Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Little is known about the first twenty-six years of Rabbi Nahman’s life except that he was shy, ascetic, morbidly obsessed with his own sinfulness, endowed with visions, and given to praying fervently on the grave of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, who had been the founder of Hasidism. Married at thirteen to Sosia, he lived in his father-in-law’s house in Usyatin until 1790, and then they moved to Medvedevka, in the province of Kiev, where he was established a zaddik (a charismatic leader of a group of Hasidim, literally “a righteous one”). In 1798, he left his wife and three daughters to undertake an arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land with one of his disciples, Simeon. From 1800 he was the center of continual controversy, but he interpreted these rejections as signs of his messianic mission. Shortly before his own death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine, during the period of his deepest personal tragedies—the death of his only son in 1806, and of his wife in 1807—he began to tell his stories.