Nahman of Braslav: Master of Tales

There is an angel with a thousand heads. / Each head has a thousand tongues.
Each tongue has a thousand voices. / Each voice has a thousand melodies.
Imagine the beauty of this angel's song.

Nahman of Bratslav (Heb.)

Roll your cursor over each of the dates in the timeline to view the milestones in Nahman of Bratslav's life.

1772178617901798-99August 1800Summer 18021805-6March 1805June 1806May-June 18071807-8May 1810

Nahman 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.

personal struggle
Personal struggle

It 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 completely.

Nahman 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.


Many 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

Nahman 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.


After 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 his death.


As 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.

1803 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.



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