Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Napoleon: The Meeting That Never Was

In 1799, after a perilous journey, Rabbi Nachman arrived in the Land of Israel just in time to witness its conquest by Napoleon. Only by a miracle did R. Nachman escape Napoleon’s siege on Acre. So why did he make the French general the hero of one of his best-known stories?

Chen Malul
The statue of Napoleon atop Napoleon’s Hill in Acre, the site where he stationed his cannons. Photo: Almog, Wikipedia

On Sunday, January 16, 1810, Rabbi Nachman related to his followers the story of the Ba’al Tefillah – “The Master of Prayer”, one of his best known and most enigmatic tales. The story follows the deeds of an anonymous tzaddik who attracts a growing number of people to the “purpose of the whole world,” which is to serve God in prayer, song and praise.

Word of the Master of Prayer’s efforts to “steal” people away from their normal lives and into the service of God had begun to spread. In order to continue his work, the tzaddik was forced to assume different guises, “with one person he would be a pauper; with another a merchant; while with others he would have different disguises.” Even when conversing with the people he was trying to bring to his side, he did not always reveal his true purpose. He knew exactly how to sway each person individually. For example, he could determine a poor person might need to be dressed in royal robes while a rich person “needed to wear torn, humble clothing.” This was how the mysterious tzaddik spent his days, until he heard of “a land that possessed great wealth”, where everyone was rich.

The Land of Wealth turned out to be a huge challenge for the tzaddik. He wanted to bring its inhabitants to repent, but he soon discovered that they were not interested in his religion for they had their own – the religion of money, which ranks everyone according to their wealth. If this wealth was devoid of any theological dimension, the Master of Prayer might have been able to overcome its destructive power. But when money is the religion, even the poorest of the poor—who are considered beasts according to this doctrine—believe in it with all their hearts. The truly rich are compared to heavenly stars, and the richest of all are worshipped by the rest, as if they were divine beings. To avoid being tainted by other, poorer people, the residents of the Land of Wealth even removed themselves to a remote location surrounded by high mountains.

The Master of Prayer fails utterly in his attempts to convert the people of the Land of Wealth from their religion, and to add insult to injury, they arrest him and put him in prison. But before he can be sentenced, a Mighty Warrior and his army arrive at the gates of the Land of Wealth. The Warrior presents his demands – the same demands he has presented to countless other lands he has conquered: surrender and avoid destruction. The ultimatum strikes fear into the hearts of the people of the Land of Wealth. They wish to surrender to avoid their own demise but they are afraid for they know that the Mighty Warrior is not interested in money but in control, which in their religion makes him a heretic. They try and fail to seek help from a country richer than their own, and they are at a loss of what to do next.

After failing completely in his mission, the Master of Prayer suddenly remembers that he might actually know this Mighty Warrior who is lying in wait outside the walls of the land. Brought before the ministers, he tells them that he himself was once “with a king, who had a mighty warrior who was lost. If that warrior is this Mighty Warrior, then I know him.” Only now, with the people of the Land of Wealth in mortal fear of conquest and destruction, was the Master of Prayer able to begin to sway them.

The story does not end there, but in order to understand its finale and guess the identity of that unnamed hero, we must go back even further in time, a full ten years earlier—to the journey of the real Rabbi Nachman to the Land of Israel. We will learn whom he encountered there (and whom he did not) and why he saw this journey as the defining moment of his life, for it was then that he went from being just another community leader, albeit with a noble family pedigree but nothing more, to a Ba’al Tefillah and a true tzaddik. In other words, this is the story of how Rabbi Nachman became the celebrated figure who continues to draw new adherents even two hundred years after his premature death.

Sippurei Maasiyot LeRabbi Bachman MeBratslav (“Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav”), Berlin, 1922

Rabbi Nachman’s Great Journey

Like so many big decisions in Rabbi Nachman’s life, the decision to journey to the Land of Israel seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, it came from a sudden inner calling that he never bothered to explain fully.

