Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s appeal crosses boundaries. Many of his newest disciples are of Sephardi descent, and secular artists as well as Orthodox seekers find inspiration in his writings. A new concept, the India-Bratslav axis, expresses the phenomenon of young Israelis engaging in eclectic spiritual search.

Born in 1772, Rabbi Nachman’s maternal grandmother was the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the modern Chassidic movement. His father was the son of Reb Nachman of Horodenka, an early Chassidic leader and disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Nachman developed himself spiritually from his early youth, taking on extreme ascetic practices from the age of six , struggling against self doubt and temptation.

In 1798-99, Rabbi Nachman travelled to Israel via Turkey. Travelling in disguise, Nachman experienced many strange adventures on the way. Although he was ready to return home from the moment he arrived in the Holy Land ( he ended up staying for about six months) the trip served to be transformative. He later said that his spiritual understanding was infinitely greater after his trip. Upon returning to the Ukraine, he began gathering disciples.

Rabbi Nachman was perhaps the first Chassidic teacher to understand the threat that atheism posed to religion. He thus stressed simple faith, remaining aware of the struggle involved in maintaining it. Atheism, he claimed, had power because God had to withdraw His light to make room for creation. There is, therefore, a place where God does not exist. In order to save souls who have fallen to this place, the righteous one must silently face the abyss.

One of the principal spiritual practices that Rabbi Nachman taught was hitbodedut, praying to God in one’s own words and native language about personal hopes, trials, and dreams. If possible, hitbodedut should be done in a wilderness area at night, to achieve complete isolation, but it can be performed anywhere, even under a blanket. He taught that hitbodedut should ideally be practiced for one hour each day and if a Jew persists in practising it, he/she will learn to experience God’s closeness, and to see the hidden light that illuminates all of existence.

Rabbi Nachman’s Torah teachings are masterfully poetic. His words rely on seemingly wild juxtapositions and associations that prove to be firmly rooted in the entire Talmudic and kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) tradition. He often re-read biblical and Talmudic stories and the details of Jewish law, re-interpreting them to denote the process leading to spiritual enlightenment and the direct experience of the divine.

Rabbi Nachman emphasised the subjective spiritual journey of each individual. Having experienced inner torment and suffering himself, he had great empathy for the cycle of progress and failure that each person experiences. At the same time, he spoke of the power of the true tzaddik (spiritual master) to intercede with God, to heal, and to serve as a catalyst for growth. Rabbi Nachman’s followers believed him to be the true tzaddik par excellence.

The healing of spiritual damage caused by sexual sin was another area that concerned Rabbi Nachman. He devised a special formula, which he called the tikkun klali, ‘general solution’, to be recited after experiencing ejaculation through masturbation or in a wet dream. The formula consisted of ten psalms: numbers 15, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137 and 150, representing the ten kinds of song that can be used to praise God.

In the last several years of his life, Rabbi Nachman began to tell stories, feeling that this was the most effective way to express the deep secrets he wished to reveal. His stories were collected, translated into Hebrew from the Yiddish in which they were originally told, and published after his death, in 1816. The stories, including “The Seven Beggars” and “The Master of Prayer”, read like magical fairy tales, filled with longing, paradox, and ultimately, redemption.

Rabbi Nachman died of tuberculosis at the age of 39, and was buried in the city of Uman, which has become a major site of pilgrimage.

Note: the town of Breslov is also known as Bratslav in English