Breslov is a very unique sect within the Hasidic world. Unlike most other sects, Breslov has and will always have only one Rebbe, Rebbe Nachman. Rebbe Nachman was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and his works are studied and followed by thousands of Hasidic Jews around the world. His works such as Lekutei Moharan and Lekutei Etzot determine a way of life for his followers.
Because they have no current Rebbe, Breslov Hasidim tend to be less strict than other sects in regard to group protocol. For example, Breslov Hasidim are not required to wear a particular set of Hasidic clothing. Most do wear long coats and black hats similar to other Hasidic sects. However, unlike other groups such as Gur or Toldos Aharon, which have very specific uniforms, the types of hats and coats vary among Breslovers and it can therefore be difficult to identify a Hasid as being from the Breslov sect.
Rebbe Nachman’s teachings emphasize intense prayer, Torah study, happiness, music, simplicity, charity and hitbodedut – the practice of speaking directly to God. It should be noted that Breslov tends to be far more open to reaching out to non-observant Jews than other Hasidic sects. As a result, there are many baalei teshuva within the Breslov sect.
The two teachings of Rebbe Nachman I consider to be the most unique about Breslov are the focus on happiness and the practice of hitbodedut. When I visited the Breslov shul in Tsfat, the Hasidim danced around in circles after Maariv on a typical Monday night. The Hasidim were fulfilling Rebbe Nachman’s advice that his followers always find a way to be happy, no matter what it takes.
The practice of hitbodedut involves going to secluded areas such as fields or forests and speaking directly to God as if he were a parent or friend. Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to speak to God with a child’s simplicity, asking God directly for whatever they need in life. It is not uncommon to see Hasidim wandering the outskirts of Tsfat in order to find a quiet place to practice hitbodedut.
Another interesting practice kept by Breslov Hasidim is the recitation of the “Tikkun Klali,” ten chapter of Psalms, which Rebbe Nachman considered to be particularly powerful when said consecutively. On a personal level, Rebbe Nachman kept many ascetic practices such as dipping his body in ice water each day and learning many hours through the night.
Rebbe Nachman is frequently quoted in the Jewish world. Two famous sayings attributed to him are: “There is no giving up in this world” and “The whole world is a very narrow bridge and the important thing is not to fear at all.” Rebbe Nachman also once said that any follower of his that visits Uman on Rosh HaShana will be lifted out of gehenoim by his peyos. Rebbe Nachman’s emphasis on his followers visiting Uman (where he is buried) has resulted in tens of thousands making the pilgrimage there each year.
I have been to numerous Breslov shuls throughout Israel and the one in Tsfat is by far my favorite. Not only is the main shul extremely beautiful, but the community is one of the most serious in the Breslov world, with members praying and learning for many hours each day. The name of the main Breslov community in Tsfat is Nachal Novea Mekor Chochma, a reference to the wisdom and holiness of Rebbe Nachman.
A main influence on the Breslov community in Tsfat is its leader, HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig. In his early years, Rav Kenig studied at the Mir Yeshiva, considered to be one of the most highly regarded and serious Litvish yeshivot in the world. As a result, the community in Tsfat takes Torah learning particularly seriously and unlike many Breslov communities, the study of Talmud is emphasized.
The community consists of over 250 families. Surrounding the shul is an entire neighborhood called “Kiryat Breslov” where most members of the community live. It is a vibrant and strong community with a mikvah, various educational institutions, a full-time kollel, and many organized events. The community is certainly one of the strongest, if not the strongest Breslov community in the world.
The main sanctuary of the shul serves as the community’s main prayer and study hall. The intricately designed wooden ark is front and center and towers over worshippers. In addition, there is a large chandelier at the center of the room, creating a regal atmosphere. Along the front walls are large windows as well as wood carvings representing the twelve tribes. All of the furniture in the room is made of wood and the room is filled with benches and tables where members of the community learn and pray.
The Breslov community is built directly over the Sephardic HaAri Shul where Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, wrote “Lecha Dodi” and according to tradition, learned with Elijah the Prophet. Further, the shul overlooks a beautiful valley where the Arizal and many other great rabbis are buried. Perhaps, most importantly, the community is located in very close proximity to the Arizal Mikvah, where the Arizal dipped frequently. Many of the Hasidim use this notoriously cold mikvah on a daily basis.
My own personal experience visiting the Breslov community in Tsfat was excellent. Because of Rebbe Nachman’s openness to outreach, many of the hasidim were very friendly. A few Hasidim approached me to say “shalom aleichem” (the traditional “hello” in Jewish culture) and I even had a long conversation with one of the Hasidim that happened to be a native English speaker.
I visited the community in Adar and the atmosphere was particularly festive in preparation for Purim. Bags of food were strewn around the beis medrash ready to be assembled into mishloach manot. The simcha of Adar was present in the air.
The main sanctuary had a unique and pleasant smell that reminded me of other Hasidic shuls I had visited in the past. Perhaps it was the wooden furniture or the numerous seforim dotted along the wooden tables. Hasidim filled the room mainly chanting and arguing over passages from the Talmud. Most learned in pairs, yet some Hasidim sat studying alone still chanting the words aloud as Rebbe Nachman advised.
Maariv took place at around 8 PM and it is hard for me to recall a more serious and spirited davening on a typical Monday night. The Hasidim screamed the words with captivating emotion, fulfilling the halachic need to have kavana during prayer. The Amida lasted quite a long time with most hasidim closing their eyes and saying each word with extreme concentration. Some Hasidim clapped during davening, a practice considered holy by Rebbe Nachman.
At the end of davening, a group of older men stayed behind to attend a Talmud class. Sitting around a table, each with a sefer and cup of tea in hand, they debated the intricacies of the sugya for well over an hour. Yelling, laughter, and conversation filled the room as the Hasidim delved into the texts. They study the Talmud not as an intellectual pursuit, but as a tool for serving God.
Visiting Breslov that night allowed me to experience a community of people wholly devoted to the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. Tsfat provides a unique and serene environment for the Hasidim to grow and thrive. The Breslov community in Tsfat is one to be cherished and admired.