1. He Was a Great-Grandson of the Baal Shem Tov

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was born on the first of Nissan, 1772, to Feiga, daughter of Odil, daughter of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. His father, Rabbi Simcha, was the son of R. Nachman of Horodenka, an early Chassidic master in his own right.1

He grew up in Mezhibush, where his illustrious great-grandfather had presided, a hothouse of Chassidic teachings, inspiration, and activity. Yet his unique character and thirst for authentic spirituality pushed him to expand the horizons of Chassidic thought, probing the depths of heart and soul in his unending quest to actualize the Torah’s command to love and know G‑d.

2. He Chose to Rely on G‑d Alone

Inspired by the Baal Shem Tov, who was orphaned at the age of five and spent his formative years wandering from place to place, relying on G‑d for his needs, young Nachman set out to find his own way.

Already then, he formed a habit that would become a hallmark of Breslov tradition, speaking to G‑d as one would converse with a loving parent. Speaking the vernacular, Yiddish, Nachman would tearfully unburden himself before G‑d and ask for whatever he needed.

3. He Would “Lap Up” Torah

As a child, he paid his teacher to give him extra lessons. Throughout his life, R. Nachman mastered copious amounts of Talmud and Jewish law. He was said to do so very quickly, lapping up page after page of Divine Wisdom. He also advised his students to do the same, providing them with ambitious syllabuses of study material.2

4. He Was the First and Last Rebbe of Breslov

The founder and sole Rebbe of the Breslov branch of Chassidism, R. Nachman’s earthy and relatable teachings continue to touch hearts and light up thousands of souls to this very day.

Even after his passing, his students carefully studied and taught his teachings, following his approach and applying it to their lives.

More than any other early Chassidic master, the events of R. Nachman of Breslov’s life have been carefully recorded. Published in Peulat Tzadik (“Action of the Righteous”) and other books, they provide an invaluable and inspiring glimpse into the life of a man who battled internal and external struggles and blazed a path for others to follow.3

5. His Wife Was Sasha, Daughter of R. Ephraim

After R. Nachman’s bar mitzvah, he was engaged to Sasha, whose father, R. Ephraim, was a wealthy landowner. The wedding was held in Medvedivke, one of the villages that belonged to R. Ephraim.

On his wedding day, young Nachman sought to inspire the village youth to come closer to G‑d. Among them was Shimon, a young man who would become his lifelong student and follower.4

6. He Was Often Misunderstood

Associating with simple folk and hiding his piety behind a cloak of erratic actions, R. Nachman was often dismissed by people who took him for a fool or worse. Throughout his life, R. Nachman had many detractors, including members of his own family and leading Chassidic masters who disapproved of his unconventional ways.

In response to his students, who complained to him about the bitter opposition they were facing, R. Nachman replied: “Trust me, I can make peace with the entire world and no one will disagree with me. But what can I do? There are certain spiritual chambers that can only be accessed through [overcoming] strife,” citing Moses, whose career was dotted with people questioning his ways and trying to instigate rebellion.

7. His Path Was Significantly Different from Chabad

His time of leadership roughly parallels that of the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, whom he greatly respected,5 and who passed away two years after he did. Yet their paths differed in significant ways.6 While R. Nachman viewed intellectual achievement as an impediment to overcome, R. Schneur Zalman saw it as a pathway through which one could come close to G‑d.7 Where R. Schneur Zalman wished to elevate the simpleton into a scholar, R. Nechaman wanted to teach the scholar to emulate the simpleton,

8. His Followers Were Known as ‘Viduyniks’

Viduy is Hebrew for “confession.” Due to R. Nachman’s exhortation that his followers confess their sins openly and honestly to him, they were somewhat derisively known as viduyniks, “confessors.”8

9. He Told Stories

R. Nachman often couched his teachings in stories, many of which have since become classics in the Jewish world. He explained that he was doing so since the stories had the power to awaken slumbering souls.

Telling of princesses and paupers, kings and knaves, sinners and saints, the stories contain deep kabbalistic secrets as well as practical lessons.

