of Bratslav (1772-1810) lived during the height of the Hasidic movement
in Eastern Europe, at the peak of his short life becoming the zaddik
of the town of Bratslav.
He is perhaps most widely known for his tales. Deceptively simple
parables and stories containing many elements of European folklore
and fairytale, the tales are read both as literary masterpieces and
as profound meditations on the relationship between God and man. What
we know of Nahman's life and teachings comes from the writings of
his biographer and disciple, Nathan of Nemirov.
was almost inevitable that Nahman would become a zaddik, being
the great-grandson of the founder the Hasidic movement, the Ba'al
Shem Tov (known by the anagram "BeSHT'). Nahman was brought
up in that revered Hasid's home town, Medzibozh in the Ukraine (then
part of the Russian Pale of Settlement). Throughout his life, Nahman
would be influenced by alternating periods of elation and depression.
As a child, Nahman was said already to have begun the excruciating
lifelong quest for nearness to God that colored much of his life's
teachings. He spent many secret hours in prayer, in his family's attic.
Ascetic from the start, he attempted to overcome the pleasure of eating.
As an adolescent, he was consumed by sexual temptation, and as his
early adulthood progressed, he claimed to have conquered sexual desire
married at fourteen, moving, as was the tradition, to his father-in-law's
house. He and his family then settled in Medvedevka. Early on, Nahman
became conscious of his potential role as a zaddik (charismatic
spiritual leader; lit, righteous one), and attracted followers. He
was ambivalent, however, about fulfilling this calling, largely because
he disapproved of the excesses of greed and power in many Hasidic
courts, including that of his uncle Barukh of Medziboh. Nonetheless,
by 1798 he had his own small group of followers.
Eastern European Jews had by Nahman's time traveled to and settled
in Eretz Yisrael. Nahman's pilgrimage trip in 1798 proved to be a
major turning point in his life. The difficult journey was terrifying
and taxing for Nahman, especially because he traveled in the midst
of the Napoleonic wars; he barely survived a sea battle and a shipwreck
on his return trip
looked upon the journey to Eretz Israel as spiritual "trial by
fire," and this concept of the the spiritually empowering ordeal
would later be incorporated into his teachings. Nahman's behavior
upon return has inspired puzzlement and varying interpretations. He
returned home with a self-image as a zaddik and leader of Ukrainian
Hasidism that was perhaps over-confident: He moved his family to Zlatipolia
and attempted to start a following there in the middle of another
zaddik's territory. A great scandal and furor among local Hasidim
ensued, and the local zaddik initiated a heated campaign against
the intruder. During this time, Nahman began to make veiled references
to himself as zaddik ha-dor (lit., the righteous man of the
generation), an expression implying that his leadership followed a
direct line from Moses.
two years of conflict with his rival in Zlatipolia, Nahman resigned
himself to moving to Bratslav,
a community which as yet had no zaddik, and where he could
therefore lead his community of followers in peace. The persecution
by his resentful brethren that he had brought upon himself in Zlatipolia
never ceased completely, and was inherited by his followers after
the "Bratslaver zaddik," Nahman was known as the
"master of dance and music." His
most emphasized spiritual practice was hitbodedut (lit., solitude/seclusion),
privately pouring out of one's heart in prayer before God. Nahman
stressed to his followers the gravity of sin, acting as a confessor
for them and taking on the role of healer of sinful souls.
marked the beginning of a period of intense messianic activity for
Nahman. He began to refer to himself as the Messiah ben Joseph (the
precursor to the Davidic messiah), and to prepare his disciples for
an imminent messianic redemption. Reaching fever pitch in 1806, these
teachings were suddenly deprived of validity by a series of events
on Yom Kippur; many followers abandoned Nahman, and the Bratslav community
endured widespread derision. The death of his son and of his wife
compounded Nahman's despair. He did not, however, give up his expectations
for a coming redemption, channeling them into his Tales, all of were
narrated between 1806 and his death in 1810.
Nahman became gravely ill with tuberculosis in 1807, and journeyed
to Lemberg for medical treatment. While in Lemberg, he arranged for
publication of his life's
teachings. Compiled by Nathan, the volume bears the anagramic title
Likutey MoHaRaN (Anthology of our Master Rabbi Nahman). The journey
to Lemberg brought him in contact with the outside world and with
the fledgling Haskalah (the Jewish enlightenment movement wherein
Jews integrated themselves into the culture of the countries where
they lived). Just before his death in 1810, Nahman traveled to Uman,
with the purpose of saving the souls of the maskilim ("enlightened,"
secularized Jews); he struck up friendships there with many of them,
creating scandal among his fellow Hasidim. Nahman died in Uman during
Sukkot of 1810. His grave remains a pilgrimage site for Bratslaver
Hasidim to this day.