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Nahman of Bratslav

(1772—1811)


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Hasidic master and religious thinker (1772–1811). Nahman, a great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, sought to reinvigorate the movement which he saw as having lost its original impetus. He gathered around him a small number of chosen disciples, among them Nahman of Tcherin and Nathan Sternhartz, the latter acting as his faithful Boswell, recording his life and teachings. Nahman undertook a hazardous journey to the land of Israel (1798–9). A year or two after his return he settled in Bratslav where he remained unto 1810. The last year of his life was spent in the town of Uman in the Ukraine where he died of tuberculosis at the early age of 39. In Uman, Nahman became friendly with followers of the Haskalah movement of enlightenment. Although he is extremely critical of all secular learning, some of the ideas he seems to have obtained from these Maskilim do occasionally surface in his own works. Nahman's grave in Uman is a place of pilgrimage for his Hasidim to this day.

Nahman encouraged his followers to practise ‘solitude’. Solitude is defined by Nahman to mean that a man sets aside at least an hour or more during which he is alone in a room or in the field so that he can converse with his Maker in secret, entreating God to bring him nearer to His service. This pouring-out of the heart in solitude should be in Yiddish, the ordinary language of conversation. Nahman also stressed the value of worshipping God in man's present circumstances. Too much planning for the morrow is inadvisable even in spiritual matters. ‘For all man has in the world is the day and the hour where he is, for the morrow is an entirely different world.’

Nahman's famous Tales (published by Sternhartz in 1815) are unique in Hasidic literature. The historian of Hasidism, Simon Dubnow, dismisses these as ‘fairy-tales’ and certainly on the surface that is what they are: ‘The Loss of the Princess’; ‘The King's Who Fought Major Wars’; ‘The King's Son and the Maidservant's Son Who Were Switched’, and so forth. Naturally, Nahman's followers read all kinds of mystical ideas into the Tales. Whatever their meaning, the Tales are admired for their literary merit.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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