The movement weathered strong opposition from virtually all other Hasidic movements in the Ukraine throughout the nineteenth century, yet at the same time experienced tremendous growth in numbers of followers from Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and Poland. By World War I, thousands of Breslov Hasidim were located in those places. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Communist oppression forced the movement underground in Russia. Thousands of Hasidim were imprisoned or murdered during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and killed by Nazis who invaded Ukraine in 1941. The movement regenerated itself in England, America, and Israel by those who managed to escape Russia.
Prior to his arrival in Bratslav in 1802, Rebbe Nachman lived and taught in other towns in Ukraine such as Ossatin, Moheilov and Zlatipolia and Odessa. But upon his arrival in Bratslav he declared, "Today we have planted the name of the Bratslaver Hasidim. This name will never disappear, because my followers will always be called after the town of Bratslav" (Tzaddik #115).
Later followers said the name of the town dovetailed with the Rebbe's teachings: He encouraged Jews to remove the barriers that stood between themselves and a closer relationship with God. They noted that the Hebrew letters of the word Breslov (ברסלב) can be rearranged to spell lev basar (לב בשר —the "ס" and "ש" sounds are interchangeable), "a heart of flesh"—echoing the prophecy in Ezekiel (36:26): "I [God] will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Rabbi Shmuel Moshe Kramer also noted that the gematria ("numerical value") of the Hebrew letters of Breslov (ברסלב) is 294, as is the Hebrew spelling of Nachman ben Faiga (נחמן בן פיגא) (Nachman son [of] Faiga) -- the names of Rebbe Nachman and his mother.
The Breslov approach places great emphasis on serving God through the sincerity of the heart, with much joy and living life as intensely as possible. Its Hasidim see Torah life as the means to a joyful existence, and their approach to worship is very personalized and emotional, with much clapping, singing, and dancing. Rabbi Nachman said, "It's a great mitzvah (commandment) to always be happy." Even in the Nazi concentration camps, the Breslovers strove to find joy in life.
Rebbe Nachman also placed great emphasis on Jewish prayer. Besides the regular daily services in the synagogue, Rebbe Nachman advised his followers to engage in hitbodedut (literally, "self-seclusion") on a daily basis. In this distinctively Breslov practice, the individual Hasid engages in a free-flowing verbal communication with God for one hour a day. During hitbodedut, the individual pours out his thoughts and concerns in his mother tongue, as if talking to a close personal friend. The goal is to establish a close, personal relationship with God and a clearer understanding of one's personal motives and goals.
A few Breslovers also use a form of mantra meditation by repeating a word or phrase over and over. Rebbe Nachman himself used the phrase, Ribono Shel Olam ("Master of the Universe" — i.e., God), which he pronounced with the Yiddish intonation as: Ree-boy-noy shell oy-lahm. (Some say that the Yiddish pronunciation allows one to pour every possible emotion into the "oy" syllables). A small group of modern-day Breslovers use the Na Nach Nachma mantra, which is based on the Hebrew letters of Nachman's name. This mantra was not used by Rebbe Nachman himself, but was taught in the 20th century by Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser. However, this group is not part of mainstream Breslov, and is rejected by most adherents.
Rabbi Nachman always maintained that his high spiritual level was due to his own efforts, and not to his famous lineage or any other circumstances of his birth. He repeatedly insisted that all Jews could reach the same level as he, and spoke out very strongly against those who thought that the main reason for a Rebbe's greatness was the superior level of his soul (see Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom, Kaplan English edition, page 29).
During his lifetime, hundreds of followers spent the holiday with him; after his death, his closest disciple, Nathan of Breslov ("Reb Noson") organized an annual pilgrimage to his grave starting with Rosh Hashanah 1811, the year after Rebbe Nachman's death. Until World War I, thousands of Hasidim from Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania and Poland joined the holiday prayer gathering. The Rosh Hashanah kibbutz operated clandestinely and on a smaller scale under Communism, when public prayer gatherings were forbidden. The pilgrimage was officially reinstituted after the fall of Communism in 1989, and continues to this day, with upwards of 20,000 men and boys arriving each Rosh Hashanah from all over the world.
Breslovers also make individual pilgrimages to their Rebbe's grave at other times of the year. An organized women's pilgrimage has been introducted on Purim, in honor of the Feast of Esther. Visiting the grave at any time is deemed beneficial, because Rebbe Nachman said:
Rebbe Nachman's magnum opus is the two-volume Likutey Moharan (Collected Lessons of our Rebbe), a collection of 411 lessons displaying in-depth familiarity and understanding of the many overt and esoteric concepts embedded in Torah, Talmud, Zohar and Kabbalah.
Upon the Rebbe's instructions, Reb Noson collected all the practical teachings and advice contained in Likutey Moharan and published them in:
Rebbe Nachman's other works include:
After the Rebbe's death, Reb Noson wrote down all the conversations, fragments of lessons, and interactions which he and others had had with the Rebbe during his lifetime. He published these in the following collections:
Reb Noson also authored these commentaries and novellae:
Breslovers do not restrict themselves to Rabbi Nachman's commentaries on the Torah, but also study many of the classic texts, including the Tanakh, the Talmud, the Midrash, and many others. They may also study the writings of Rebbes from other dynasties.
Students of Reb Noson, their students, and their students' students have added to the literature with further commentaries on the Rebbe's teachings, as well as original works.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the Breslov Research Institute (headed by Rabbi Chaim Kramer) began translating many Breslov works into English and thus English-speaking readers were introduced to Breslov teachings, accompanied by a growing body of original Breslov works in English.
Prior to the Breslov Research Institute efforts to translate and publish Breslov works in English, there numerous smaller scale similar efforts. Of particular note is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's 'Gems of Rabbi Nachman' published in the early 1970s.