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Nachman ben Simcha

(1772-1810)
of Braclaw - tzaddik, the great-grandson of Baal Shem Tov.

Nachman is described as the last of the five great and holy people in the history of the Jewish people. His predecessors were Moses, Rabbi Simeon ben Jochaj, Izaak Luria and his great-grandfather, Israel Ball Shem Tov. He was born in Miedzybor, in the house of Baal Shem Tov as the son of Freige - the granddaughter of Baal Shem Tov. Two of Freige's brothers, Moses Chaim Efraim of Sudlikow (1737-1800) and Baruch of Miedzybor (1750-1812) were important Chasidic leaders in the Ukraine during the late eighteenth century. The family of Nachman's father was also important in the Chasidic world. His paternal grandfather, Nachman of Horodenka, was a member of Baal Shem Tov's group.

He founded his first court in Miedwiewec in the Kiev region. In 1798, he went to Palestine in order to receive a blessing and gain strength for his further work as the people's teacher. He also wanted to visit the graves of famous tzaddikim, Shimon ben Yochai and Isaak Luria. The journey influences all his later teachings and was undoubtedly the single most important mystical experience of his life.

Rabbi Nachman of Braclaw was not well received by the local tzaddikim after his return. Their main objection was that they noticed influences of Sabbatianism and Frankism in his teachings, which were considered to be heretical. Nachman came into conflict with the nestor of the Chasidic movement, a pupil of the Besht, Arie Lejb of Szpoła known as "Dziadek" ("Grandpa"), who was very popular in Ukraine and Podole. In the end, he gained the support of the tzaddikim in this dispute. Levi Itzhaak of Berdyczow was the only person to support Nachman.

In 1802, Nachman settled in Braclaw. In 1810, sensing his own impending death (he probably suffered from tuberculosis), he moved to Human, where he rented an apartment with a view onto the cemetery that held the bodies of both Polish and Jewish victims massacred during the Zelezniak and Gonta uprising in 1667.

This decision was symbolic, and was connected to Luria's theory of the "wandering of souls", adopted and developed further by Nachman. He set himself the task of saving the souls of Jews who had been killed by the Haidamaks in 1768 during the defense of the fortress in nearby Human. He believed that the souls of those killed continued to wander the site of the massacre, and could not go any higher until a soul came that would raise them up - and Nachman believed that he was to be this person.

Sabbatian influences are present in his teachings. He acknowledged Sabbatai Tsvi's Messianic claims, and he did not hide his own similar pretensions. He believed that each generation should have only one real tzaddik, and that he was that tzaddik. Such views inevitably led to conflict and the breaking of ties with the rest of the Chasidic movement.

Just as in other Chasidic groups, one of the most important practices of the Braclaw Chasidim were the pilgrimages to see the tzaddik. Nachman did not receive Chasidim during the Sabbath and holidays, as other tzaddikim usually did. He saw them only on three specific dates: Rosh Hashanah, the Sabbath of Hanukkah and Shavuot. On Rosh Hashanah all the Chasidim of Braclaw were required to visit their master, pray in his presence and listen to his teachings.


The practice of "confessing" to the tzaddik, which had previously been practiced by other tzaddikim (for example, Chaim Cheikel of Amdur and Shneor Zalman of Liada) was the main distinguishing practice of the Chasidim of Braclaw. It served only as an initiation ritual; when a Chasid joined his new master's circle, as a sign of his belonging, he was supposed to list his sins, symbolically giving them over to the tzaddik, who would then prescribe the appropriate form of penance that would aid the transformation. This was also a permanent custom, practiced during certain periods, primarily the day before Rosh Hashanah. Late in life, Nachman for a time stopped hearing confessions.

Most of the writings with Nachman's teachings were edited by his secretary, Natan ben Naftali Hertz Sternhartz. The first work, Nachman's theological teachings, titled Likkutey Moharan (Ostroj, 1806), was published during his life, without being certified by the rabbis (haskama). The second work, titled Likkutey Moharan Tinyana (Mogilew, 1811), appeared posthumously. The stories that he had begun to tell in 1806 were collected in the work Sipurey Maasiyot (Berdyczow, 1815), and were published in bilingual editions, in Yiddish and in Natan's Hebrew translation. Tzaddik Nachman had one of his esoteric manuscripts destroyed as early as 1808, which is why it is called the "Burned Book" (Sefer ha-Nisraf). An esoteric book preserved in the manuscripts of the Chasidim of Bracław is titled Sefer HaGanuz (The Hidden Book), and is to be made public and interpreted only by the Messiah himself. Natan Steinhartz also published an extensive work titled Likkutey Tefillot (Braclaw, 1821-27), in which one of the master's stories is transformed into a prayer.

Nachman did not have many supporters during his life. The Chasidim of Braclaw were a small and relatively poor group, many of whom were even engaged in small-scale trade. His successor, his pupil Natan (1780-1845), took it upon himself to reorganize the group. Natan had exceptional literary and organizational talents. With time, he stopped writing in order to lead the Chasidim of Braclaw, whose numbers had begun to grow.

One source of information about Natan's leadership are his letters to his son, published as Alim LiTerufa in 1896. After Natan's death, the Chasidim of Braclaw were led by Nachman of Tulchin. During the interwar period, the Chasidim of Braclaw managed to break through the isolation characteristic of other Chasidic groups and became a quite well-respected group, particularly in Poland. They continued to live in Podole even as late as the early Soviet period.

In the state of Israel, most Chasidim of Braclaw were concentrated in Jerusalem's Old City, where Abraham Chazan was their leader. The Chasidim of Braclaw engaged in wide-reaching literary activities. Beginning in 1984, they moved to other parts of Jerusalem. Even today, they continue to gather there on Rosh Hashanah as they used to during the lifetime of Reb Nachman of Braclaw. There is a second group of Braclaw Chasidim who live in Bney Brak who are in conflict with the Jerusalem group.
(asw/cm)

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