Nachman of Breslov (Hebrew: נחמן מברסלב), also known as Reb Nachman of Bratslav, Reb Nachman Breslover (Yiddish: רב נחמן ברעסלאבער), Nachman from Uman, or simply as Rebbe Nachman (April 4, 1772 – October 16, 1810 [18 Tishrei]), was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic dynasty.
Born at a time when the influence of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, was waning, Rebbe Nachman breathed new life into the Hasidic movement by combining the esoteric secrets of Judaism (the Kabbalah) with in-depth Torah scholarship. He attracted thousands of followers during his lifetime, and after his death, his followers continued to regard him as their Rebbe and did not appoint any successor. Rebbe Nachman's teachings continue to attract and inspire Jews the world over.
Nachman told his disciples that as a small child, he eschewed the pleasures of this world and set his sights on spirituality. His days were filled with Torah learning, prayer, fasting, meditation, and other spiritual devotions. He would pay his melamed (teacher) three extra coins for every page of Talmud that he taught him, beyond the fee that his father was paying the teacher, to encourage the teacher to cover more material. From the age of six he would go out at night to pray at the grave of the Baal Shem Tov.
As was the custom in those times, he married at the age of 13 to Sashia, the daughter of Rabbi Ephraim, and moved to his father-in-law's house in Ossatin (Staraya Osota today). He acquired his first disciple on his wedding day, a young man named Shimon who was several years older than he. He continued to teach and attract new followers in the Medvedevka region in the coming years.
In 1798-1799 he traveled to the Land of Israel, where he was received with honor by the Hasidim living in Haifa, Tiberias, and Safed. In Tiberias, his influence brought about a reconciliation between the Lithuanian and Volhynian Hasidim. Upon his return to Ukraine, he visited the Shpola Zeide, who greeted him with great respect and affection and hosted a festive meal in his honor.
Shortly before Rosh Hashana 1800, Rebbe Nachman decided to move to the town of Zlatopol. The townspeople received him with great honor and invited him to have the final word on who would lead the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer services. The man chosen to lead Neilah, the final prayer service of Yom Kippur, did not meet the Rebbe's approval. Suddenly the man was struck dumb and forced to step down, to his great embarrassment. After the fast of Yom Kippur ended, Rebbe Nachman spoke in a light-hearted way about what the man's true intentions had been, and the man was so incensed that he denounced Rebbe Nachman to the Shpoler Zeide in nearby Shpola. This began the Shpoler Zeide's vehement campaign against Breslov Hasidism (see below, "Controversy about his beliefs").
In 1802 Rebbe Nachman moved to the town of Bratslav, Ukraine, known in the Jewish world as "Breslov". Here he declared, "Today we have planted the name of the Breslover Hasidim. This name will never disappear, because my followers will always be called after the town of Breslov" (Tzaddik #115).
His move brought him into contact with Nathan of Breslov ("Reb Noson"), a 22-year-old Torah scholar who was then living in the nearby town of Nemirov, located eight miles north of Breslov. In Rebbe Nachman, Reb Noson found a teacher and personal adviser with whom he was intimately associated for the next eight years. Reb Nusn became the Rebbe's scribe, recording all his formal lessons as well as transcribing Nachman's magnum opus, Likutey Moharan. After Nachman's death, Reb Noson also recorded all the informal conversations he and other disciples had had with him, and published all of Rebbe Nachman's works as well as his own commentaries on them.
Rebbe Nachman and his wife Sashia had six daughters and two sons. Two daughters died in infancy and the two sons (Ya'akov and Shlomo Efraim) both died within a year and a half of their births. Their surviving children were Adil, Sarah, Miriam, and Chayah. All their descendants came from Adil, Sarah, and Chayah.
Sashia died of tuberculosis in 1807. At the same time as Rebbe Nachman became engaged to his second wife (name unknown) in the summer of 1807, he contracted tuberculosis, and predicted that this sickness would take his life.
