Reb Nakhman of Breslov's "The Loss of the Princess"

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Marc Caplan

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“The Loss of the Princess” (“Meyaveydes bas-meylekh,” 1807; also translated as "The Story of a Lost Princess") is the first story in the collected tales of Reb Nakhman of Breslov (1772-1810)—first published in a Hebrew and Yiddish edition in 1815—and is arguably the first modern short story written in a Jewish language. Reb Nakhman, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov whose teachings launched the Jewish religious movement known as Hasidism, was a spiritual leader in his own right, founding the Breslov branch of Hasidism, which exists to this day. Mixing traditional folk motifs with Kabbalistic imagery, this story is unlike previous Jewish stories in that it offers no explicit link to Jewish ritual or written tradition, no clear ethical teaching, and no conclusive ending. The mysteriousness of the tale, however, has exerted fascination for subsequent Jewish authors, particularly in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. The consecration of this new type of storytelling also consciously blurred once seemingly distinct lines distinguishing the sacred from the profane, the Jewish from the non-Jewish, and the specific from the universal in ways that are provocatively modern.

A note about the author’s name: Most sources refer to him as “Reb” Nakhman (or Nachman, or Nahman, depending on transliteration customs), or as a rebbe, rather than “Rabbi” Nakhman. In the Hasidic tradition of which Nakhman was an early proponent, a rebbe is distinct from a rabbi. A rabbi’s function historically was primarily legal, not pastoral; one consulted a rabbi on questions of kosher practices, marriage, even business ethics. In the Hasidic tradition that began in Eastern Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century, the figure of rebbe was, and is, a charismatic mystic. Although many rebbes, including Reb Nakhman, have been well-versed scholars of Torah, Talmud, midrash, and Jewish law, their unique role has been inspiring devotees to understand that ordinary actions contain the potential for extraordinary religious meaning. Hasidic rebbes have often included storytelling as part of their religious mission, and Reb Nakhman is perhaps the greatest of these storytellers.

As for the name of Reb Nakhman’s hometown: one Yiddish linguist counted fifteen distinct spellings and pronunciations of the place name, including Bratslav, Brislov, Broslev, and Breslav. Contemporary Hasidim tend to refer to him as Nakhman of Breslov, and to their movement as Breslov or Breslover Hasidism. The town of Breslov is in present-day Ukraine. (It is not to be confused with the city of Breslau [now Wroclaw], which is in Western Poland, or Bratislava, which is now the capital of Slovakia.) In fact, Reb Nakhman was born in the town of Miedzybóz, but he is associated with Breslov because he chose to begin his career as a Hasidic rebbe there.

Cover image: Painting, "The Wandering Moon," ca. 1816-1820, by William Blake, a contemporary of Reb Nakhman. Blake was an English poet and artist whose devout Christian spirituality rejected the religious establishment and embraced mysticism, and whose work was rife with allegories not unlike Reb Nakhman's. From WikiArt.