The Seven Beggars
& Other Kabbalistic Tales of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
By Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005, 155 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 1, 2011
Opinions differ about the stories told by the Chassidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). A recent book by Rodger Kamenets, called Burnt Books, say his tales are "crude," "lack polish," "deformed," "distorted," "confused," "verbose," and "ignoble in form." Kamenets states that the Rebbe's stories had to be rewritten by Martin Buber and Nachman's disciple Rabbi Nathan to make them understandable. He describes Nachman as a manic-depressive.
Others feel just the opposite; they see Rebbe Nachman as a saintly man with deep insight into the teachings of Jewish mysticism. His disciples claim that his stories are parables containing the secret mystical teachings. They say that the Rebbe burnt some of his writings because he felt that they were too lofty and not fit for his generation. Rabbi Nathan, who transcribed his teacher Rebbe Nachman's stories, writes that many Chassidic leaders who felt they understood the Rebbe's stories claimed that they were too holy for publication and told Rabbi Nathan to stop publishing them. Claims have also been made that Rebbe Nachman did not invent his tales; he received them from God through divine inspiration. Rebbe Nachman himself said he told the tales to bring Jews to God. Rabbi Nathan, his disciple, wrote in 1816 that "even the plain, simple meaning of these stories can strongly motivate a person toward God."
There is growing interest in Rebbe Nachman. The Breslov Research Institute was established in Jerusalem in 1979 to research and teach Breslov texts, oral traditions, and music. There are many Breslov Chassidim today. In recent years, as many as 20,000 male pilgrims swarmed into Uman to visit Rebbe Nachman's grave around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday. These people are diverse – Hasidic Jews with disheveled beards, secularists, and seekers after life's meaning.
This volume contains seventeen of Rebbe Nachman's tales with copious informative notes by Rabbi Kaplan that explain the mystical references that he sees in the stories. Rabbi Kaplan frequently uses phrases such as the story may mean and probably mean and apparently mean, showing that despite the claims made about the tales, there is no clear mystical message. Rabbi Kaplan also frequently tells us that the original had words different than the ones he placed in his translation; apparently showing that he had to clarify the text.
Rebbe Nachman's world is radically different than the world of many of his readers. Like most Chassidim, he feels that his followers should look to the Rebbe for solutions to all of their problems and not rely on their own ideas – "Each person has a treasure, but in order to find it, he must travel to the tzaddik," the Rebbe. He saw a world filled with evil demons that must be combated. He felt that physicians cannot heal their patients; only God can do so; at best, he claimed, physicians can only alleviate symptoms. Nevertheless, his stories are fascinating, magical in character, similar in many respects to ancient delightful fairy tales, they have messages – such as "Sadness is a very despicable trait", and whether one tries to plumb them for mystical meanings or not, they make absorbing and intriguing reading.
See also my reviews of The Empty Chair and The Lost Princess for other information about Rebbe Nachman and his teachings.