As a young child, Nachman developed his unique way of approaching God intuitively. On harsh winter nights, he was said to visit the grave of his great-grandfather, the Besht, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, or he might go off by himself into the woods, or even shut himself in the Besht’s study and refuse to come out until the holy books began to “speak” to him. Outwardly, he would feign ignorance, but inwardly he burned with faith and religious zeal. He composed his own prayers and even secretly gave his meager allowance to a teacher in return for extra lessons. It is quite possible that the stories that have come down to us about Nachman the boy are exaggerated, but it is clear from them that he was a fervently religious young man with a searing belief in himself, who was simultaneously racked with self-doubt concerning his own ability to realize his destiny.

In 1798, at the age of 26, Rabbi Nachman announced his intention to embark on the dangerous and arduous journey to the Land of Israel. He provided a number of justifications before and after the journey, the main one being his desire to visit the grave of his grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, whom he had lost touch with.

The idea of pilgrimage to the Land of Israel was not an invention of Rabbi Nachman’s, not even a re-invention. His great grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had undertaken just such a journey but was forced to turn back when he reached Constantinople. Other rabbis and Hasidim took the same journey and, unlike the Besht, many had completed it. Nevertheless, the journey surprised and worried the young Rabbi Nachman’s disciples. His wife tried to dissuade him from embarking on this dangerous trip and sent one of their daughters to convince him to give up on the idea. This was Rabbi Nachman’s answer to his daughter:

You will go to your in-laws. Someone will take in your older sister as a maidservant, a nienke. Someone will have pity on your younger sister and will take her in. And your mother can become a cook. I will sell the entire contents of the house to pay for the journey.

Rabbi Nachman’s insistence surprised many, for two additional reasons: First, by that time, Hasidic rabbis had already developed a theological justification for not undertaking the physical journey to the Land of Israel. They claimed that stepping foot in a synagogue in the Diaspora is equivalent to setting foot on the soil of the Land of Israel, encompassing all of its virtues. Secondly, there was the small matter of the war raging in Egypt and Palestine between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Ottoman Empire.


The French Giant Sets Out to Conquer the East

It’s not unusual nowadays to see an advertisement claiming a product to be “revolutionary,” but, it was the French Revolution that epitomized the new meaning of the term “revolution” – a radical, rapid and root-deep disconnection of the present from the past. This disconnection is present in many of Rabbi Nachman’s stories where kings—who, before the revolution, were believed to be all-powerful, ruling by divine grace—are shuffled as in a deck of cards. He who was small becomes great, and he who was great is shunted aside and discarded. More broadly, the world is generally depicted as being in turmoil, and so it also remains at the end of many of Rabbi Nachman’s tales.

Napoleon Bonaparte was perhaps the archetype of the small minor player who becomes the star of the show. Born in Corsica, Napoleon belonged to the unlanded lower aristocracy, but thanks to his great military prowess and political cunning, he rose from obscurity to become a celebrated general of the French Revolution. The 28-year-old Napoleon sealed his fame during his military campaign in Italy in which he succeeded in doing the impossible: in a matter of twelve months, he snatched Italy from the clutches of the Austrian Empire, which had ruled over it for hundreds of years.

Napoleon’s next foray was the conquest of Egypt, which he completed in 1798. After capturing Cairo from the ruling Mamluk dynasty, news spread of the Ottoman army (which was being backed by the British), making its way from Asia Minor through the Land of Israel. This spurred Napoleon to quickly set off for the conquest of Palestine.

Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804

Back to Rabbi Nachman. Convinced of his righteousness, the 26-year-old rabbi and leader, informed by “the heavens” of his first destination, left his hometown of Medzhybizh for the city of Kamenitz. The secret journey to Kamenitz remains shrouded in mystery. Yet, this visit served as both a symbolic beginning and miniature version of the internal and physical journey he had to endure in order to be able to enter the Land of Israel. It was a journey of a righteous person descending into the world of impurity, struggling with what he finds there and emerging pure and unscathed. It seems that only this paradigm can explain the rest of Rabbi Nachman’s (very strange) actions on his way to and in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman and his childhood friend Rabbi Shimon set out on their journey on May 4, 1798. They traveled by wagon from the town of Medvedka to Nikolayev and from there sailed down the Dnieper to Odessa. From Odessa, they took a ship to Constantinople. On board the ship, Rabbi Nachman began composing texts that he refused to show to his companion—the first known examples of secret texts he would continue to write throughout his life and which he ordered to have burned after his death.

