There are few people who more renowned in the Chasidic movement of Judaism than Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). Chasidic Jews are called Hasidim in Hebrew. This word derived from the Hebrew word for loving kindness (chesed). The Chasidic movement is unique in its focus on the joyful observance of God’s commandments (mitzvot), heartfelt prayer, and boundless love for God and the world He created. Many ideas for Hasidism derived from Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).
The movement originated in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, at a time when Jews were experiencing great persecution. While the Jewish elite focused on and found comfort in Talmud (Jewish law) study, the impoverished and uneducated Jewish masses hungered for a new approach.
Fortunately for the Jewish masses, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760) found a way to democratize Judaism. He was a poor orphan from Opoky, Ukraine. As a young man, he traveled around to various Jewish villages, healing the sick, and helping the poor. After he married, he went into seclusion in the mountains and focused on mysticism. As his following grew, he became known as the Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated as Besht) which means “Master of the Good Name”.
In a nutshell, the Baal Shem Tov led European Jewry away from reliance upon rabbis and toward mysticism. The early Chasidic movement encouraged the poor and oppressed Jews of 18th century Europe to be less academic and more emotional, less focused on executing rituals and more focused on experiencing them, less focused on gaining knowledge and more focused on feeling exalted. The way one prayed became more important than one’s knowledge of the prayer’s meaning. The Baal Shem Tov did not modify Judaism, but he did suggest that Jews approach Judaism from a different psychological state.1
The great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (sometimes called Bratzlav, Breslau, or Bratislava) was one of the most creative, influential, and profound of the Chasidic masters and the founder of the Breslover Chasidic sect. Breslov is a town in Ukraine where Rabbi Nachman spent the end of his life, but some say the name Breslov comes from the Hebrew bris lev, meaning "covenant of the heart."
From his youth, he followed a path of asceticism and prayer, though he warned his followers not to abuse themselves physically. He emphasized living life with joy and happiness. One of his best-known sayings is, "It is a great mitzvah (blessing) to be happy."
He was a passionate individual, given to intense swings of emotions. These he put toward the service of God, and spoke often of how to find God even in the low states of mind, and how to serve Him during the emotional highs.
Central to his teachings is the role of the tzaddik (righteous person), who has the power to descend into the darkness to redeem lost souls; the path of prayer as the main expression of religious life. His main work is Likutey Moharan, composed partly by himself, partly by his chief disciple, Rabbi Nosson Sternhartz (1780-1844). The book is a collection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Nachman, given mostly on the holidays when his Chassidim gathered. The lessons are long and complex, masterfully drawing on the entire body of Talmud, Midrashic and Kabbalistic literature. Ideas are connected by a poetic and intuitive grasp of the texts. In addition, Rabbi Nachman wrote thirteen “Tales” — mythical stories of kings and wizards based upon Kabbalistic thought and capturing the essence of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings. These tales were known to have influenced later authors such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924).
Rabbi Nachman died of Tuberculosis at the age of 38. Despite the fact that there was never another “Breslov Rebbe” to fill his place, the mystery and depth of his teachings continue to attract students today, and Breslover Chassidism is one of the largest and most vibrant of Chassidic groups.2
When people think of Ukraine in regard to religion, they would normally think of the Orthodox Church; however, Odessa has always had a very large Jewish community. Members of the Jewish community from Russia, Ukraine, and most other countries are part of the Ashkenazic sect. Ashkenaz is the Hebrew name for “Germany”, but this sect is not limited to Germany.
The Chasidim are known as “the chosen ones”. This sect of Judaism is not popular with many Jewish people who are not Orthodox Jews. Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, is a very interesting part of the Jewish tradition. Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Islam all have a mystical tradition as part of their faith. I would recommend A Still Small Voice by Rabbi Nachman as an example of his teaching. This small book is a collection of his most famous sayings.
In accordance with the custom of his time, he was married at the age of 13 soon after becoming Bar Mitzvah. His wife was Sashia, daughter of Rabbi Ephraim of Ossatin, from a village near the town of Medvedevka. In their 22 years of marriage they had eight children, but four - including two sons - died in childhood. Four daughters survived, with known descendants until today.
From the time of his marriage Rabbi Nachman lived in Ossatin with his father-in-law, continuing his studies and devotions until he attained unique levels of sanctity and holy spirit as well as being fully conversant with the entire array of Biblical, Talmudic, Halachic, Midrashic and Kabalistic literature. At first he was unknown to all except one disciple five years his senior, Rabbi Shimon ben Baer, who attached himself to him shortly after his marriage and became his life-long follower.
At the age of 18 Rabbi Nachman left his father-in-law's home to live in Medvedevka, where he spent the next ten years. It was there that his greatness first became revealed, and he rapidly gained an ardent following including some distinguished scholars and Kabbalists and the octogenarian Rabbi Yekusiel, the Magid of Terhovitz, one of the senior leaders of the Chassidic movement. Rabbi Nachman emphasized faith, prayer and ever-renewed spiritual growth. As a result of his practice of hearing the personal confessions of his adherents, they were originally known as the Viduynikers - Confessors. 3
The influence of Rabbi Nachman is still alive in the Chasidic community today. This is proof that his teachings were timeless. It is interesting that a Jewish leader from Ukraine could have so much influence of Jewish people world-wide two hundred years after he died.
1) “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism” http://judaism.about.com/od/denominationsofjudaism/a/hasid.htm (accessed 5/14/12)
2) “Rabbi Nachman of Beslov” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Nachman.html (accessed 5/14/12)
3) “The Essential Rabbi Nachman” http://azamra.org/Essential/life.htm (accessed 5/14/12)