In May 1810, a fire broke out in Bratslav, destroying the Rebbe's home. A group of maskilim (enlightened Jews) living in Uman, Ukraine invited him to live in their town, and made accommodations for him in rented homes when his sickness worsened. Many years before, Rebbe Nachman had passed through Uman and told his disciples, "This is a good place to be buried." He was referring to the cemetery where more than 20,000 Jewish martyrs were buried following the Haidamak massacre of 1768. Rebbe Nachman died of tuberculosis at the age of 38 on the second day of Chol HaMoed Sukkot, and was buried in that cemetery.
During the Rebbe's lifetime, thousands of Hasidim traveled to be with him for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana, Chanuka, and Shavuot, when he delivered his formal lessons. On the last Rosh Hashana of his life, Rebbe Nachman stressed to his followers the importance of being with him for that holiday in particular. Therefore, after the Rebbe's death, Reb Noson instituted an annual pilgrimage to the Rebbe's gravesite on Rosh Hashana.
This annual pilgrimage, called the Rosh Hashana kibbutz, drew thousands of Hasidim from all over Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and even Poland until 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution forced it to continue clandestinely. Only a dozen or so Hasidim risked making the annual pilgrimage during the Communist era, as the authorities regularly raided the gathering and often arrested and imprisoned worshippers. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Hasidim who lived outside Russia began to sneak into Uman to pray at Rebbe Nachman's grave during the year. After the fall of Communism in 1989, the gates were reopened entirely. Today, more than 20,000 people from all over the world participate in this annual pilgrimage.
"If someone comes to my grave, gives a coin to charity, and says these ten Psalms [the Tikkun HaKlali], I will pull him out from the depths of Gehinnom!" (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #141). "It makes no difference what he did until that day, but from that day on, he must take upon himself not to return to his foolish ways" (Tzaddik #229).
This vow spurred many followers to undertake the trip to Rebbe Nachman's grave, even during the Communist crackdown.
During his lifetime, Rebbe Nachman encountered opposition from within the hasidic movement itself, from people who questioned his new approach to Hasidut. One of these was Rabbi Aryeh Leib of Shpola, known as Der Shpoler Zeide (Grandfather/Sage of Shpola) (1725–1812), who had supported Rebbe Nachman in his early years but began to oppose him after he moved to Zlatipola, near Shpola, in 1802.
The Shpola Zeide saw Rebbe Nachman's teachings as deviating from classical Judaism and from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. Some postulate that the Zeide felt threatened because Rebbe Nachman was moving in on his territory and taking disciples away from him. Still others claim that Rebbe Nachman was a threat to other rebbes because he opposed the institutional dynasties that were already beginning to form in the Hasidic world. (Rebbe Nachman himself did not found a dynasty; his two sons died in infancy and he appointed no successor.)
Some secular academics postulate that Rebbe Nachman was influenced by the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank, false messiahs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively, but that he was not actually a Sabbatean or Frankist. As proof, they note that Rebbe Nachman's thinking on tikkun olam, the Kabbalistic healing of the universe, bears similarities to the teachings of Sabbatai Zevi. However, this cannot be true, since in his own writings, Rebbe Nachman refers to Sabbetai Zevi as the SHaTZ--an acronym for the name SHabbetai TZvi--and concludes the reference with the expression "yimach shemo", which means "may his name be obliterated". The expression is generally reserved for the worst enemies of the Jewish people.
It should be noted that the Sabbateans based their teachings on the same Zohar and Lurianic kabbalah that are considered part of classical Judaism by Hasidism. Where the Sabbateans diverged from accepted teaching was in believing that Sabbatai Zevi was "the Messiah" and that the Halakha (Jewish law) was no longer binding. Rebbe Nachman did not do the same. He did not claim he was the Messiah, and when asked, "What do we do as Breslover Hasidim?" he replied, "Whatever it says in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law)." To this day, Breslovers are considered to be Orthodox Jews, and they are considered part of Haredi Judaism.
Rebbe Nachman also wrote two other books, the Sefer Ha-ganuz ("The Hidden Book") and the Sefer Ha-nisraf ("The Burned Book"), neither of which are extant. Rebbe Nachman told his disciples that these volumes contained deep mystical insights which few would be able to comprehend. He never showed the Sefer Ha-ganuz to anyone, and instructed Reb Noson to burn the latter's copy of Sefer Ha-nisraf in 1808. No one knows what was written in either manuscript.