 5568 (1808 C.E.), and it was at that time that Rebbe Nachman’s practice of storytelling reached its peak.
    Rebbe Nachman would tell amazing stories, almost fairytale like in their construction, filled with the most esoteric Kabalistic symbolism. Rebbe Nachman was explicit about his purpose in telling these stories: to arouse people from their spiritual slumber. Reb Nosson discusses this in his introduction to the volume of stories that he published and says that Rebbe Nachman made it clear that the stories were a crucial part of his effort to arouse his followers to a fitting level of Divine service. The hidden nature of the mysticism woven into the stories allows their moral lessons to penetrate a person’s heart where explicit instruction cannot. The stories are richly woven tapestries with multi-layered meanings whose ultimate meanings are beyond us. Rebbe Nachman valued these tales very highly and greatly desired that they should be widely disseminated, so much so, that he encouraged Reb Nosson to have them published in Hebrew-Yiddish editions, to allow women and the unlearned to read them on their own.
    From the moment that Rebbe Nachman contracted tuberculosis, he began to speak with his followers about his impending death and the importance of the burial place he would choose. During the last three years of his life, he made it clear to his followers that he wanted them to visit his gravesite regularly after his passing and to recite Tehillim there and pray with a powerful concentration. Years before his death, when he moved from Zlatipolia to Breslov, he had passed the old cemetery of Uman. While riding past it in the wagon, Rebbe Nachman said aloud, “How pleasant and lovely it would be to lie in this House of the Living (cemetery).”
    In the spring of 5570, Rebbe Nachman’s house was destroyed in a fire that consumed a large portion of Breslov. He was invited by influential people in Uman to relocate to their town immediately. Since it was clear to him that Uman was going to be his burial place, Rebbe Nachman saw this invitation as a heavenly sign that his death was imminent. In 5528 (1768 C.E.), Uman had been the scene of the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews by the Haidemacks. Rebbe Nachman explained to his followers that his burial among them would bring them the final spiritual rectification that they had been waiting for and that being buried among all of those holy martyrs was a great privilege.
    Rebbe Nachman lived in Uman just over half a year before he passed away. His vitality was sapped by the tuberculosis, and he barely had the strength to make it through the High Holy Days of 5571 (1810 C.E.). On the third day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, Rebbe Nachman left this world. Reb Nosson was present, and later described his passing: 
    “I came to his room and found him seated, not lying down. He was wrapped in his tallis sitting on the bed, and the Ari’s siddur was resting on his holy knees. He finished reciting Hallel with the four species, and said the Hoshanos in a slightly raised voice. Everyone in the house could hear his words. Fortunate are the eyes that were privileged to see him then and hear his voice when he held the four species and said Hallel and Hoshanos on the last day of his holy life.” Their eyes met, and it was then that Reb Nosson realized that Rebbe Nachman was going to take his leave of them. Even so, he fortified himself together with Rebbe Nachman, that there was still hope. Afterward, the Rebbe asked that they seat him on his chair (the one in which he would sit as he taught), but his life-force was already ebbing. Seeing his weakness, his students laid him down on his bed.
    “Afterward, it seemed as though he had already passed away, and I began to cry and scream, ‘Rebbe! Rebbe! Why are you leaving us?’ He heard our voices and woke up somewhat. He turned his awesome face to us, as if to say, ‘G–d forbid. I’m not leaving you.’ After that, it wasn’t long before he really did pass away in great holiness and purity, without any mental confusion at all. His body didn’t undergo any strange tremors, and his mind was composed in the most amazing and incredible way. He was buried in peace on the following day…in Uman, the town that he chose for his burial place while he was still alive…That is the main reason why he came to Uman a half year before his death. Hashem helped him, He did the will of those who fear Him, and he came to his rest in peace. For that is the place that was prepared for him from the very outset of creation, where he would work for the rectification of the world for the coming generations—for anyone who comes to him there and says the ten psalms that he indicated, as he promised when he was still alive.”

Rabbi Nachman's Stories:

     The Story of the Seven Beggars.

     The Story of the Lost Princess.

     The Story of the Master of Prayer.

      Copyright © 2000  Breslov Institutions, Yeshivat "Shuvu Bonim",
All Rights Reserved.

Home Lessons given by  the Rav HaRav Levi Itzchak Bender, zt"l.