In Constantinople, Rabbi Nachman began exhibiting strange behavior. He would walk about barefoot and without a belt or hat. He would leave the inn in a dressing gown, run around the market and laugh aloud. He befriended boys in the streets and would act out war games with them in which “one would be called France (referring to Napoleon) and one by another name.”

When they were about to leave for Palestine, news came of Napoleon’s invasion of the Holy Land. At first, the Jewish community in Constantinople prohibited Jews to travel there. But news of the increasing danger only enhanced Rabbi Nachman’s resolve, come what may. He told Rabbi Shimon not to accompany him on the dangerous journey, but his friend refused to leave his side. A few days later, when an elderly and respected sage insisted on returning home to Jerusalem, the Jewish community relented and approved the journey. And so, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon set sail aboard a ship bound for the port of Jaffa.

The voyage was not easy. When a storm threatened to sink the ship, all the passengers shouted “everyone to God,” except for Rabbi Nachman who “sat there in silence.” He convinced the others to emulate him and trust God through silence, saying: “If you are silent, the sea above you will be silent as well.” And so it was, according to Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Nachman’s biographer and scribe, who wrote of this event many decades later.

Upon arriving in Jaffa, the port authorities suspected Rabbi Nachman of being a French spy and he was not allowed to disembark. Eventually, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon managed to get off the ship at the next stop, which was Haifa, where they arrived on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual elation quickly turned to depression almost as soon as he stepped foot on the holy soil. The young rabbi turned inward and expressed a desire to return home at once. He agreed to stay only after the pleas of Rabbi Shimon and the Hasidim of Safed and Tiberias.

Rabbi Nachman eventually remained in the Land of Israel for a total of three and a half months, but his spirits remained low the entire time he was there. In Tiberias, he and Rabbi Shimon were well received by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker and his followers. This meeting left a deep impression on him and upon his return home, he established the Bratslav community according to the model of this revered rabbi. Some speculate that the description of the exemplary Hasidic community at the beginning of the Ba’al Tefillah story is based on that community in Tiberias. Encouraged by the meeting with Kalisker, Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon stayed in Tiberias for two months. From there they would take short trips to holy places in the Galilee where the sages of the Zohar had lived and worked.

Rabbi Nachman’s departure from the country was postponed several times. The news of the occupation of the coastal strip by Napoleon’s army, and particularly the threat to the port city of Acre finally convinced him that he could no longer delay his leaving. Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon arrived in Acre on March 15, and immediately encountered a large stream of residents fleeing the city. Two days later, they managed to board a Turkish ship. Napoleon’s siege of Acre began on March 19, two days after their departure.

Rabbi Nachman’s composure, which he was able to maintain throughout all the tribulations, completely fell apart at this point. In the ensuing commotion, unable to speak the local languages, they mistakenly boarded a warship. It was only by the mercy of the ship’s cook, who provided them with small portions of food each day, that they survived the long journey to Europe.

This time too, a storm threatened to sink the ship and as water entered the vessel’s lower decks, the two had to stand on top of pieces of furniture to keep from drowning. They were certain that they would be sold into slavery the moment the ship docked, but upon arrival in Rhodes, the local Jewish community agreed to ransom them for a considerable sum—owing in large part to Rabbi Nachman’s distinguished family pedigree. From Rhodes they sailed on to Constantinople, where they encountered more difficulties, before an eventful voyage to Galați during which most of the passengers drowned in yet another storm. They finally arrived home in early summer, 1799.