Thirteen of these epic stories are found in Sipurei Maasiyot, which contains both Hebrew and Yiddish texts, so that scholars and simpletons alike could access them and their valuable messages.

10. He Visited the Holy Land

Like many Chassidic masters, R. Nachman treasured the Holy Land and even traveled there in 1798. The trip was perilous, including dangerous storms,9 intrigue,10 and more. Once there, R. Nachman narrowly escaped Napoleon’s ill-fated siege on Acre.11

11. He Moved Frequently

In part due to his many detractors, R. Nachman frequently moved. On his first Shabbat in Breslov, he announced: Today we established the name “Breslover Chassidim, and this name shall remain forever. From now on, our group shall be known by the name of this city, Breslov.” At a later point, he explained that the word breslov is an anagram for lev basar, a “heart of flesh,” with which our “heart of stone” will one day be replaced in the era of Moshiach.12

Note: Breslov, sometimes Romanized as Bratslav, is in Ukraine, and it has nothing to do with Bratislava (Slovakia) or Breslau (Wrocław, Poland).

12. He Blazed His Own Path

His unique path placed a special emphasis on fostering joy, emulating a childlike simplicity and forging a personal relationship with G‑d. Many of his teachings are recorded in Likutei Moharan, which was edited and published by his prized student and expositor, Rabbi Nathan of Nemirov.

13. He Lived Through Much Tragedy

Four of R. Nachman’s eight children died in infancy, and he lost his wife to tuberculosis before succumbing to the same disease at the age of 38 in 1810. For much of his adult life he was ridiculed and scorned.

This, coupled with his naturally melancholy disposition,13 give added perspective to his emphasis on joy being of primal importance. In his own words: “Struggle with all your might to be only happy at all times, since it is natural to be drawn into depression and sadness…”14

14. Hitbodedut Is a Key Part of His Approach

Along with joy, R. Nachman taught that occasional hitbodedut (solitude) is an important element of Divine service:

“...to establish at least an hour to be alone in a room or in the field, and to express in conversation between himself and his Maker, [including] complaints and excuses, apologies and reconciliation, and to beg him to lead him to serve Him in truth. This conversation should be in the vernacular … in which he can best express himself and whatever lies on his heart, both regret for the past and wishes for the future … and he should take care to accustom himself to do this every day at a set time … and the rest of the time he should be happy.15

15. He Selected 10 Special Psalms

R. Nachman selected 10 Psalms (16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150) which he described as a wondrous remedy for the sin of “wasted seed,” if said on that same day,16 or for other shortcomings, as well, describing it as Tikkun Haklali, the “General Remedy.”

16. He Identified Strongly With Rosh Hashanah

R. Nachaman encouraged his followers to join him on Rosh Hashanah, saying that the holiday was his inyan (“concept”) and that “What others accomplish in the three weeks between Rosh Hashanah and Hoshanah Rabbah, I accomplish on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.”17 On the eve of his final Rosh Hashanah on this earth, he exclaimed, “My Rosh Hashanah takes precedence over everything.”18

Even after his passing, Breslover Chassidim have made it a point to spend Rosh Hashanah at his mausoleum in Uman, which now attracts tens of thousands each year.

17. He Chose His Resting Place in Uman

In 1807, when passing through the city of Uman on his way from Zlatopol, where he had been persecuted, to Breslov, where he was to be welcomed, he stopped off in an old Jewish cemetery. There, in two mounds, were buried the Jewish victims of a vicious massacre carried out in 1768 by Ivan Gonta and his mob of Haidamak rebels. Standing between the mounds, R. Nachman said, “It is good to lay here.” Sure enough, he passed away in Uman and was laid to rest in that exact spot.19

18. Some of His Teachings Are Well-Known Songs

Much of Likutei Moharan is made up of Kabbalistic teachings and interpretations. However, it also contains bon mots that have since become widespread as base lyrics for some popular tunes. Here are some:

  • It is a great mitzvah to always be joyous.20
  • A man must cross a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear at all.21
  • It is forbidden to give up on yourself.22
  • Even in the hidden places, and even within the hidden within the hidden, certainly G‑d is embedded within that as well.23