Rebbe Nachman’s Fantastical Fables
Elie Wiesel has called Rabbi Nachman “one of the greatest Hasidic storytellers we have in Jewish literature.”
Born in 1772, Rabbi Nachman was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. Nachman was the rebbe of the Breslover Hasidim and was known as a great spiritual leader, a mystic and a tzaddik. To this day, the Breslovers have never named another rebbe and continue to follow his teachings.
Nachman’s stories are filled with the stuff of fairy tales: kings and princes, princesses and beggars, wise men and poor innocents. They are fables with divine sparks of mythical and spiritual content. Scholars study them for the depth of their religious teachings and connect them to the Kabbalah and other mystical works as well as scripture. But to many, they are the expressions of a writer’s soul. Joseph Dan, in his preface to Arnold Band’s translation, notes that unlike Nachman’s sermons and teachings, the stories are personal expressions that require “literary study rather than a mystical or religious approach.” Wiesel and others have remarked on the stories’ imaginative and captivating qualities. Nachman purportedly explained it: “Others tell stories to put people to sleep, but I tell stories to wake people up.”
Four versions of his collected stories are available. Two take a scholarly, scriptural approach with extensive commentaries: Rabbi Nachman’s Stories by Aryeh Kaplan (Breslov Research Institute, 1985) and The Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Adin Steinsaltz (Rowman & Littlefield, 1994). The others include commentaries: Nahman of Bratslav: The Tales by Arnold Band (Paulist Press, 1978) focuses more on literary themes and moment/images, while Tales of Rabbi Nachman by Martin Buber (Prometheus Books, 1999) is a modern retelling with thoughts on psychology and symbolism.—Joan Alpert