What is the point of all of this? We hope you won’t be disappointed if we tell you that we don’t have a clear answer. Throughout the remainder of his life, Rabbi Nachman would often bring up his journey to the Land of Israel. He demanded that every remnant of his teachings from before the journey be destroyed, and he repeatedly claimed that whenever he felt his spirit fail, the only thing that revived it was what he had experienced and seen in the Land of Israel.

We can, however, offer you a certain hint: though the siege of Acre convinced Rabbi Nachman that he must flee the country as soon as possible, throughout the journey, he never saw himself as a random victim of circumstance or ongoing war. Rather, he felt that his time in the country was imbued with spiritual meaning and purpose. Rabbi Nachman later recalled a number of dreams he had had in the Land of Israel. In at least two of these dreams the Ottoman Sultan appeared before him. The Rabbi told of the great compassion he felt towards the Sultan because he—the Sultan—was one of the only people in the world who still knew their original name – Ishmael (a clear allusion to Islam). He mysteriously added that he attempted to give the Sultan a piece of advice which he seemed to have already known.

Portrait of Sultan Salim III, ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the time of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and the Land of Israel, by Konstantin Kapıdağlı

Perhaps herein is a key to Rabbi Nachman’s view of his own journey and the tumultuous historic events that shook the known world: Perhaps he, of all people, being nothing more than a simple rabbi, had something of value to offer – thanks to faith in God, his willingness to sacrifice everything in order to set off for the Land of Israel, the internal and physical hardships he overcame, from childhood and right up to his return home – perhaps he, of all people, had something important to say and a unique way of influencing events. It is fitting, then, that we end this article where we began, with the story of the “Master of Prayer”.

After the tzaddik tells the ministers of the Land of Wealth that he might be acquainted with the Mighty Warrior, he reveals to them the way he himself managed to secretly enter the heavily fortified land. When he and the Mighty Warrior were in the old king’s court, the tzaddik said, they studied the map of the world inscribed on the king’s palm. Thus, they came to know all of the world’s paths—the familiar and the hidden. Although this is not explicitly stated, Rabbi Nachman used Kabbalistic symbols to imply that the old king was none other than God.

And indeed, when the Master of Prayer and the Mighty Warrior meet, they recognize each other immediately and fall into each other’s arms: both had served in the court of the ancient king, and were separated only when a great storm broke out in the world. This fascinating story reaches its happy conclusion (perhaps too happy – it all works out and everyone comes together). But what is important for our purposes is that in Rabbi Nachman’s view, it is the Mighty Warrior, the greatest conqueror of all, seemingly bent on destroying the world, who turns out to be a lost servant of God who conquers all the lands only to hand them over to the rule of God.

Did Rabbi Nachman miss an encounter with this Mighty Warrior by a matter of just two days when he fled the siege imposed by Napoleon’s army on Acre? According to this interpretation, which others have already proposed before us, the meeting between the great Jewish mystic and thinker and the military commander and ruler who shaped the face of Europe never happened. But Rabbi Nachman’s literary imagination could not resist the temptation of bringing himself and Napoleon together.

What a fascinating picture this is: a historic meeting between Rabbi Nachman and Napoleon Bonaparte—two young men, neither of them even thirty years old—and already, each in his own way, had begun to reshape the world.


An extra bonus for our readers:

Only two historical sources provide us a glimpse of Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual journey to the Land of Israel. Both are by the hand of Rabbi Nachman’s disciple and scribe Rabbi Natan, who recorded both accounts decades after the journey, and after Rabbi Nachman’s death in 1811 at the age of 38.

This is not the case with Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaign in Egypt and the Land of Israel. At the National Library of Israel alone there are more than two hundred documents relating to this historical episode. We have even dedicated an entire website to it!


Further Reading:

The Revealed and Hidden Writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: His Worlds of Revelation and Rectification, Zvi Mark, translated by Yaacov David Shulman, De Gruyter Oldenbourg

Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, Arthur Green, University of Alabama Press

Napoleon: A Political Life, Steven Englund, Scribner


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